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Portraiture in a Bleak House

by Angus Trumble, 31 July 2017

Sunset in the drawing room at Chesney Wold by Hablot Knight Brown
Sunset in the drawing room at Chesney Wold by Hablot Knight Brown

It may seem an odd thing to do at one’s leisure on a beautiful tropical island, but I spent much of my midwinter break a few weeks ago re-reading Bleak House. Partly inspired to do so by Dempsey’s People, I was also on the look-out for portraits because, I now realise, Charles Dickens’s mighty novel is absolutely crammed with them. Foremost, and of greatest significance to the plot, are the Dedlock family portraits—“a family as old as the hills, and infinitely more respectable,” but whose “greatness seems to consist in their never having done anything to distinguish themselves, for seven hundred years.” These portraits fill the great rooms of the Dedlock seat of Chesney Wold, down in Lincolnshire. When Sir Leicester and Lady Dedlock are in town or abroad and the house is shut up, the pictures of Dedlock ancestors seem (Chapter 2) “to vanish into the damp walls in mere lowness of spirits, as the housekeeper has passed along the old rooms, shutting up the shutters. And when they will next come forth again, the fashionable intelligence…cannot yet undertake to say.”

While it is shut up, in accordance with aristocratic convention going back at least 300 years, the housekeeper is authorised occasionally to admit respectable sight-seeing visitors to Chesney Wold—such as the oleaginous law clerk Mr. Guppy and his companion Mr. Jobling. These duly pass under close escort from room to room (Ch. 7), “raising the pictured Dedlocks for a few brief minutes as the young gardener admits the light, and reconsigning them to their graves as he shuts it out again.”

This sustained, indeed strengthening metaphor of death and re-animation continues throughout the novel but it soon emerges that the portraits at Chesney Wold revolve around “a portrait over the chimneypiece [in the long drawing room], painted by the fashionable artist of the day.” It is a full-length portrait of the present Lady Dedlock, “considered a perfect likeness, and the best work of the master”—surely Sir Thomas Lawrence. Indeed, the portraits that flank it, those of Sir Leicester and his father, the previous baronet, are subsidiary. Lady Dedlock’s portrait acts upon Guppy like a charm. He is convinced he has seen it before, although this is his first visit to Chesney Wold. As well, “The picture has never been engraved. Sir Leicester has always refused permission,” so Guppy cannot have seen it by that or any other means; upon his uncanny sense of recognition, therefore, hinges one of the secrets of the plot.

The frightful Harold Skimpole likewise engages in old-fashioned sight-seeing at Chesney Wold (Ch. 37): “There were such portentous shepherdesses among the Ladies Dedlock dead and gone, he told us, that peaceful crooks became weapons of assault in their hands. They tended their flocks severely in buckram and powder, and put their sticking plaster patches on to terrify commoners, as the chiefs of some other tribes put on their war-paint [Jonathan Richardson or Joseph Highmore or Charles-André van Loo]. There was a Sir Somebody Dedlock, with a battle, a sprung-mine, volumesof smoke, flashes of lightning, a town on fire, and a stormed fort, all in full action between his horse’s two hind legs: showing, he supposed, how little a Dedlock made of such trifles [Jan Wyck or Peter Tillemans or James Seymour]. The whole race he represented as having evidently been, in life, what he called ‘stuffed people’…”

As the novel develops, the imposition of darkness and the re-admission of light (death and re-animation) soon project over Lady Dedlock’s portrait, in particular, a strong and equivalent moral cast. Shortly before the Dedlocks return from Paris to hold court at Chesney Wold: “The clear cold sunshine…looks in at the windows, and touches the ancestral portraits with bars and patches of brightness, never contemplated by the painters. Athwart the picture of my Lady, over the great chimney-piece, it throws a broad bend-sinister of light that strikes down crookedly into the hearth, and seems to rend it.” A “broad bend-sinister” is the Heraldic device—a diagonal line running (from top left to bottom right) across the escutcheon—that signifies illegitimacy, so Dickens’s image here could not be a blunter portent. Despite the housekeeper’s earlier protestation that “disgrace never comes to Chesney Wold,” trouble is definitely brewing in the House of Dedlock, and My Lady would appear to be the cause.

