The Conjurors Interrupted by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne), sixteenth serial illustration for William Harrison Ainsworth's Life and Adventures of Mervyn Clitheroe, Part 8 (March 1858), Book the Third, Chapter I, "How the Two Wizards of Owlarton Grange Raised a Spirit that they did not Expect," facing page 256. Steel etching, 10 cm high by 17.6 cm wide, framed. Source: Ainsworth's Works (1882), originally published in the eighth serial instalment by George Routledge and Sons, London. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

Passage Illustrated: Comic Relief with Old Hazy and Simon Pownall

The shades of night had fallen when I rose to take leave of my humble but hospitable entertainers. I had left my horse at the Nag's Head in the village, and Ned offered to row me across the mere and land me at the foot of the church, which would save me a mile's walk; besides, as tbe night was extremely fine, with bright moonlight on the water, he thought I should prefer that plan.

On entering the garden the two mysterious individuals plunged into [a] long alley, formed of clipped yew-trees, leading in the direction of the summer-house. I followed, taking care to keep out of sight. The alley once gained, indeed, I was tolerably secure from observation, for it was so dark, owing to the height and thickness of its hedges, that I could scarcely discern the two figures moving on before me.

Arrived at an archway, however, the pair turned off, and when I next beheld them, they were standing together in a retired corner of the lawn. From the preparations they were now making, it was evident that some mysterious rites were about to be enacted. The large white sheet stamped with magical characters, which I had seen, on a previous occasion, in Simon Pownall’s room, was spread upon the lawn, and they both seemed occupied in studying its cabalistic signs.

The spot selected for the ceremonial seemed suitable enough. It was a part of the lawn furthest removed from the hall, and screened by a group of shorn trees, which, by a little stretch of imagination, might be taken for men and animals suddenly transformed by the power of enchantment. On the right was a gigantic bear reared on its hind legs, and with outstretched paws prepared to close with a huntsman, who was attacking it with an axe. Behind was a gigantic figure, with a long beard, probably meant to represent a Druid. Then came an evil angel with wide, outspread wings. Then a grotesque figure. Then a faun playing Pandean pipes, with goats skipping before him; and lastly, a cock crowing on a tree.

Surrounded by these mute witnesses of their doings, the mysterious pair proceeded with their performance. The chief wizard, whom I took to be Simon, produced a wallet from under his cloak, and brought out a human skull and cross bones, the dried skins of toads, lizards, adders, and other reptiles, and disposed tlem in a circie round the cloth. While he was thus employed, the second wizard produced a little iron trivet with some combustibles; and these he placed outside the mystic ring.

The pair of conjurors then marched thrice round the magic circle, and seemed from their gestures to be muttering spells. This done, they paused, and the second wizard, whom I took for Old Hazy, brought forth a large book bound in black parchment, which I at once recognised as the grimoire he had shown to me in his sanctum.

Opening this magical volume, he pronounced some strange sounding words from it, which might be intended as an incantation, while his companion stepped into the magic circle, and began to trace certain lines upon it with the points of his fingers. By this time my patience having become exhausted, I determined to put an end to the scene. When, therefore, the second wizard summoned some spirit, with a tremendous name, to appear, I did not wait for the response, but rushing forward, and shouting out, "You have raised a spirit that you did not expect!" I snatched the grimoire from his hands, and with the ponderous volume buffeted his companion soundly on the heat and shoulders.

In doing so, however, I knocked off the individual's hat, when to my great surprise and vexation I found it was Old Hazy himself whom I had thus maitreated. At the same time the old gentleman, who had been struck speechless with terror by my sudden appearance, found his voice, and implored me to desist. Simon Pownall had not waited for me to find out my mistake, but took nimbly to his heels, flying in the direction of the summer-house. Before, however, he could climb the mound on which it was situated, I was after him, when flnding himself hard pressed, the wily fox changed his plan, and ran on till he reached the edge of the moat, into which he unhesitatingly plunged, and swam across to the further side.

I was debating whether to follow him, but by this time Old Hazy having come up, entreated me to let him go; and before I could disengage myself, Simon had disappeared — thus, for the second time, eluding me. [Book the Third, Chapter I, “How the Two Wizards of Owlarton Grange Raised a Spirit that they did not Expect,” pp. 255-6]

Commentary: The Conjurors Interrupted

In Ainsworth's Mervyn Clitheroe (1858), image after image has the moon casting an eerie, watery light. Trees dance and take on threatening, human characteristics; lightning rips down from the sky; and the title page (plate 29) manages the extraordinary feat of bringing to mind at one and the same time Phiz's own image of the death of Quilp and Géricault's The Raft of the 'Medusa'.

Valerie Browne Lester notes that the original conception behind the illustration was Ainsworth's, for he proposed the second subject for the March 1858 illustrations directly to Phiz in correspondence the previous month:

Writing to the artist, in February 1858, concerning the designs for Mervyn Clitheroe Ainsworth had said: ' . . . I hope the present subject will suit you. "The Conjurors Interrupted" will be effective if I am not mistaken. Pray tell your plate-printer to send me proofs early (no matter how wrought) that I may prevent any variations between text and he illustration' [David C. Thomson, p. 177]. In "The Conjurors Interrupted" (plate 30) text and image are inextricable, and the subject certainly suited Phiz, licensing him to anthropomorphise trees and shrubs. . . . . Phiz set to work enthusiastically, turning trees and shrubs into menacing, sentient beings. [Valerie Browne Lester, 167-8]

The principal figures in the plate, the Conjurors whom Mervyn interrupts in their obscure and dubious ritual, are his elderly friend and owner of Owlarton Grange, Old Hazy, and "Dr. Hooker," Malpas Sale's confederate, the deceptive Simon Pownall. The problem for Mervyn, however, is that, in the darkness of the hedged space he fails to distinguish between honest but eccentric Mr. Hazilrigge and the slippery confidence man — and attacks the wrong conjuror. In a swirl of energy as befits his trickster nature, Simon Pownall becomes one with the enshrouding darkness to make good his escape. Thus, Phiz has two contrasting elements with which to work: the ominous topiary figures in the backdrop, underscoring the arcane nature of the pre-Christian rites which Old Hazy (centre) and Pownall (retreating in a flurry of his cape, right of centre) are about to perform, and the comic mixup in which Old Hazy, having lost his conjuror's hat, takes a drubbing with his own book of spells, as Pownall escapes yet again without revealing the secret of the missing will which (readers assume) will enrich Mervyn and dispossess Malpas. Phiz uses chiaroscuro subtly in this dark plate to bring out the central figures and the cabalistic sheet, leaving the topiary figures and the tricker obscured in darkness.

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.] Click on the image to enlarge it.


Ainsworth, William Harrison. The Life and Adventures of Mervyn Clitheroe (1851-2; 1858). Illustrated by Hablot Knight Browne ('Phiz'). London: Routledge, 1882.

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

Vann, J. Don. "William Harrison Ainsworth. Mervyn Clitheroe, twelve parts in eleven monthly installments, December 1851-March 1852, December 1857-June 1858." New York: MLA, 1985. 27-28

Last modified 23 November 2018