Thursday, August 09, 2007

Valerie Browne Lester, Phiz: The Man Who Drew Dickens

It's been a fairly productive year of reading non-fiction for me so far, and I can add this one to the list. Having taught Dickens now for about three years at the NL, it is to each novel's illustrations that I find myself increasingly drawn, and this "family biography" of Dickens's principle illustrator, Hablot Knight Browne (a.k.a. "Phiz"), is an enjoyable introduction to a study of his life and work.

The author is the great-great granddaughter of Phiz, and in the book's epilogue and acknowledgements she details the lengths to which she had to dig for information on the famous illustrator, unearthing along the way some fascinating facts heretofore unknown to H.K. Browne scholars (e.g., Phiz was an illegitimate child, fathered by a visiting soldier in Napoleon's army). While Lester does a mediocre job of handling Phiz's youth and years leading up to his collaboration with Dickens in 1837, she does a fine job of analyzing the development of his artistic style over his years with (and after) Dickens. Perhaps the best part of this book is the abundance of illustrations, sketches, oil paintings, doodles, and watercolors that are reproduced throughout, giving the reader a wonderful view of Phiz's artistic range. And since I have only ever seen his illustrations for Dickens, this was well worth the price of the book.

Capturing a time when books were painstakingly illustrated and printed with care and affection, the book also portrays nicely the intricate relationship between author and illustrator. The relationship between "Boz" and "Phiz" illustrates the ways in which both author and artist depended upon each other for the success of a book's sales, and by contrasting that working relationship with the other authors for whom Phiz contributed works throughout the years, you gain a better appreciation for this archaism of the publishing world.

Though it's hardly an exhaustive study of Phiz's life and works, Lester's book is a good start if you're interested in this sort of thing.

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