Monday, 19 December 2011

Dickens and London exhibition ...until 10 June 2012 at the Museum of London

Dickens and London exhibition
Exhibition until 10 June 2012 at the Museum of London

To mark the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’ birth, the Museum of London will be holding an exhibition celebrating his work. London was Dickens’ ‘magic lantern’ providing the setting and inspiration for some of his greatest works.
This atmospheric and multi-sensory exhibition will explore his love/hate relationship with the city and will examine London life through his words and the contemporary social issues he threw under the spotlight. It will include manuscripts of some of his most famous novels, his writing desk and chair, artefacts, paintings and audiovisual effects to create an immersive and exciting journey through Dickens’ imagination.
The exhibition will support and enrich the study of Dickens for English Literature from Key Stage 3 upwards as well as 19th century social history.
Schools will be able to book self-directed visits to the exhibition or take part in one of our specially tailored study days listed below. Teachers’ resources to support school visits to the exhibition will be available to download from the pages linked to below from October 2011.

Exhibition in focus: Dickens and London, the Museum of London
Indelibly bound to London, Charles Dickens had an unparalleled ability to capture the joy and despair of life in the city.

By Alex Werner, Head of History Collections at the Museum of London
09 Dec 2011 in The Telegraph

Dickens and London at the Museum of London reveals how Dickens and London are indelibly bound together. Dickens can be viewed as the first, and arguably greatest, urban novelist. His contemporaries identified him as the author best able to capture the new urban consciousness and the experiences of city dwellers. Walter Bagehot in 1858 observed how Dickens’s ‘genius’ was ‘suited to the delineation of city life’ and noted how he described London ‘like a special correspondent for posterity’.
Rather than taking an autobiographical approach, the exhibition is arranged thematically. William Powell Frith’s famous and arresting portrait of the author, painted in 1859 and commissioned by Dickens’s close friend and biographer John Forster, is given pride of place at the entrance to the show. Describing the work, the artist felt that he had depicted a man "who had reached the topmost rung of a very high ladder, and was perfectly aware of his position". Alongside it, small ‘carte de visite’ photographs bring one face-to-face with Dickens’s family, friends and acquaintances.

The central display space builds a city of the imagination through projections and subtle lighting. Dickens called London his ‘magic lantern’ and visitors glimpse the world that the author might have seen or imagined as he walked the streets at night. Dickens described his mind as a "sort of capitally prepared and highly sensitive [photographic] plate". As he walked he mapped out the intricate storylines of his novels. Just as his fictional characters make their way from one place to another, so he followed in their footsteps across the real city. On the walls, coloured to reflect the dirt and grime of the Victorian city, paintings and drawings capture the appearance of London and Londoners. A few key objects inhabit this space including a watchman’s box from Furnival’s Inn, one of the old Inns of Court where Dickens had chambers as a young man, and a door from Newgate Prison associated with the Gordon Riots. Floating above are signs from London shops and taverns and alphabet letters that are beginning to shape themselves into words and phrases. They lead towards the manuscript of Bleak House, open at the very first page with its evocative description of the fog that has enveloped London. The exhibition includes other manuscripts including Great Expectations, Dombey and Son and David Copperfield which give a fascinating insight into how Dickens worked creatively.

If Dickens had not been a writer then he would have been an actor. He saw London’s theatre scene as a "fairy land", an escape from the toil and drabness of everyday urban life. As a boy, his imagination had been fired up by a visit to a Christmas pantomime at Sadler’s Wells where he saw a performance by Grimaldi, the most celebrated clown of the age. The only surviving Grimaldi stage costume is displayed here. The theme of ‘home and hearth’ was central to Dickens’s fiction. We investigate how Victorian Londoners saw the home as a sacred place and Dickens aspired to this ideal as well. His fictional writings, however, often present domestic life in a less favourable light. Many of his families are dysfunctional, embittered and labour under a general air of unhappiness.
Dickens felt that he was living in a special age of progress and improvement, which he called ‘this summer-dawn of time’. His writings are shown to reflect the scale of global trade flowing through Victorian London and the impact of the British Empire on people’s lives. The manuscript of The Mystery of Edwin Drood is open at the opium den scene.

The exhibition’s final section focuses on childhood and death. It was only after Dickens’s death that the traumatic events of his childhood became known to the world. He experienced profound ‘grief and humiliation’ as a boy when he was taken out of school and sent to work at Warren’s blacking factory. Dickens’s novels are charged with death and tragedy, often involving children. It is difficult for us today to comprehend how the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop sent the nation into mourning. The remarkable painting Applicants For Admission to a Casual Ward by Luke Fildes is displayed on the final wall with its haunting depiction of those queuing up to enter the workhouse. It is set alongside some words by Dickens that uncover the appalling state of one such institution in Wapping. In many respects Dickens seems an incredibly modern author. He still challenges us today.
When: until June 10, 2012
Where: Museum of London, London Wall, London EC2Y 5HN
Tube: Barbican, St Paul's Moorgate.

