Haunts of Dickens

Haunts of Dickens

Haunts of Dickens is a collection of almost 60 watercolours painted by British artist Paul Braddon (1864-1937). The exhibition is part of Charles Dickens’s 200th birthday celebration and contains scenes from Dickens’s novels, ranging from Great Expectations to The Old Curiosity Shop. The illustrations were gifted to the Dunedin Public Library in 1956 by A. H. Reed, a well-known literary figure in New Zealand.

The exhibition comes with an interesting story: The watercolours were discovered last year by librarian Anthony Tedeschi, concealed between some rare books at the Dunedin Public Library. Curator Lynda Cullen says they were found wrapped in “fairly ordinary folders made of cardboard, tied with string”. It is estimated that the watercolours are worth $100,000.

The illustrations consist mostly of pencil sketches which have had watercolours added to them. The artist’s work was typically of an architectural nature and this is reflected in the exhibition. The main focus in every piece is on buildings and structures with a few figures, most of whom have walking sticks. The curator Lynda describes the watercolours as having three kinds of identifiers – Charles Dickens, the artist, and the scenes, which “often are representative of buildings that Dickens borrowed from real life for his novels.”

Because of this, Lynda goes on to talk about the lovely nuances of the works, in the way that “story and reality is folding in and out of this exhibition.” For this reason, the exhibition has been drawing in not only those interested in the artistic breadth of the works, but also those with a keen interest in their literary nature.

The exhibition is showcasing a number of events in association with the works, including readings by local actors and talks on related topics such as Victorian fashion and health, the architecture found in Braddon’s works, and women in Dickens’s novels. Each reading has attracted a crowd of around a hundred people and this number appears to be made up of largely older people. Lynda suggests that this may be because Dickens is not studied in high schools or universities at the moment. Had had he been, the demographic might be more varied.

The exhibition itself is organised into a “bookcase” arrangement with the watercolours hung in order of the novels, as they were written. Because the pictures have been unexposed to the elements for such a lengthy amount of time, they have retained their colours beautifully, as well as a transparency that allows the underlying sketches to shine through and showcase the intricate architectural sketches underneath. Because of this, the sketches have beautiful layers that make the exhibit enchanting to view. The luminous quality of the watercolours make the illustrations really “pop out” and the number of images in the exhibit provides a wonderful effect, as there are subtle distinctions between the paintings.

“Haunts of Dickens” would be of particular interest to those attracted to all things literary, but also to anybody with an interest in the Victorian era. Included in the exhibition are some items associated with the era as well as some first edition copies of Dickens’s novels. This addition complements the artwork well and adds variety to the overall effect of the display. The whole exhibition is really quite striking, and I would recommend it to anyone, but it would have further appeal to those interested in Dickens or majoring in English (such as myself!).

This exhibition can be viewed at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery and runs until May 6. It will then travel the country, visiting six other galleries, from late June through 2013.

Taryn Dryfhout
This article first appeared in Issue 8, 2012.
Posted 5:04pm Sunday 22nd April 2012 by Taryn Dryfhout.