For the time being, however, Chesney Wold springs to life (Ch. 12): “Seen by night, from distant openings in the trees, the row of windows in the long drawing-room, where my Lady’s portrait hangs over the great chimney-piece, is like a row of jewels set in a black frame.” As well, the pictures seem to ape Sir Leicester’s almost wilful obliviousness; elsewhere (Ch. 40) he is brilliantly described as “a magnificent refrigerator.” Pausing at the foot of the oak staircase with absurd ceremony, Sir Leicester prepares to act as My Lady’s “knightly escort,” whereupon “A staring old Dedlock in a panel [Eworth or Gheeraerts or Peake or some such], as large as life and as dull, looks as if he didn’t know what to make of it—which was probably his state of mind in the days of Queen Elizabeth.”

Still later (Ch. 16), resigned to his inherited affliction of gout (Ch. 16), Sir Leicester lies “in a flush of crimson and gold, in the midst of the great drawing-room, before his favourite picture of My Lady, with broad strips of sunlight shining in…his forefathers, looking on him from the walls, say, ‘Each of us was a passing reality here, and left this coloured shadow of himself, and melted into remembrance as dreamy as the distant voices of the rooks now lulling you to rest;’ and bear their testimony to his greatness too.”

As the crisis builds, so too does the significance of the portraits. In Ch. 29 the omniscient narrator asks whether there is no influence that will startle Sir Leicester, “not to say, to make the very trees at Chesney Wold fling up their knotted arms, the very portraits frown, the very armour stir?” And much later, when the house is brought back to life in the summer (Ch. 40): “Then do the frozen Dedlocks thaw. Strange movements come upon their features, as the shadows of leaves play there. A dense Justice in a corner is beguiled into a wink [Godfrey Kneller]. A staring baronet, with a truncheon, gets a dimple in his chin. Down into the bosom of a stony shepherdess there steals a fleck of light and warmth that would have done it good, a hundred years ago [Philip Mercier]. One ancestress of Volumnia, in high-heeled shoes, very like her—casting the shadow of that virgin event before her two full centuries [Anthony van Dyck]—shoots out into a halo and becomes a saint. A maid of honour of the court of Charles the Second, with large round eyes (and other charms to correspond), seems to bathe in glowing water, and it ripples as it glows [Peter Lely]. But the fire of the sun is dying. Even now the floor is dusky, and shadow slowly mounts the walls, bringing the Dedlocks down like age and death. And now, upon my Lady’s picture over the great chimney-piece, a weird shade falls from some old tree, that turns it pale, and flutters it, and looks as if a great arm held a veil or hood, watching an opportunity to draw it over her. Higher and darker rises shadow on the wall—now a red gloom on the ceiling—now the fire is out… [But,] of all the shadows in Chesney Wold, the shadow in the long drawing-room upon my Lady’s picture is the first to come, the last to be disturbed. At this hour and by this light it changes into threatening hands raised up, and menacing the handsome face with every breath that stirs.”

When the crisis breaks (Ch. 58), Sir Leicester’s faithful old housekeeper looks “as if she had stepped out of an old picture-frame to attend a summoned Dedlock to another world…,” while Cousin Volumnia Dedlock occupies a room “up a retired landing on the staircase—the second turning past the end of the carving and gilding—a cousinly room containing a fearful abortion of a portrait of Sir Leicester [John Hoppner? Benjamin West?], banished for its crimes, and commanding in the day a solemn yard, planted with dried-up shrubs like antediluvian specimens of black tea…”

And in the sorry aftermath (Ch. 66): “The greater part of the house is shut up, and it is a show-house no longer; yet Sir Leicester holds his shrunken state in the long drawing-room for all that, and reposes in his old place before my Lady’s picture. Closed in by night with broad screens, and illumined only in that part, the light of the drawing-room seems gradually contracting and dwindling until it shall be no more. A little more, in truth, and it will be all extinguished for Sir Leicester; and the damp door in the mausoleum which shuts so tight, and looks so obdurate, will have opened and relieved him.” Oh dear, oh dear.

