On The Dark Road by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne). 16.3 cm wide by 9.5 cm high. Illustration for Dickens's Dombey and Son, Chapter 55, facing p. 592. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

Image scan, caption, and commentary by Philip V. Allingham. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]

Passage Illustrated

"Listen, my friend. I am much hurried. Let us see how fast we can travel! The faster, the more money there will be to drink. Off we go then! Quick!"

"Halloa! whoop! Halloa! Hi!" Away, at a gallop, over the black landscape, scattering the dust and dirt like spray!

The clatter and commotion echoed to the hurry and discordance of the fugitive's ideas. Nothing clear without, and nothing clear within. Objects flitting past, merging into one another, dimly descried, confusedly lost sight of, gone! Beyond the changing scraps of fence and cottage immediately upon the road, a lowering waste. Beyond the shifting images that rose up in his mind and vanished as they showed themselves, a black expanse of dread and rage and baffled villainy. Occasionally, a sigh of mountain air came from the distant Jura, fading along the plain. Sometimes that rush which was so furious and horrible, again came sweeping through his fancy, passed away, and left a chill upon his blood.

The lamps, gleaming on the medley of horses' heads, jumbled with the shadowy driver, and the fluttering of his cloak, made a thousand indistinct shapes, answering to his thoughts. Shadows of familiar people, stooping at their desks and books, in their remembered attitudes; strange apparitions of the man whom he was flying from, or of Edith; repetitions in the ringing bells and rolling wheels, of words that had been spoken; confusions of time and place, making last night a month ago, a month ago last night—home now distant beyond hope, now instantly accessible; commotion, discord, hurry, darkness, and confusion in his mind, and all around him. — Hallo! Hi! away at a gallop over the black landscape; dust and dirt flying like spray, the smoking horses snorting and plunging as if each of them were ridden by a demon, away in a frantic triumph on the dark road — whither? — Chapter 55, "Rob the Grinder loses his Place," p. 590-591.


According to Valerie Lester Browne, this was Phiz's first attempt at a classic 'dark plate', in this case to show the futility of the villainous Carker's trying to cheat death as he makes his way through France to England to confront Mr. Dombey. The 1848 illustration, moreover, engages the viewer with the sharpness and vivacity of the figures and the prancing horses — horses having been from his earliest compositions one of Phiz's strengths. Better reproductions of this delightful illustration convey the aerial perspective through making clear the line of Lombardy poplars running off to the horizon, upper right.

For the illustration, 'On a dark road,' Phiz turned the plate horizontally and used a ruling machine, which pushed a bank of needles across the wax ground on the plate, creating a background of narrow stripes, akin to mezzotinting. (The technique is sometimes referred to as 'machine tinting'.) He then drew into dark areas to make them blacker and produced a variety of greys by stopping-out other areas. To retain the dazzling whites, he burnished away the ruled lines and stopped out those areas completely on the first and all subsequent visits to the acid.

Phiz's use of a ruling machine was a divergence from the more popular aquatint method used by other etchers. He may have disliked aquatint's time-consuming use of resin, a messy substance which, if inhaled, could injure the lungs. With his ruling machine he created tones with less nuisance. (After his experiments on Lever's Roland Cashel (1850), he no longer used the ruling machine for light topics; the brights were never bright enough.)

'On the Dark Road' is one of the most completely successful of all Phiz's images. A long, slow diagonal slices down fro receding poplar trees in thew upper right to the coach and standing figure of windswept Carker, and moves on down through the coachman (who provides an opposing diagonal with his whip) to the four horses racing towards the bottom left of the picture. Phiz took enormous technical care with the plate, and its atmosphere of menace is enhanced by the addition of details: a black bird, a dark pool, a lowering sky, a leaning finger-post, and the rolling eyes and hot breath of the horses. [Browne Lester, p. 135-136]

The dark plate becomes ubiquitous among Browne's etchings in the late forties and through the fifties, and it is as well to explain the technique at this point. In its most basic form it provides a way of adding mechanically ruled, very closely spaced lines to the steel in order to produce a "tint," a grayish shading of the plate. It is this simple method that Browne occasionally used for authors other than Dickens. But in general he made more subtle and complex use of the dark plate. . . . . The highlights, areas which were to remain white, would be stopped out with varnish, and then the biting could commence. Those areas which were to be lightest in tint would be stopped out after a short bite, the next lightest after a longer bite, and so on down to the very blackest areas — which would never, except where wholly exposed by the needle, become totally black, but would shimmer with the tiny lights of the unexposed bits between the ruled lines; the darkest sky in On the Dark Road has these little lights, while the dark parts of the puddle have none, apparently having been exposed to the acid by the needle rather than the ruling machine. [Steig, p. 106-107]

An ominous and menacing atmosphere surrounds the open carriage or barouche as the onset of darkness implies impending doom for Carker, although the figures and horses in this earliest Phiz dark plate are sharply delineated, and the four horses (hardly heavy carriage-horses, but spirited racing steeds in harness) passing rapidly through the French countryside are individualised. Phiz has the open coach rapidly approaching the viewer, with an apparent break in the clouds (right) throwing the face of the standing figure, the lead horse, the body of the postillion's horse, and the vegetation at the side of the road (lower right) into fleeting sunlight in a powerful chiaroscuro that contributes to the melodramatic effect of the illustration as a whole as dark and light compete for dominance in the plate, in which Carker's head (turned, as it were, towards the past rather than the unknown future) is the pinnacle of the pyramid.


Dickens, Charles. Dombey and Son. Illustrated by Hablot Knight Browne ("Phiz"). The London Edition, Volume 4. London: Caxton & Ballantyne, 1901.

Hammerton, J. A. "Chapter 16: Dombey and Son." The Dickens Picture-Book. The Charles Dickens Library Edition. Illustrated by Harry Furniss. 18 vols. London: Educational Book Co., 1910. Vol. 17. Pp. 294-337.

Kitton, Frederic George. Dickens and His Illustrators: Cruikshank, Seymour, Buss, "Phiz," Cattermole, Leech, Doyle, Stanfield, Maclise, Tenniel, Frank Stone, Landseer, Palmer, Topham, Marcus Stone, and Luke Fildes. Amsterdam: S. Emmering, 1972. Re-print of the London 1899 edition.

Lester, Valerie Browne. Ch. 12, "Work, Work, Work." Phiz: The Man Who Drew Dickens. London: Chatto and Windus, 2004. Pp. 128-160.

Steig, Michael. Dickens and Phiz. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.

Last modified 13 June 2016