"Dumbledumb-Dreary!" in Chapter X of "Scenes" — "The River," in Dickens's Sketches by Boz Illustrative of Every-day Life and Every-Day People (1877), middle of page 127. Wood-engraving; 4 ¼ by 5 ¼ inches (10.2 cm high by 13.4 cm wide), framed. Frost had not seen a steam excursion on the Thames when he produced this illustration for the Harper and Brothers volume in the Household Edition, but he had undoubtedly been witness to family gatherings in which young children performed for the amusement of their parents and relatives.

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Passage Illustrated: The Dancing Child and the Harpist

When we get down about as far as Blackwall, and begin to move at a quicker rate, the spirits of the passengers appear to rise in proportion. Old women who have brought large wicker hand-baskets with them, set seriously to work at the demolition of heavy sandwiches, and pass round a wine-glass, which is frequently replenished from a flat bottle like a stomach-warmer, with considerable glee: handing it first to the gentleman in the foraging-cap, who plays the harp — partly as an expression of satisfaction with his previous exertions, and partly to induce him to play "Dumbledumb-deary," for ‘"Alick" to dance to; which being done, Alick, who is a damp earthy child in red worsted socks, takes certain small jumps upon the deck, to the unspeakable satisfaction of his family circle. ["Scenes," Chapter X, "The River," pp. 127-128]

Commentary: The Adaptable Sketch: People and Places

Sketch, a short composition, dramatic, narrative, or descriptive. In the theatre, a sketch is a brief, self-contained dramatic scene, usually comic. As a kind of prose narrative, a sketch is more modest than a short story, showing less development in plot or characterization. The term is also applied o brief descriptions of people (the 'character sketch') or places. — Chris Baldick, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, page 206.

The form of the sketch, popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, particularly as fillers in journals and newspapers, does not necessarily involve the key element of a short story: plot. Nevertheless, the sketch of character or scene, with the focus on the actors or the setting, offered the writer plenty of opportunity for description and incisive social commentary, as is evident in both the Dickens travelogues, American Notes for General Circulation (1842) and Pictures from Italy (May 1846). Such is the case with the tenth sketch under the heading of "Scenes," originally published as "Sketches of London, No. 13" in the Evening Chronicle on 6 June 1835. Although Dickens focusses on amateur rowing-parties on the Thames in the opening of the sketch, and provides a strong sense of the river that he will later use as an atmospheric backdrop to the action of such novels as David Copperfield (1849-50), Great Expectations (1861), and Our Mutual Friend (1864-65), both Household Edition illustrators, Fred Barnard in England and Arthur B. Frost in America, have chosen as their subject the passengers and on-deck activities of the Gravesend Boat, a steam-driven paddle-wheeler whose regular route was Westminster Stairs to the port of Gravesend in the Essex Estuary, Kent, some 21 miles downriver from its starting point at St. Katherine's Dock, London Bridge. The resemblance between Frost's steam excursion illustration "Dumbledumb-deary!" and Fred Barnard's illustration for the same sketch, The Gravesend Boat (wood-engraving, 1876), cannot be coincidental. The juxtaposition of the characters and in particular the illustrator's emphasizing the dancing child and the harpist suggest that one artist had seen and was attempting to emulate the other's work. Although both pieces may be dated to 1876, in all likelihood Barnard executed his designs the year before, and it is plausible that Chapman and Hall sent early proofs to Harper and Brothers in New York so that the American publishers could give their version an appearance and layout consistent with those of the London edition.

Neither Household Edition illustrator had the benefit of a model from the gifted caricaturist George Cruikshank, illustrator of the first and second series of Sketches by Boz, although that first edition does contain a pair of illustrations for "The Steam Excursion" with which both Barnard and Frost would likely have been familiar: The Steam Excursion — Pt. 1 and The Steam Excursion — Pt. 2 for the seventh chapter in "Tales" (single-volume, 1839), the former involving a concert set on the deck and the latter a bout of general seasickness in cabin below. Although the extended sketch occurs in the Thames Estuary, Cruikshank gives no sense whatsoever of the geographical backdrop, whereas Barnard in The Gravesend Boat suggests the proximity of the vessel to the shore by including buildings in the background, upper left. In Frost's illustration, the woman nearest the dancing child, studying his movements appreciatively, has possession of the "flat bottle like a stomach-warmer," but Frost also gives prominence to the two other bonneted women, immediately behind the diminutive dancer. Only one of the gentlemen in the background seems interested in Alick's performance. Barnard's treatment gives a much stronger sense of the other passengers, emphasizes the young couple (right), and adds a fiddler accompanying the harpist, filling out the composition with the individualised male passengers actively engaged with one another; one studies the shore with his telescope, another reads the paper, and a third, who is smoking a long-stemmed pipe, seems mildly interested in the dancer — he rounds out the "family circle" who are little Alick's audience in the text. Frost, in contrast, details only the figures in the foreground: Alick, the three appreciative, middle-aged women, and the single musician. One has a sense that much more is happening in the crowded canvas of Fred Barnard.

Fred Barnard's 1876 version of the scene in the British Household Edition

Above: The bustling scene of activity aboard the Thames estuary steamer: The Gravesend Boat in Sketches by Boz.


Baldick, Chris. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford and New York: Oxford U. P., 1991.

Barnard, J. "Fred" (il.). Charles Dickens's Sketches by Boz, with thirty-four illustrations. The Works of Charles Dickens: The Household Edition. 22 vols. London: Chapman and Hall, 1876. Volume 13.

Bentley, Nicolas, Michael Slater, and Nina Burgis. The Dickens Index. New York and Oxford: Oxford U. P., 1990.

Dickens, Charles. "Scenes," Chapter 8, "Doctors' Commons." Christmas Books and Sketches by Boz, Illustrative of Every-day Life and Every-day People. Illustrated by Sol Eytinge, Jr. The Diamond Edition. Boston: James R. Osgood, 1875 [rpt. of 1867 Ticknor & Fields edition]. Pp. 267-69.

Dickens, Charles. "Doctors' Commons." Pictures from Italy, Sketches by Boz and American Notes. Illustrated by Thomas Nast and Arthur B. Frost. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1877 (copyrighted in 1876).

Dickens, Charles. "Doctors' Commons." American Notes for General Circulation and Pictures from Italy. Illustrated by J. Gordon Thomson and A. B. Frost. London: Chapman and Hall, 1880. Pp. 120-22.

Last modified 28 May 2019