Seymour was used to the imperatives of professional life, and it seems that it was essentially anxiety and overwork which eventually killed him. He was in any case of disturbed mind at the time [of his suicide] -- in later life Dickens, who had always professed great regard for him, told the story that some days before his death Seymour had asked his wife to try on a widow's cap. [Peter Ackroyd, Dickens, 182]

A popular and prolific illustrator and satirical cartoonist before Dickens burst upon the London scene in 1834, Robert Seymour (1798?-1836) specialized in sporting subjects. Influenced by the work of caricaturist George Cruikshank (1792-1878), Seymour gave up a career as a draftsman to devote himself to illustration, beginning under the pseudonym "Short Shanks" (in deference to Cruikshank). By 1830, his political caricatures were widely circulated through the satirical journals Figaro in London and The Looking-Glass, or McLean's Monthly. Highly strung and extremely sensitive about his status as an artist, Seymour was emotionally and mentally unstable, having suffered a nervous breakdown in 1830.

His first Dickens illustration accompanied an extract from the early sketch "The Bloomsbury Christening" in Seymour's Comic Album (1834). For the early short story "The Tuggses at Ramsgate" Seymour provided two plates for Chapman and Hall's Library of Fiction (April, 1836). In 1835, Edward Chapman (1824-1880) and William Hall (1801?-1847) published a series of Seymour cartoons in the Squib Annual of Poetry, Politics, and Personalities with great success. With Seymour's sporting illustrations in mind, the partners now approached the up-and-coming young writer Charles Dickens to provide a series of "sketches" to accompany a series of comic "Cockney sporting" plates by Seymour. Hall in person made the offer of 14 3s. 6d. per month to Dickens to write "The Adventures of the Nimrod Club" on 10 February, 1836, just two days after Sketches by Boz was published; in a letter to his fiancée, Catherine Hogarth, Dickens reported "the emolument . . . too tempting to resist." However, the young writer countered that his stories should be the focus of the project and that Seymour's two plates should complement the monthly, serialised text. The first monthly part, in what would become the green wrapper familiar to so many Victorian households, went on sale on 31 March 1836 at the price of one shilling. According to Dickens's conception, Pickwick was a fat, jolly middle-class Londoner reminiscent of Shakespeare's Falstaff, and not the thin rake of Seymour's initial drawing. Of this tense period in the lives of Dickens and the illustrator, Jane Rabb Cohen remarks, "Seymour's brief involvement with him [Dickens] fatally unbalanced his already unsettled mind" (p. 39).

Living at Islington not far from George Cruikshank, Seymour had the opportunity to observe "weekend sportsmen" of the working class, of whom Mr. Winkle is an exemplar in Dickens's novel. Although Seymour may well have had on hand a number of illustrations of such faux-sportsmen in action, he certainly would never have conceived of the kinds of satire which Dickens delivers through the vehicle of a picaresque novel, which tilts not merely a group of Cockney sportsman, but landladies, medical students, local petty authorities, overbearing cabdrivers, and (especially) the law and lawyers.

Seymour's published Sketches (1833-36) attest to his unabated observation of these overequipped, undertrained sportsmen pursuing cats, birds, and stray pigs on foot or on horseback. The artist's sympathies are evident in his work, the animals being far more sensitively portrayed than the Cockneys. Seymour the sportsman may have been snobbishly irritated by these absurd spectacles, but Seymour the artist made valuable use of them. . . . [Cohen 40]

Returning to London and the writing of The Pickwick Papers from his one-week honeymoon in the village of Chalk in Kent, Dickens was disappointed with Seymour's proposed design for the etching to accompany "The Stroller's Tale" in the second number of Pickwick. Although the two had never met before in person, Dickens requested the artist to drop by his rooms at Furnival's Inn to discuss how Seymour's depiction of the characters could be improved. At least twelve years Dickens's senior, Seymour as an established artist realised that the young upstart was damning him with faint praise when the writer extolled the furniture as he offered suggestions for improvement. The meeting of the 18th, intended to be a convivial colloquy with the publishers over a glass of grog, closed with the abrupt departure of the sulky artist.

On 20 April 1836, having seen his project for a monthly series of plates involving the comic misadventures of a club Cockney sportsmen overtaken by young Charles Dickens's "commentary," Seymour returned home to begin a fresh design according to the young writer's instructions; them, humiliated and frustrated, he rushed into the summer-house in his Islington garden, set up his gun with a string on its trigger, and shot himself in the head. Thus, only the first two parts of The Pickwick Papers were illustrated by Seymour, who had completed only one of the three of the four plates for Part Two, and a total of seven plates for the series. The whole project, which depended upon the popularity of the artist, was now in jeopardy. As a replacement, Dickens considered Robert W. Buss (1804-75), who had illustrated "A Little Talk about Spring and the Sweeps" in The Library of Fiction, about to be published in June 1836. Buss therefore provided plates 8 and 9 for Part Three of The Pickwick Papers). However, his ineptitude with steel-engraving led to his dismissal, and Dickens finally but settled on the obviously more capable Hablot Knight Browne (1815-82).

Resources

Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990.

Bentley, Nicholas, Michael Slater, and Nina Burgis. The Dickens Index. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Cohen, Jane Rabb. Chapter 2: "Robert Seymour." Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators. Columbus: Ohio State U. P., 1980. Pp. 39-50.

Cohen, Jane Rabb. Chapter 3: "Robert Buss." Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators. Columbus: Ohio State U. P., 1980. Pp. 51-58.

Dickens, Charles. "Pickwick Papers (1836-37). Illustrated by Robert Seymour, R. W. Buss, and Hablot Knight Browne. London: Chapman & Hall. Part Three (June 1836).

Johannsen, Albert. Phiz: Illustrations from the Novels of Charles Dickens. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956.

Pearson, Hesketh. Dickens: His Character, Comedy and Career. London: Cassell, 1949. rpt. 1988.

Purdue, David. "Dickens's Illustrators: Robert Seymour." http://www.fidnet.com/~dap1955/dickens/illustrations.html


Last modified 16 August 2019