The Dedlock townhouse in London is drawn every bit as carefully as Chesney Wold. The staircase (Ch. 53) is adorned with “murderous groups of statuary, repeated with their shadowy weapons on the wall…” The house’s “dismal grandeur” (Ch. 48) marks it as one of the half a dozen of London’s greatest mansions, all “determined not to condescend to liveliness.” There (Ch. 29), “Sir Leicester is glad to repose in dignified contentment before the great fire in the library, condescendingly perusing the backs of his books, or honouring the fine arts with a glance of approbation. For he has his pictures, ancient and modern. Some, of the Fancy Ball School in which Art occasionally condescends to become a master, which would be best catalogued like the miscellaneous articles in a sale. As, ‘Three high-backed chairs, a table and cover, long-necked bottle (containing wine), one flask, one Spanish female’s costume, three-quarter face portrait of Miss Jogg the model, and a suit of armour containing Don Quixote.’ Or, ‘One stone terrace (cracked), one gondola in distance, one Venetian senator’s dress complete, richly embroidered satin costume with profile portrait of Miss Jogg the model, one scimitar superbly mounted in gold with jewelled handle, elaborate Moorish dress (very rare), and Othello.’” That reference to Othello, incidentally, is no accident, because there is a handkerchief at play also in Bleak House.

Finally, it is in the great London townhouse (Ch. 53) that, in deceptively light conversation with one of the liveried servants, Inspector Bucket remarks upon his height (6’ 3”): “‘Are you so much? But then, you see, you’re broad in proportion, and don’t look it…Was you ever modelled now?’…[No]… ‘Then you ought to be…and a friend of mine that you’ll hear of one day as a Royal Academy Sculptor, would stand something handsome to make a drawing of your proportions for the marble…” Sculpture, books and fancy pictures in London; family portraits down in Lincolnshire.

Among all the grotesques in Bleak House, incidentally, Cousin Volumnia Dedlock ranks among the foremost (Ch. 28 and passim). She is dreaded “in consequence of an indiscreet profusion in the article of rouge, and persistency in an obsolete pearl necklace like a rosary of little birds’-eggs.” (An interesting question for the jewellery boffins: Wherein, during the approximate late 1830s to mid-1840s, I wonder, lay the obsolescence of this particular pearl necklace? Was it the size of these large baroque pearls?) She’s getting on, too, as Dickens cruelly makes clear: “Miss Volumnia, displaying in early life a pretty talent for cutting ornaments out of coloured paper, and also for singing to the guitar in the Spanish tongue, and propounding French conundrums in country houses, passed the twenty years of her existence between twenty and forty in a sufficiently agreeable manner. Lapsing then out of date, and being considered to bore mankind with her vocal performances in the Spanish language, she retired to Bath…” When at Chesney Wold Sir Leicester mentions that his housekeeper’s son, the Ironmaster Mr. Rouncewell, has been invited to go into Parliament, “Miss Volumnia utters a sharp little scream.” Thus showing herself to be a more or less reliable Whig (if “precipitate,” so says Sir Leicester), Volumnia is actually that pathetic creature, the wholly dependent hanger-on and semi-professional cousin, more or less at large in county assembly-rooms, where at least “swains” may pay her homage (Ch. 66): “Then is there a singular kind of parallel between her and the little glass chandeliers of another age, embellishing that assembly-room; which, with their meagre stems, their spare little drops, their disappointing knobs where no drops are, their bare little stalks from which knobs and drops have both departed, and their little feeble prismatic twinkling, all seem Volumnias.” Completely devastating, and please would someone direct us to the prototype or model of those “chandeliers of another age”? We would love to know.

Of course the Dedlock portraits are not alone. The lower ranks (or their surrogates) are every bit as interesting, though less often mentioned. For instance, at the end of a sanded passage in Mr. Grubble’s clean little tavern, the Dedlock Arms near Chesney Wold (Ch. 37), we find his best parlour: “a neat carpeted room, with more plants in it than were quite convenient, a coloured print of Queen Caroline [i.e. consort of King George II: possibly George Vertue after Godfrey Kneller], several shells, a good many tea-trays, two stuffied and dried fish in glass cases, and either a curious egg or a curious pumpkin…hanging from the ceiling.”

In Mr. Jarndyce’s Bleak House (Ch. 6), far happier than Chesney Wold, Esther Summerson recounts: “Our sitting-room was green; and had, framed and glazed, upon the walls, numbers of surprising and surprised birds, staring out of pictures at a real trout in a case, as brown and shining as if it had been served with gravy; at the death of Captain Cook [Bartolozzi after John Webber]; and at the whole process of preparing tea in China, as depicted by Chinese artists. In my room there were oval engravings of the months—ladies haymaking in short waists, and large hats tied under the chin, for June—smooth-legged noblemen, pointing, with cocked hats, to village steeples for October [Francis Wheatley?]. Half-length portraits, in crayons [some sort of lower-grade John Russell], abounded all through the house; but were so dispersed,” says Esther, “that I found the brother of a youthful officer of mine [she means a picture of the same that hangs in her room] in the china-closet, and the grey old-age of my pretty young bride [ditto], with a flower in her bodice, in the breakfast room.” The medium, here, and the more modest scale, are carefully differentiated from the ‘grand manner’ Dedlocks, but the same generational continuity is carefully flagged—for the Jarndyce line, though vague and murky, is essential to the plot.

