Stephen Blackpool recovered from the Old Hell Shaft

[Walker's 1868 wood engraving appears opposite p. 151 in Dickens's Hard Times for These Times.]

Walker's fourth plate is the most dramatic. The artist has chosen to show neither the mouth of the shaft nor the windlass used moments before in the rescue, but focuses on the moment when Rachel bends down to hold Stephen' s broken right hand: "She stooped down on the grass at his side, and bent over him until her eyes were between his and the sky, for he could not so much as turn them to look at her" (Book Three, Ch. 6). However, in the interests of staging Walker has her use her right hand to gently clasp Stephen's left as he lies, like Christ in the manger, on a bed of straw. Sissy Jupe must be the crying woman turned away from us since the other, centre, resembles Louisa in the first plate; the clean-shaven gentleman whose hand she holds cannot be the bearded Bounderby of the first plate, and so must be her father: "Standing hand-in-hand, they both looked down upon the solemn countenance." Apparently in the text Rachel is one one side of Stephen, Louisa on the other, but Walker has disposed the figures so that all facing forward, placing Gradgrind at the centre even though the letter-press indicates he is not present at the moment bends down to touch Stephen. Despite the sobbing of the women, the scene is imbued with the sacred stillness of a Renaissance Lamentation scene such as Giotto's in the Arena Chapel, Padua, the torch to the left of the plate pointing upward much as the rock does in the Giotto fresco, while Rachel, like Mary in the biblical scene, bends her face towards the victim's.

Curiously, aside from the angels hovering above Giotto's scene, "The Lamentation" contains nineteen figures--precisely the number in Walker' s plate, but whereas Giotto's Christ is parallel with the baseline, Walker has shown Stephen on an angle, so that his feet are closer to us than the rest of his body. Dickens mentions in specific terms only a few members of the crowd: Sissy, Rachael, Mr. Gradgrind, Louisa, Mr. Bounderby, and "the whelp," a surgeon, the crew of the windlass, the pitman, and (as in Giotto) "the women who wept aloud." Why Walker has chosen to include a child beside the figure of Gradgrind is unclear. Like young Tom, Bounderby is not evident; the gentleman beside the torch is probably the surgeon.

That the sun has already set is implied by the torch, not mentioned in the letter-press, which focuses upon the star rising in the "night sky." The torchlight plays in chiaroscuro upon the faces of those in front while those behind are obscured by the growing gloom. Thus, from the middle of the preceding page (150) to the bottom of the facing page, the reader-viewer can alternate between verbal and visual texts, comparing and contrasting the competing narratives of Stephen' s final moments.

Since the plates reflect a careful reading of the letter-press, the obvious errors in captioning are somewhat disconcerting in that "Rachel" and "Tom Bounderby" undermine the authority of Walker's realisations. How these errors crept into the work is a matter of conjecture that the final volume of the Pilgrim Edition of Dickens' s correspondence may elucidate.

Related Materials

Reference List

Dickens, Charles. Hard Times and Pictures from Italy. One vol. London: Chapman and Hall [1875?].

Hammerton, J. A. The Dickens Picture-Book. London: Educational Book [1910].

Last modified March 12, 2002