This review was published in the Independent last week but has not surfaced online.
It’s going to be hard to avoid Charles Dickens in the next few months. The writer will be everywhere, as publishers, programmers and producers commemorate the 200th anniversary of his birth on February 7, 2012. The best celebration of Dickens’s legacy could be this illuminating exhibition at the Museum of London. It’s an imaginative look at a familiar subject, and represents the best of what a museum can do.
This is no staid trawl through Dickens’s back catalogue but a vivid evocation of Victorian life based around themes from his books, from poverty to innovation. Sure, the big objects like Dickens’s writing desk or his manuscript for Great Expectations are there to grab the attention, but this drama is complemented by Victorian minutiae, the fascinating bric-a-brac of everyday life, everything from rent arrears books and mourning wands (wooden sticks carried by footmen ahead of funeral processions) to clay pipes, Punch and Judy puppets, model trains and Dickens’s soup ladle.
The exhibition is more than objects. There are mournful photographs of Victorian buildings that Dickens wrote about but have since disappeared, and a short film by William Raban that meanders around modern London while an actor recites Night Walks, Dickens’s essay about the sleeping city, drawing subtle parallels between his time and our own. The film is a rare chance to wallow in Dickens’s own voice, but neither this nor the manuscripts are quite as impressive as Dickens’s reading copy of Oliver Twist. This is the book he used on reading tours towards the end of his life; words and sentences are underlined for emphasis, and melodramatic stage directions (‘Action’, ‘mystery’, ‘terror to the end’) are scrawled in the margins.
Most rewarding of all, though, is the art. There’s classically sentimental Victoriana, such as William MacDuff’s Shaftesbury, which shows two urchins looking in a shop window like something by Norman Rockwell. There’s the fascinating documentary sketches of George Scharf’s, who drew the people he saw on streets acting as human advertisements, in colourful costume and carrying eye-catching signs for shows and products. And there are many detailed depictions of Victorian street life, which owe a clear debt to Hogarth. Phoebus Levin’s ‘Covent Garden Market’, Caleb Robert Stanley’s ‘The Strand, Looking Eastwards From Exeter Change’ and especially Edmund John Niemann’s ‘Buckingham Street’ portray a city of energetic bustle, cobbled streets and vicious contrasts of wealth that are the visual embodiment of what we still call Dickensian London.
Museum of London, 150 London Wall, EC2Y 5HN (020 7001 9844). Until June 10, 2012. Admission £8 (£7 advance booking); concs £6 (£5 advance booking).