In Cook’s Court, Cursitor Street, Chancery Lane, meanwhile (Ch. 10), in the drawing-room of Mr. Snagsby the Law Stationer: “The portraits it displays in oil—and plenty of it too—of Mr. Snagsby looking at Mrs. Snagsby, and of Mrs. Snagsby looking at Mr. Snagsby, are in her eyes as achievements of Raphael or Titian.” Dickens’s sarcasm is ample but actually hard to locate. I suppose his point is that these pictures are inferior, and prized far more than their quality justifies. When (Ch. 19) the Snagsbys prepare to receive company (the hideous Chadbands), their servant, poor epileptic Guster, is set to work: “All the furniture is shaken and dusted, the portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Snagsby are touched up with a wet cloth…”

Also in Ch. 10, we find Mr. Tulkinghorn the solicitor brooding in his chambers in Lincoln’s Inn. These are rooms in part of a run-down townhouse, once great, with a painted ceiling—Allegory—that stares “down at his intrusion as if it meant to swoop upon him, and he is cutting it dead.” By stark contrast, Mr. Tulkinghorn surrounds himself with cheap, dusty “presentation prints of the holders of great titles in the last generation, or the last but one…,” whose secrets he makes it his business to hoard. These dusty prints [after Sir Joshua Reynolds, surely] elicit at least two interesting reactions: In retrospect (Ch. 25), Mr. Snagsby ponders “His remote impressions of the robes and coronets, the stars and garters, that sparkle through the surface dust of Mr. Tulkinghorn’s chambers…,” while in (Ch. 27) Mr. George contemplates “the portraits of the great clients” and reads aloud the names on his clients’ strong boxes, indeed looks at them a long while “as if they were pictures.”

Prominent, this time, in the surgeon Mr. Bayham Badger’s drawing-room (Ch. 13) are portraits of Mrs. Badger’s two previous husbands, that of Captain Swosser—“It was taken on his return home from the African Station, where he had suffered from the fever of the country. Mrs. Badger considers it too yellow. But it’s a very fine head, a very fine head!…On the other side, Professor Dingo. I knew him well—attended him in his last illness—a speaking likeness! Over the piano, Mrs. Bayham Badger when Mrs. Swosser. Over the sofa, Mrs. Bayham Badger when Mrs. Dingo. Of Mrs. Bayham Badger in esse, I possess the original, and have no copy.” We may place these portraits in the same general category as those of the Snagsbys, perhaps a notch or two above but not much higher.

Mr. Turveydrop’s dancing academy in Newman Street, meanwhile (Ch. 14), is “established [together with a drawing-master, a lithographic artist and a coal-merchant] in a sufficiently dingy house at the corner of an archway, with busts in all the staircase windows.” Having seen far better days, the premises are without any other portraits, although Mr. Turveydrop senior, ever mindful of Deportment, sits down beside Esther “taking pains to sit on the form…in imitation of the print of his illustrious model on the sofa,” i.e. The Prince Regent by Sir Thomas Lawrence (Wallace Collection), the 1829 Finden print, mind you, and not the original.

At the bottom of the spectrum we stumble upon perhaps the most interesting portrait of all, which effectively serves to double back to Chesney Wold. Newly installed in the upstairs room at the hideous Mr. Krook’s rag-and-bone establishment (Ch. 32), “Mr. Guppy…looks with admiration, real or pretended, round the room at the Galaxy gallery of British beauty; terminating his survey with the portrait of Lady Dedlock over the mantel-shelf, in which she is represented on a terrace, with a pedestal upon the terrace, and a vase upon the pedestal, and her shawl upon the vase, and a prodigious piece of fur upon the shawl, and her arm on the prodigious piece of fur, and a bracelet on her arm. ‘That’s very like Lady Dedlock,’ says Guppy. ‘It’s a speaking likeness.’ Later (Ch. 39) Mr. Tulkinghorn remarks upon it, affixed above the smoked chimneypiece: “‘Who is this? “Lady Dedlock.” Ha! A very good likeness in its way, but it wants force of character.’”

Bleak House serial cover, 1852.
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