E-Museum of Pyrographic Art
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|Charles Dickens at His Desk at "Gad's Hill"|
Digital image of Charles Dickens adapted from an 1896 black-and-white photograph in a Ladies' Home Journal article entitled "The Personal Side of Dickens."
The above nostalgic portrait of Charles Dickens was taken from a warm, very personal article about the great author written for the Ladies' Home Journal in 1896 by Stephen Fiske, an American who came to meet him for an interview at his office at the magazine Dickens was writing for at the time, called All the Year Round. From there, Fiske spent a great deal of time with Dickens and came to know the famous author quite well.
This exhibit, however, is not about that endearing article but about a much earlier article written in 1870—which was not about Charles Dickens but rather by Charles Dickens about pyrography, for his own magazine All the Year Round.
However, Charles Dickens' article on pyrography could not be termed "endearing." Perhaps the word "disparaging" would be more appropriate. The article in question was about various artistic techniques, not only about pyrography. However, in the pyrographic segment alone no fewer than seven disparaging remarks could be noted, and, including the title of the whole article—"Odd Pictures"—the total number of insults in the short segment on pyrography (starting on page 514) becomes eight.
First, let us note the ironic coincidence that the September 1896 article about Charles Dickens along with the above portrait of him was found in the exact same issue of the Ladies' Home Journal as J. William Fosdick's article on "The Fire Etcher And His Art."
Second, still another ironic coincidence was that a year or so after that article, J. William Fosdick was commissioned to do pyrographic panels for the personal library of the George J. Gould family of Lakewood, New Jersey, U.S.A. Among the works noted for that library was, in Fosdick's own words,
"...a series of panels illustrating decoratively the book plates of famous authors." Among them was one of none other than Charles Dickens.
Third, let us also observe that with great pride in the biography of English emigrant Robert Ball Hughes and his wife Eliza it is recorded that many famous people came to visit the gracious couple in their home in Dorchester, Massachusetts; of particular note among them was Charles Dickens.
It is important to point out that, as a visitor to Ball Hughes' house, it seems likely that Dickens would have seen examples of the artist's beautiful poker works, and, because Ball Hughes died in 1868, such a meeting would have occurred prior to Dickens' 1870 article on pyrography. Yet noticeably absent in his 1870 article on poker pictures is any mention of Ball Hughes.
Described in the 1870 article among John Straker's technique of embossing designs on wood by a process of pressing and wetting the wood, and several other techniques, e.g., those of Tunbridge ware, straw pictures, and wool puzzle pictures, was Dickens' segment on pyrography quoted in the following excerpt:
"The curious productions known as poker-pictures, or poker-drawings, have neither paint nor inlay, neither pressing nor cutting. They are nothing but panels of wood in which dark shadings have been produced by the application of red-hot tools. Many schoolrooms, many country mansions, and some churches, are in possession of specimens of this kind of art. A Study of a Female head, a Tiger killing Deer, the Temptation of Christ, Cornelius sending for St. Peter, the Saviour bearing the Cross, the Good Samaritan, the Head of a Rabbi, Oliver Cromwell—these are among the subjects of such pictures known to have been produced in this eccentric department of art. Connoisseurs of poker-pictures talk about Smith of Skipton, Cranch of Axminster, Thompson of Wilts, and Collis of Ireland, as artists of some note. About the beginning of the present century, there was an exhibition of poker-pictures in London, comprising fifty-three specimens by a Mrs. Nelson, and thirteen by Miss Nelson. The pictures were, without any high-flown words, described as having been "done on wood with hot pokers," and they were to be seen "at the farrier's adjoining the Lyceum, in the Strand." Cranch is said to have first tried his hand in this humble department while standing before an oaken chimney-piece; he took a red-hot poker out of the fire, and scorched a rather bold and effective design on the oaken panels. A good Smith, we are told, will fetch a tolerable
price among the poker-admirers, in imitation of collectors' prices in other and higher walks of art. The scorching is effected by any heated bar of iron; but in the best specimens tools of various shapes are used, to make some of the scorched lines narrower and finer than others: the artist having, literally, many irons in the fire at once. The actual lines of the device are first pencilled or drawn; the scorching is to produce the shadows, the lighter tints being the result of holding the red-hot iron very close to the wood, but not quite touching. If the panel have any strongly marked lines, fibres, knots, eyes, curls, or other diversities of grain, the artist sometimes avails himself of these to produce pictorial effect, scorching around or near them according to circumstances. In one instance a knot in the wood was made to represent the eye in a portrait, by a few judicious touches of the scorching-iron; while in another case curled lines or grain-marks were made available to represent the furrows in an old man's cheek. The artist, in fact, studies his panel, or should do so."
Despite the blatantly condescending expressions used, Dickens' article lists several well known titles in the pyrographic art form albeit without assigning them to their respective artists. Of value in this article is the description of the technique itself and especially the list of famous artists from the 18th and 19th Centuries, at least one of whom has existing works on display in the E-Museum. We are left with the hope of eventually learning more about the others.
If you have either any questions to ask or any information to offer regarding this article by Charles Dickens or, especially, any of the famous artists or their works that were mentioned in it, please e-mail the E-Museum Curator.
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© 2008, 2009, 2010 Kathleen M. Garvey Menéndez, all rights reserved.
Latest update 24 January 2010.