A most extraordinary change seemed to come over it by Thomas Nast (1873)

Bibliographical Note

The illustration appears in the American Edition of Charles Dickens's The Posthumous Papers of The Pickwick Club, Chapter XIV, "Comprising a Brief Description of the Company at The Peacock Assembled; and a Tale Told by a Bag-man," page 86. Wood-engraving, 4 inches high by 5 ½ inches wide (10.2 cm high by 13.3 cm wide), vignetted, half-page; referencing text on the previous page; descriptive headline: "Silence for the Chair" (p. 87). New York: Harper & Bros., Franklin Square, 1873.

Scanned image, colour correction, sizing, 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.]

Context of the Illustration: A Supernatural but Amusing Inset Narrative

"I may as well see one real chair, as two or three complete sets of false ones," said Tom, bringing out his head from under the bedclothes. There it was, plainly discernible by the light of the fire, looking as provoking as ever.

"'Tom gazed at the chair; and, suddenly as he looked at it, a most extraordinary change seemed to come over it. The carving of the back gradually assumed the lineaments and expression of an old, shrivelled human face; the damask cushion became an antique, flapped waistcoat; the round knobs grew into a couple of feet, encased in red cloth slippers; and the whole chair looked like a very ugly old man, of the previous century, with his arms akimbo. Tom sat up in bed, and rubbed his eyes to dispel the illusion. No. The chair was an ugly old gentleman; and what was more, he was winking at Tom Smart. [Chapter XIV, "Comprising a Brief Description of the Company at The Peacock Assembled; and a Tale Told by a Bag-man," page 86]

Commentary: An Interpolated Tale of the Supernatural

With a greater number of illustrations than the November 1837 volume, the Household Edition on both sides of the Atlantic (1873-74) presented the illustrators of The Pickwick Papers with the opportunity to provide realisations of moments in the interpolated tales, in addition to "The Goblin Who Stole the Sexton," which Phiz admirably illustrated in the January 1837 serial number. In the case of the seventh short story that Dickens wrote and published in 1836, which is also the fourth interpolated tale of the novel, "The Bagman's Story" about travelling salesman Tom Smart and the talkative chair, both Hablot Knight Browne and Thomas Nast provided half-page composite woodblock engravings. In each woodcut, the dreamer sits up in bed in his nightgown and nightcap, apparently wide awake (despite the effects of half-a-dozen tumblers of punch after a ride through wind and rain) in an old inn on the Marlborough Downs. In conversing with the elderly chair in his bedroom, Tom learns a secret that will enable Tom to eliminate his rival for the hand of the wealthy, attractive widow who is the inn's kindly landlady — very much an anticipation of the comely widow in the 1843 picaresque novel Martin Chuzzlewit.

Part of the anticipatory set which makes the story enjoyable is that, at its opening, the reader already knows the protagonist will encounter a talking chair because of the presence of an informative illustration — The chair was an ugly old gentleman; and what was more, he was winking at Tom Smart by Phiz for British readers, and A most extraordinary change seemed to come over it by Nast for Americans. Thus, the Household Edition reader is prepared for the miraculous transformation in advance of encountering the scene in the Chapman and Hall text; in the American Household Edition, although the illustration occurs on the same page as the text, the typical reader probably processes the illustration prior to reading the accompanying passage, even if he or she has already resisted the overwhelming temptation to see what illustrations will occur within the chapter before he or she actually begins to read it.

The behaviour and attitude of the talking chair enable the reader to suspend disbelief long enough to enjoy the poetic justice of the would-be bigamist's being discredited by the letter he has foolishly left in his trouser-pocket for Tom to discover — with the aid of the old chair — and deploy against him. Although both Nast and Phiz have elected to realise the same scene, there are some differences in their treatment, as Phiz makes the remarkable chair the centre of his picture, while Nast has chosen to focus on the protagonist instead by giving him greater prominence and showing him unobscured by bed curtains. The artists have also realised the magical chair with differing degrees of success, for Nast's chair is almost entirely an old man of eighteenth-century vintage (the setting being approximately 1750), whereas Phiz's is merely a chair with a face that renders Tom curious rather than, as in Nast's illustration, startled.

Perhaps the most significant difference lies in Nast's characterisation of the dreamer, Tom Smart, who appears to be an alert young man in the Phiz illustration, but a torpid, heavy-jowled, middle-aged figure in the Nast illustration. The episode in which Tom attempts to kiss the pretty chambermaid who lighting him to his room supports Phiz's interpretation of Tom Smart as handsome and vivacious: a young man out to make his fortune, and win the hand of the wealthy widow.

Another approach: Phiz's ghostly visitation scene in the British Household Edition (1873)

Phiz's approach to this episode in the novel is completely consistent with Nast's, but both his dreamer and transformed chair are a little more animated in The chair was an ugly old gentleman; and what was more, he was winking at Tom Smart.

Related Materials: Dickens's Short Fiction, 1833-68

Other artists who illustrated this work, 1836-1910

Related Material


Cohen, Jane Rabb. Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators. Columbus: Ohio State U. P., 1980.

Dickens, Charles. "Pickwick Papers. Illustrated by Robert Seymour and Hablot Knight Browne. London: Chapman & Hall, 1836-37.

Dickens, Charles. The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. Illustrated by Sol Eytinge, Jr. Engraved by A. V. S. Anthony. The Diamond Edition. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1867.

Dickens, Charles. The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. The Household Edition. Illustrated by Thomas Nast. New York: Harper and Brothers 1873.

Dickens, Charles. Pickwick Papers. Illustrated by Hablot Knight Browne ('Phiz'). The Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1874.

Patten, Robert L. "The Art of Pickwick's Interpolated Tales." ELH 34 (1967): 349-66.

Thomas, Deborah A. Dickens and the Short Story. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.

Last modified 5 November 2019