Return to News Page | Return Home

The Spirit of Dickens: "A Christmas Carol" in Pictures

Since its first publication by Chapman and Hall in London in 1843, Charles Dickens' famous story, A Christmas Carol has remained the quintessential tale of self-interest and greed transformed into compassion and charity.

Beginning November 23 and continuing through January 6, the Brandywine River Museum presents a special exhibition celebrating Dickens' classic tale. The Spirit of Dickens: "A Christmas Carol" in Pictures features original illustrations, first edition books and photographic reproductions used to illuminate and add meaning to the story.

Dickens (1812-1870) was moved to write A Christmas Carol in 1843 after reading first-hand accounts of harsh working conditions for children in coal mines and the lack of education for the poor. He wrote the tale in less than two months, believing it would strike like a "sledgehammer," awakening society from negligence, indifference and ignorance. By December 19, the book was on sale and became an immediate sensation in Britain and America.

As a literary classic, A Christmas Carol has a multifaceted theme rich with imagery of 19th-century England and allusions to literature and fantasy. While its subtitle proclaims it a "ghost story," Dickens' tale celebrates a return to old Christmas festivities, examines personal crisis and transformation, exposes social ills, and reinforces moral values. Each generation has emphasized one or more aspects of Dickens' theme that has had special meaning for its time. Illustrators have responded to society's interpretations and created drawings that mirror contemporary concerns.

In Dickens' time, A Christmas Carol reaffirmed the celebration of old Christmas festivities which, in the 19th century, were slowly returning after decades of religious and political restrictions. When Dickens chose Punch cartoonist John Leech (1817-1864) as illustrator of the first edition of the Carol, he selected an artist whose style was inspired by the lively, satirical caricatures of George Cruikshank. Thus, Leechís eight ink illustrations (reproduced in the book as engravings) foster Scroogeís transformation from miser to philanthropist in a light-hearted, almost comical way. The exhibition includes an original drawing by Leech and his illustrations in their published form.

While Leech's illustrations achieved classic status, the American illustrator Sol Eytinge, Jr.'s (1833-1905) drawings for an 1867 edition also won the authorís and the publicís approval for sensitive character portrayal. In 16 drawings, and later 25 for an 1880 edition, Eytinge greatly enlarged the visual and spiritual perception of the story in a detailed, less caricature-like style. Eytinge was the first to conceive of drawing Bob Cratchit carrying Tiny Tim on his shoulders through the streets, and this became a key motif for illustrators and readers ever since. The tale's moral and religious underpinning is more apparent in the work of Frederick Barnard (1846-1896), whose illustrations in 1877 emphasized the relationship between father and son. In fact, scholars have shown that much late-19th century interpretation, both verbal and visual, centered on the Cratchit family and the symbolic importance of the Christmas feast.

In the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century, interpretation changed as interest turned toward the taleís association with holiday spirit, social gatherings and childrenís games. The original publishers no longer owned rights to the work, and a flood of new editions appeared with a variety of illustrations targeted mainly at children. Artists concentrated on portions of Dickens' prose that portrayed the Carol as a celebration of childhood where adults, too, can leave their daily concerns and recall the traditions of their past. Illustrators, such as Arthur Rackham, Harry Furniss and Arthur Keller, also found humor in Scroogeís miserly ways, depicting him as a cranky humbug who eventually joins the festivities.

By the 1930s and 40s, war and economic disaster shifted focus again to Dickens' concern for the common man. Some illustrated editions, as well as productions on radio and the stage, projected Scrooge as a symbol of corrupt business and oppression of the poor. Everett Shinnís (1876-1953) drawings for a 1938 publication were based on Lionel Barrymoreís famous radio version of Scrooge as the prototype miser. Even by Depression standards the Shinn publication was a bargain at $1.98 filled with a dozen full-color illustrations featuring traditional, festive images. Numerous black and white drawings in the margins, offered more serious images of poverty.

In the last 50 years the imagery of the Carol has expanded in many directions, from fantasy to satire to psychological interpretation. While much of the imagery of this period was developed for film and television, a number of notable illustrated editions have been printed. Ronald Searle's (b. 1920) scratchy pen work, best known for creating caricatures featuring the rakish side of human nature, are well-suited to describing the "squeezing, grasping, covetous old sinner" that is Scrooge in a 1961 edition. While Charles Keeping (1924-1988) uses more delicate pen lines for his drawings in the 1988 edition, he too presents the inner workings of Scroogeís character and gives a psychological presence to the three spirits.

In the 1980s and 1990s many illustrators adopted a detailed, almost cinematic approach to illustration, particularly for children's books. In 1990, Roberto Innocenti (b. 1940) created detailed renderings of selected scenes in a dark, brooding tone reminiscent of Gustave Dore's (1832-1883) gritty drawings of London published in 1872. On a lighter note, the exhibition includes the original illustrations for The Haunted Tea Cozy, A Dispirited and Distasteful Diversion for Christmas (1999), a parody of Dickens' story by Edward Gorey (1925-2000). In typical Gorey style, the main character, Edmund Gravel, the Recluse of Lower Spigot, is guided by the Bahhum Bug through a series of unfortunate incidents that suggest both symbolic meaning and random absurdity.

Critical study of A Christmas Carol has a long and extensive history. It involves not only English literature, but also examines the Carol's influence in film, advertising and political cartoons. While this exhibition can sample only a portion of the rich legacy of illustrated interpretations of A Christmas Carol, its close focus and historical perspective demonstrate the power of text and illustration can have to tell us about ourselves.

The Brandywine River Museum is located on US Route 1 in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. The museum is open daily, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., except Christmas Day. Admission is $5 for adults; $2.50 for seniors ages 65 and over and students; free for children under six and members. For more information, call (610) 388-2700.
Top of Page

Brandywine River Museum, U.S. Route 1 and PA Route 100
P.O. Box 141, Chadds Ford, PA 19317
For more information send email to:
© 2001 Brandywine Conservancy