The Room with the Portrait (facing p. 46) — originally, Phiz's fourth illustration for Dickens's Little Dorrit, Authentic Edition, 1901. A framed dark plate. Steel engraving for Book the First, "Riches," Chapter 5, "Family Affairs" (originally in Part 2, January 1856). 9.3 cm high x 13.8 cm wide, vignetted. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Scanned image and text 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.]

Passage Illustrated

In the course of the day, too, Arthur looked through the whole house. Dull and dark he found it. The gaunt rooms, deserted for years upon years, seemed to have settled down into a gloomy lethargy from which nothing could rouse them again. The furniture, at once spare and lumbering, hid in the rooms rather than furnished them, and there was no colour in all the house; such colour as had ever been there, had long ago started away on lost sunbeams—got itself absorbed, perhaps, into flowers, butterflies, plumage of birds, precious stones, what not. There was not one straight floor from the foundation to the roof; the ceilings were so fantastically clouded by smoke and dust, that old women might have told fortunes in them better than in grouts of tea; the dead-cold hearths showed no traces of having ever been warmed but in heaps of soot that had tumbled down the chimneys, and eddied about in little dusky whirlwinds when the doors were opened. In what had once been a drawing-room, there were a pair of meagre mirrors, with dismal processions of black figures carrying black garlands, walking round the frames; but even these were short of heads and legs, and one undertaker-like Cupid had swung round on its own axis and got upside down, and another had fallen off altogether. The room Arthur Clennam's deceased father had occupied for business purposes, when he first remembered him, was so unaltered that he might have been imagined still to keep it invisibly, as his visible relict kept her room up-stairs; Jeremiah Flintwinch still going between them negotiating. His picture, dark and gloomy, earnestly speechless on the wall, with the eyes intently looking at his son as they had looked when life departed from them, seemed to urge him awfully to the task he had attempted; but as to any yielding on the part of his mother, he had now no hope, and as to any other means of setting his distrust at rest, he had abandoned hope a long time. Down in the cellars, as up in the bed-chambers, old objects that he well remembered were changed by age and decay, but were still in their old places; even to empty beer-casks hoary with cobwebs, and empty wine-bottles with fur and fungus choking up their throats. There, too, among unused bottle-racks and pale slants of light from the yard above, was the strong room stored with old ledgers, which has as musty and corrupt a smell as if they were regularly balanced, in the dead small hours, by a nightly resurrection of old book-keepers. — Book the First, "Poverty," Chapter 5, "Family Affairs," p. 46-47.


The Room with the Portrait, (Book 1, Chapter 5), like the other plate for the second monthly instalment, Mr. Flintwinch mediates as a friend of the family, likewise set in the dilapidated Clennam house in London, again is carefully etched, in the manner usually described as a dark plate, which Phiz had used so effectively to establish a foreboding, mysterious, and menacing atmosphere in Dickens's previous novel, Bleak House. John Harvey describes such mood-setting plates as differing somewhat in intention and effect from those that portray characters. Here, for example, the obscured study with writing desk and cabinet becomes a metaphor for Arthur's estranged relationship with his dead father and moribund mother — implying, too, that some sort of mystery surrounds his father, whose portrait, dominating the room from the upper left, Arthur studies from the doorway. He is indistinct, but his face bears a strong resemblance to that of the man in the portrait. Only a little light penetrates the gloom, and bills and registers are strewn about, as if nobody has cared for the room, or even entered it since the owner's (apparently unanticipated) demise.

What would usually be background is now the centre of interest. Human figures, when present, are small and insignificant, while of the ten dark plates the first four and last two [in Bleak House] have no figures at all . . . On Browne's part the development of this mode shows the depth of his response to Dickens's writing at this time, for it is ideally suited to conveying the oppressive gatherings of fog and darkness in human affairs so powerfully presented in the novel. Browne's small fugitive figures reflect not only Lady Dedlock's situation, but also the novel's general intimation of the pitiable helplessness and isolation of hounded human beings. [Harvey, 152-153]

Although Phiz is applying the dark plate technique to a wholly different story, the thematic intention — to leave the reader, like the protagonist in the picture literally as well as figuratively "in the dark" — is similar. As in the opening serial illustration, The Birds in the Cage this strategy is not without its risks as the viewer-reader must struggle to relate the text to specific objects in the dimly-lit room and to identify with the sketchily realised figure in the darkened room, although the juxtaposition of plate and passage realised renders this process a little easier than in the original serial or "part publication," in which the illustrations appeared ahead of the text of the monthly instalment, all neatly tucked into the green wrapper.