Dickens and London
Museum of London
9 December until 10 June 2012

It's a good idea to begin the new Dickens and London exhibition right at the end, where William Raban's short film The Houseless Shadow runs on a 20-minute loop. To the accompaniment of Dickens' haunting essay "Night Walks", we see shots of modern London at night. There's no Dickensian kitsch here, no gas lamps, carol singers or jolly fat men, just drunks and homeless people sheltering from the rain, with the shops' mannequins looking cosy inside and the security cameras staring down. They are familiar enough images and yet made unfamiliar by the meditative, noticing gaze of Raban's camera, which matches the solicitude of Dickens' text, where sympathy is pushed to the point of identification with London's poor and homeless.
As his bicentenary year begins, there is going to be a deluge of Dickensian publications, adaptations, celebrations and marketing opportunities. Only the Olympics will be able to stop it. For the most part, it should be fun: two sparkling biographies by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst and Claire Tomalin have led the charge, and the BBC will soon be following with new adaptations of Great Expectations and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Dickensians' diaries are filling up, as everywhere from Teesdale to Segovia rushes to play its part in the festivities.
The Victoria and Albert Museum has nearly all of Dickens' manuscripts and proofs, generously given to the nation by his friend and biographer John Forster. It is strangely quiet this year but the Museum of London has stepped into the breach with a major exhibition, the first devoted to Dickens' work in nearly half a century. It's a busy, bustling, fluid show. Divided in two by great screens, the exhibition wraps around itself, with a Thames-like flow. On the screens we see projections of streets and characters emerging and disappearing, ghosts of a world we have lost.
Some strange survivors of the places that Dickens knew arrest the flow: the porters' box from Furnival's Inn where he had his first home; a door from Newgate Prison; street furniture and pub signs. There are little things too, full of pathos: pots from Warren's Blacking Warehouse where Dickens worked as a child; broken crockery dug out from Jacob's Island where Bill Sikes fell to his death; a child circus-performer's tiny shoe. The posher side of Dickens' life is here, too, in the shape of a vast ledger of his bank account at Coutts and a generous cheque to buy jewels, almost certainly for his lover, the actress Ellen Ternan.
It is good to remember how significant London was to Dickens, and how important they both are to us. London was the place he returned to most often in his fiction, the home of the Micawbers and Little Dorrit, David Copperfield and Silas Wegg. The unparalleled chronicler of its lives and voices, he was its "special correspondent for posterity", in Walter Bagehot's phrase. Over his lifetime, the city changed into a world of commuters and telegraphs, omnibuses and underground railways, as Victorian London forged a path that every city in the world has followed since. Dickens saw it first, and registered, as no one else could, its strangeness, suffering and laughter.

Any back alley or greasy chophouse could be the stage for an unforgettable drama in his work. He was fascinated by the shabby-genteel clerks and street children that he saw and, like his great contemporary Henry Mayhew, captured their chaff and blague for eternity. He would see everyone from the 13-year-old prostitute on her way to prison in Sketches by Boz to the "sleek, slobbering, bow-paunched, over-fed, apoplectic, snorting cattle" troughing their faces at a City of London dinner. Trying to write in Switzerland, he yearned for the spectacle of London streets: "A day in London sets me up again and starts me. But the toil and labour of writing, day after day, without that magic lantern is immense!!"
He hated it too, of course, more and more as he grew older, keeping a base there but spending more and more time away, in Kent or France or just travelling. So it is right that the celebrations this year will be global, with conferences and lectures, exhibitions and festivals not just in the France and Switzerland that he loved and the America he quarrelled with, but also in India, Sri Lanka and Ukraine. Dickens has always been global Dickens.
He has always been adaptable Dickens, too. Victorian stage managers turned his novels into plays before he had half-finished them. A good amateur magician, he loved the theatre and magic-lantern shows, and his work adapts readily to the world of cinema, graphic novel and iPhone. There's an exhibition app and the British Film Institute is running a retrospective of Dickens films. Spanning almost the whole of the 20th century, they are testament to a visual imagination that, as Sergei Eisenstein showed, anticipated the grammar of modern cinema in its use of close-up and montage. A copy of the "Death of Nancy" from Oliver Twist is in the exhibition, open at her death. "Action", Dickens has written in the margin when Sikes strikes the blow, and a little later "Terror to the End".
It is moving to see the manuscripts and proofs close up. Several come from the Victoria and Albert Museum; Great Expectations is on a rare excursion from its home in Wisbech. The exhibition is not too reverent, though, and makes a brave shot at capturing the side of Dickens that goes beyond his social documentary and social reforming sides. As if eager to fly away from the cramped handwriting and crossings-out below, phrases from the manuscripts swirl above in giant letters: MONSTER; VANISH; LASCAR; HE SPEAKS.
There is a strong suite of pictures from the Museum of London's own collection, by Gustave Doré, David Roberts and others. They are an invaluable record of the visual culture that Dickens knew but none of the paintings come near to his prose in evoking the fantastic - in every sense - novelty of the new urban world.
Probably the most famous image of Dickens of all is Robert Buss' unfinished posthumous painting Dickens' Dream (pictured above), of the author in his chair, dreaming of his creations, who flutter in outline around his head, oblivious to him and to each other. Next to the painting is the desk and chair at which he wrote and which Buss drew. We see the relics and pay our homage; but there is a cheeky animation of Buss' picture, too. Dickens rolls his eyes and grinds his teeth like a Monty Python cartoon as Barnaby Rudge jives above him and Oliver asks for more.
The most arresting moment of the exhibition comes at the very end in the shape of Luke Fildes' great 1874 canvas, Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward. Huddled against the cold, the wind knifing through their clothes, a group of paupers press against the workhouse wall, a frieze of misery. In the cases around are some of the sadder fragments of Dickensian London - a child's white coffin, blacking pots, mourning paper.
In one way, of course, it is an immeasurably distant world. London today, a century and a half on, is unrecognisable from its Victorian ancestor, an altogether bigger, richer and brighter city. But we are closer to Dickens' world than we were at the last great celebration of his work in 1970, at the high-water mark of full employment and the welfare state. The gap between rich and poor has grown bigger with every decade since then, and is rapidly returning to near-Victorian levels. As we leave, Raban's film is still running.

John Bowen is professor of 19th-century literature in the department of English and related literature at the University of York.
in "Higher Education".

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