Phiz's Short Program for Ainsworth's The Spendthrift

First published in monthly serialisation in Bentley's Miscellany in nineteen parts from January 1855 through January 1857, The Spendthrift, featuring just eight illustrations by Phiz (Hablot Knight Browne), appeared in volume form in December 1856. This was one of three contemporary books for which Phiz received a commission in 1857, the others being Augustus Mayhew's Paved with Gold, Charles Dickens's Little Dorrit, Theodore Hook's Precepts and Practice — "as well as illustrations for re-editions of the work of Fielding and and Smollett" (Lester, p. 161), namely Henry Fielding's Amelia, Joseph Andrews, and Tom Jones, and Tobias Smollett's Humphry Clinker, Peregrine Pickle, and Roderick Random. However, Phiz was to illustrate only one further Ainsworth novel after Mervyn Clitheroe (continuing into 1858) and The Spendthrift: Ovingdean Grange (1860). The Spendthrift: A Tale, Ainsworth's seventeenth novel, first appeared in volume form just in time for the Christmas book market of 1856 (London: George Routledge, rpt. 1867, and 1892). It has since been republished in The Novels of William Harrison Ainsworth, Vol. XX (Windsor Edition), with photogravure plates instead of Phiz's original composite woodblock engravings (1902).

Since Ainsworth's principal vehicle for publishing his fiction between 1852 and 1854 was Ainsworth's Magazine, he may well have originally intended The Spendthrift for its pages. Although Phiz had been his chief illustrator from July 18944, when he took the post from George Cruikshank, he could not afford illustrations from 1850 until the demise of the periodical in December 1854. The novel belongs to the period of Ainsworth's creative and financial decline after he moved to Brighton from Kensal Lodge, London, in 1853.

On the title-page, Ainsworth quotes Shakespeare's Timon of Athens to focus the reader's attention on the gallant but prodigal protagonist:

No care, no stop! so senseless of expense,
That he will neither know how to maintain it,
Nor cease his flow of riot: Takes no account
How things go from him; nor resumes no care
Of what is to continue: Never mind
Was to be so unwise, to be so kind.

Phiz seems to have revelled in illustrating the period tale as it had such congenial subjects as eighteenth-century fashions, galloping horses, gambling, sword play, vociferous denunciations — and a dashing, profligate hero and a cunning heroine. Despite its two-year run in Bentley's, Phiz's commission amounted to just eight woodblock illustrations, spread out over the nineteen monthly instalments because there were six months in which Ainsworth's novel did not appear and only eight monthly issues carried Phiz's cuts.

Commentary: Phiz at Work, 1855-1860

Whereas Phiz executed the programs of illustration for Mervyn Clitheroe (1851-52; 1858) and A Tale of Two Cities (1859) in his old, caricatural style, albeit somewhat modified in deference to the new taste for realism in illustration, he subsequently seems to have abandoned this style in the wood-engravings for The Spendthrift (1855-57) and Ovingdean Grange (1859-60). Moreover, although he uses the strategy of the dark plate extensively in the steel-engravings for Mervyn Clitheroe and occasionally (as in The Mail, June 1859) in A Tale of Two Cities, he has not attempted this method of steel-engraving for the programs using wood-engravings. As John Buchanan-Brown notes, in his wood-engravings from the mid-1850s onwards, Phiz "was never at home with the technique of woodcutting" (citing Edgar Browne, p. 26) because he did not have recourse to cross-hatching and could not provide subtle background details; in consequence, Phiz tended to increase the use of white space as he emphasized the thin lines in his drawing. These tendencies are quite pronounced in the Routledge cheap editions of Ovingdean Grange and The Spendthrift.

The Hiatus in Monthly Illustrations of The Spendthrift

Apparently Parts Fifteen through Seventeen of The Spendthrift (September through November 1856) carried no illustrations when first published in Bentley's Miscellany (Volume 40), leaving Chapters 36 through 44 with no visual accompaniments in the December 1856 volume. A possible explanation is that the monthly magazine was running other serialisations that also required illustrations — The House of Halliwell (September 1855 through November 1856) by Ellen Price (publishing under the name Mrs. Henry Wood) and Dudley Costello's The Joint-Stock Broker: A Tale of the Day (April 1856 through October 1856).

Biographical Note

In 1857, Browne continued to work on serial illustrations such as his program for Ainsworth's The Spendthrift and Augustus Mayhew's Paved with Gold while he developed engravings and woodcuts for such volumes as George Halse's Queen Loeta and the Mistletoe. Fully seven of the ten titles Phiz illustrated that year involved programs of composite woodblock engravings, which by the late 1850s had become the favoured medium for illustrating both part-publications and volume editions; the notable exception was Phiz's long program for Dickens's Little Dorrit, whose illustrations (except for the wrapper design) are entirely steel engravings. He produced all of this work away from the commercial pressures of London, in Surrey, where he could conveniently avoid the impromptu visits of publishers, their representatives, and importunate authors demanding last-minute changes in his designs. Although he could readily escape his rural studio for an invigorating walk or (more often) a brisk ride on horseback, his income during his dozen years in Surrey was often uncertain, as Valerie Browne Lester explains:

. . . as the years passed new commissions dwindled to almost nothing because he had been outside the city's artistic ring fence too long. The years 1855 and 1856 were particularly lean. Things looked better in 1857 with the publication of Ainsworth's The Spendthrift, Augustus Mayhew's Paved with Gold, Dickens's Little Dorrit, and Hook's Precepts and Practice, as well as illustrations for re-editions of the work of Fielding and Smollett. The surge of work must have raised the Brownes' hopes of remaining in Surrey, but the next year, 1858, was disastrous. Apart from Ainsworth's Mervyn Clitheroe, it brought Phiz a mere smattering of uninspiring work. [Chapter 13, "1859," 161]

Working methods


Ainsworth, William Harrison. The Spendthrift: A Tale. (1857). Illustrated by Phiz; engraved by the Dalziels. Ainsworth's Works. London & New York: George Routledge, 1882.

Buchanan-Brown, John. Phiz! Illustrator of Dickens' World. (1860). New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1978.

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

Sutherland, John. "Ainsworth's Magazine." The Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction. Stanford, Cal.:Stanford U. P., 1989, p. 15.

Vann, J. Don. "The Spendthrift in Bentley's Miscellany, January 1855-January 1857." Victorian Novels in Serial. New York: Modern Language Association, 1986, p. 30.

Worth, George. William Harrison Ainsworth. New York: Twayne, 1972.

Created 29 December 2019

Last modified 14 October 2020