Read CHAPTER IV of Old Coloured Books, free online book, by George Paston, on



The success of the Jaunts and Jollities, and of Egan’s Finish to Life in London, suggested, it is said, to Messrs. Chapman and Hall the idea of a work which should deal with the adventures of a club of Cockney sportsmen, and serve as a vehicle for the humorous designs of Robert Seymour. Leigh Hunt and Theodore Hook were asked, in the first instance, to supply the letterpress; but, on their refusal, the young Charles Dickens, then (1835) just three-and-twenty, and only known as the author of some amusing sketches, was chosen to act as the literary illustrator of the work. Dickens rejected the idea of a sporting club, though he so far deferred to the publishers’ suggestions as to create the immortal Pickwick Club, into which Mr. Winkle was introduced expressly for the exploitation of Seymour’s peculiar talent. The young author also stipulated that, instead of being expected to “write up” to the artist’s designs, he should be allowed a free hand with the letterpress, the illustrations being allowed to arise naturally out of the incidents described in the text. On 26th March 1836 it was announced that the first number of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club would be published on the 30th, the work to be issued in shilling monthly parts under the editorship of “Boz,” each part being illustrated with four etchings on steel by Seymour. Robert Seymour (1800?-36) had already made his name as a caricaturist and book-illustrator. He had published a volume of humorous sketches (mostly dealing with sporting misadventures), and had been employed to illustrate Bell’s Life and Figaro in London. For Pickwick he prepared seven illustrations, of which four appeared in the first part. Whether from overwork, or from the fact that his often hasty sketches did not invariably give satisfaction to his employers, Seymour was in a depressed state of mind at this time, and on 20th April, just before the publication of the second number of Pickwick, he committed suicide by shooting himself through the head with a fowling-piece.


In consequence of this catastrophe, the second number came out with only three plates, and an apology to the public. In their dilemma the publishers invited Robert William Buss (1804-75), a young artist of some promise, to take up Seymour’s work. Buss, who was the son of an engraver, had studied under George Clint, A.R.A., and had been employed to illustrate Cumberland’s British Theatre. He was also an exhibitor at the Royal Academy, where his most successful works had been in a humorous genre. Buss consented to lay aside his Academy picture and undertake the illustrations to Pickwick: but as time pressed, and he was ignorant of the art of etching, he put the two first designs into the hands of a professional etcher. The result was unfortunate, since, although the technical part of the work was well executed, the free touch of the original was entirely wanting, and Buss’s name appeared to designs, not one stroke of which was on the plates. While the artist was busy designing other, and, as he hoped, more successful illustrations, he received his dismissal from the publishers, who were dissatisfied with the specimens already submitted to them. Although he admitted that his first two plates were “abominably bad,” Buss was much aggrieved at this treatment, having been promised every consideration from the publishers on account of his ignorance of etching, and the haste with which the earlier designs had to be prepared. Later he became known as a popular book-illustrator, executing plates for the novels of Mrs. Trollope, Captain Marryatt, and Harrison Ainsworth; while, towards the end of his career, he issued an elaborately-illustrated work on English graphic satire.


In consequence of these early misfortunes, there was so poor a demand for the first three numbers of Pickwick, that the publishers had serious thoughts of stopping the publication of the work. However, on the dismissal of Buss, several illustrators came forward to offer their services, including “Alfred Crowquill” (Alfred Forrester), Leech, and Thackeray, the last-named going himself to call on Dickens in Furnival’s Inn, and submitting his drawings to him. Needless to say, not one of the three was successful in his candidature, the choice of the publishers falling upon a very young artist, Hablot Knight Browne (1815-1882), who had served his apprenticeship to Finden, the line-engraver, and gained some experience as a book-illustrator. He had already illustrated a pamphlet by Dickens, called Sunday under Three Heads, and was engaged in executing plates for Chapman and Hall’s Library of Fiction.

The choice, as every one knows, proved a happy one, Browne, who took the pseudonym of “Phiz” to correspond with the editorial “Boz,” throwing himself heart and soul into the spirit of the work, and proving an ideal collaborator from the author’s point of view. The ill-luck which had dogged the early days of Pickwick turned out a blessing in disguise for Dickens, since he was no longer expected to exploit the talent of his illustrator, and was enabled to impress his own ideas and wishes upon “Phiz,” his junior by three years. With the fourth number, which saw the first appearance of Samuel Weller, the circulation of the work began to go up by leaps and bounds; a Pickwick boom ensued, and many of the designs had to be etched in duplicate, as the plates showed signs of wear and tear. Owing to the lack of harmony between the illustrations in the first three numbers and those that followed, Browne was employed to redraw Seymour’s plates, and to substitute two new designs for the despised Buss plates. The latter, which only appeared in about seven hundred copies of the original edition, are now as eagerly sought by collectors as if they were miniature masterpieces, while the untouched designs of Seymour rank far above those that were redrawn by Phiz.

The authorised illustrations to the Pickwick Papers have been supplemented by several series of “illegitimate” designs, chief among which are the famous Onwhyn plates, published in 1837, when the book was in the full tide of success. These consisted of thirty-two etchings on steel, the majority of which were executed by Thomas Onwhyn (died in 1886), and are signed “Samuel Weller,” though a few have Onwhyn’s initials. The plates were published by E. Grattan in eight monthly parts at a shilling each, and were afterwards sold in volume form at nine shillings. Onwhyn, who was the son of a bookseller, seemed determined to make a spécialité of Dickens’ illustrations, for in 1838 he issued through Grattan no less than forty designs for Nicholas Nickleby, signed “Peter Palette”; while in 1848 he executed a second set of Pickwick plates, which, in consequence of the republication of the earlier set, were not brought out till 1894, eight years after the artist’s death. Though his technique was somewhat weak, Onwhyn’s work shows considerable humour, and his uninvited designs now add great lustre, in the eyes of collectors, to an “extra-illustrated” copy of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club.