"The Room with the Portrait" (Bk. 1, ch. 5) is a pendant to the episode in the preceding plate, as Arthur goes to his late father's room and sees the portrait of the dead man "with the eves intently looking at his son as they had looked when life departed from them," and which "seemed to urge him awfully to the task he had attempted" (Bk 1, ch. 5, p. 40). The darker of the duplicate plates goes rather far in the direction of obscurity, and many readers may prefer the lighter one with more distinct details, yet the darkness of Arthur's face in the murkier plate strikes me as more effectively expressing the fact that Arthur himself is becoming engulfed in a darkness of mind and spirit. The illustration as a whole is a successful follow-up to its companion, representing the unremitting darkness Arthur has found in the bosom of his family, and his sense of helplessness against it. It also again suggests the novel's central image, the prison — literally the enclosed space and psychologically the identity from which one cannot escape as Mr. Dorrit never escapes his prisoner role, and as Clennam feels trapped in the joyless Puritan acquisitiveness of his family. — Steig, Chapter 6: Bleak House and Little Dorrit: Iconography of Darkness," p. 163-164.

Arthur Clennam, Mrs. Clennam, and Amy Dorrit from Other Early Editions

Left: An early American visual interpretation of Arthur Clennam and Little Dorrit, Darley's Joyful Tidings. Centre: Sol Eytinge, Junior's study of the mother and son, Mrs. Clennam and Arthur Clennam. Right: The Harrold Copping illustration of Little Dorrit's receiving news of the inheritance, Arthur Clenham Tells the Good News. (1924) [Click on the images to enlarge them.]

Above: James Mahoney's 1873 engraving of the initial meeting of Arthur Clennam and Little Dorrit,​This refection of oysters was not presided over by Affery, but by the girl who had appeared why the bell was rung. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]


Dickens, Charles. Little Dorrit. Illustrated by Hablot Knight Browne ("Phiz"). The Authentic Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1901 [rpt. of the 1868 volume, based on the 30 May 1857 volume].

Dickens, Charles. Little Dorrit. Frontispieces by Felix Octavius Carr Darley and Sir John Gilbert. The Household Edition. 55 vols. New York: Sheldon & Co., 1863. 4 vols.

Dickens, Charles. Little Dorrit. Illustrated by Sol Eytinge, Jr. The Diamond Edition. Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1867. 14 vols.

Dickens, Charles. Little Dorrit. Illustrated by James Mahoney. The Household Edition. 22 vols. London: Chapman and Hall, 1873. Vol. 5.

Dickens, Charles. Little Dorrit. Illustrated by Harry Furniss. The Charles Dickens Library Edition. 18 vols. London: Educational Book, 1910. Vol. 12.

Hammerton, J. A. "Chapter 19: Little Dorrit." The Dickens Picture-Book. The Charles Dickens Library Edition. Illustrated by Harry Furniss. 18 vols. London: Educational Book Co., 1910. Vol. 17. Pp. 398-427.

Harvey, John. Victorian Novelists and their Illustrators. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1970.

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. Phiz: The Man Who Drew Dickens. London: Chatto and Windus, 2004.

Matz, B. W., and Kate Perugini. Character Sketches from Dickens. Illustrated by Harrold Copping. London: Raphael Tuck, 1924.

Steig, Michael. Dickens and Phiz. Bloomington & London: Indiana U.P., 1978.

Vann, J. Don. Victorian Novels in Serial. New York: The Modern Language Association, 1985.

Last modified 21 May 2016