- Dickens Posing for Posterity: The Photographs of Herbert Watkins
Dickens was a public figure who was constantly in demand – particularly after he embarked on his public reading tours in 1858; he said that he hoped this enterprise “could drop into some hearts, some new expression of the meaning of my books, that would touch [the public] in a new way” (Letters 11: 354). Another means by which he reached out to his admirers was through the hundreds of images of him that circulated in his lifetime – particularly photographic portraits, which, according to Malcolm Andrews, served as “further projections of Dickens’s multifaceted persona that had begun with the voice, or voices, of Boz back in the 1830s and were to culminate in the physical presence of the man before his public” (2006: 158). Photography was a burgeoning phenomenon in the 1850s: it attracted huge numbers of followers, and produced a “dramatic change in the practices of visual communication and visual understanding in the nineteenth century” (Curtis 1995: 217). In an article in the Quarterly Review Lady Eastlake (whose husband Charles was the first President of the Photographic Society) contemplated the extensive reach and pervasive influence of what she called this “new and mysterious art”:
Who can number the legion of petty dabblers, who display their trays of specimens along every great thoroughfare of London, executing for our lowest servants, for one shilling, that which no money could have commanded for the Rothschild bride of twenty years ago? Not that photographers flock especially to the metropolis; they are wanted everywhere and found everywhere. […] Thus, where not half a generation ago the existence of such a vocation was not dreamt of, tens of thousands […] are now following a new business, practising a new pleasure, speaking a new language, and bound together by a new sympathy.(Eastlake 442–43)
Dickens was clearly aware of the power of photography to direct the general public’s attention towards important events or individuals; but on a personal level he was, according to Gerard Curtis, “remarkably capable [End Page 96] of exploiting it for his own benefit” (1995: 236). Photographic portraiture was an important element in shaping the authorial persona; by the 1850s, he argues, it had come to reflect “the increasing money/commodity concern of publishing” (146). Due to the ubiquity and ready acceptance of these new, vivid, more precise – and cheap – visual images, which embodied elements of both art and science (see Eastlake 461–68), the Victorians experienced a “dramatic change in the practices of visual communication and visual understanding” (Curtis 1995: 217). This development required a new intimacy between writers and readers, and obliged important public figures like Dickens to “create and maintain a visible presence in society” (Curtis 2002: 151).
While photographs served an important public purpose for the professional writer, in private Dickens could be rather disparaging, or even comical, concerning their inability to capture a favorable likeness. In January 1857 he wrote to his friend William Charles Macready, about a photograph of the actor that he acquired at the house of a mutual friend:
We dined yesterday at Frederick Pollock’s. I begged an amazing Photograph of you, and brought it away. It strikes me as one of the most ludicrous things I ever saw in my life. I think of taking a Public-House, and having it copied large, for the Sign. You may remember it? Very square and big – the Saracen’s Head with its hair cut – and in modern gear? Staring very much? – As your particular friend I would not part with it on any consideration. I could never get such a wooden head again.(Letters 8: 270)
In spite of what this unfavorable (though humorous) comment suggests, Dickens’s attitudes towards photography were more varied, complex and subtle. He was, for example, aware of the opportunities that this technology offered for employment. In the same year as he made the observation to Macready, he agreed to the proposal of Angela Burdett Coutts to have his son Walter taught photography before the boy left for India (Letters 8: 372). It is not clear whether the training was ever undertaken, as Dickens reports that it had...