When the publisher Richard Bentley hired Charles Dickens to edit a new monthly magazine, Bentley’s Miscellany, he also invited the artist and illustrator George Cruikshank to provide the illustrations. The arrangement proved to be a fortuitous one. In addition to editing the magazine Dickens also began writing a story, Oliver Twist, for serialisation within its pages. From February 1837, the second issue of the magazine, Oliver Twist began to appear with each episode accompanied by one black and white plate provided by Cruikshank. Oliver Twist includes some of the most iconic scenes Dickens ever produced, and these scenes have become inextricably entwined with Cruikshank’s illustrations. ‘Oliver Asking for More’ and ‘Fagin in the Condemned Cell’, for example, are said to be among the finest work Cruikshank ever produced – indeed critics have suggested the illustrations define the episodes they portray every bit as much as Dickens’s own words. The only illustration provided by Cruikshank of which Dickens disapproved was for the final chapter. Originally Cruikshank produced a cheerful depiction of Oliver and Rose Maylie by the fireside. Dickens asked for this to be replaced with a more reflective and poignant illustration of Oliver and Rose standing in church by the memorial to Oliver’s mother, Agnes.
Cruikshank had previously provided illustrations for Dickens's 1836 work Sketches by Boz, but although his illustrations for Oliver Twist were similarly excellent and true to the nature of the novel, he did not illustrate any more of Dickens’s work. In part this was for contractual reasons. Dickens fell out with Richard Bentley and set up his own magazine, Master Humphrey’s Clock (1840-41), hiring Hablot Knight Browne and George Cattermole to illustrate his stories. From the mid-1840s, however, a genuine split emerged between author and artist. Cruikshank became a staunch supporter of the temperance movement while Dickens favoured a considerably more tolerant approach to alcohol. Their resulting disputes on the subject, often carried out publicly in print, resulted in the permanent severance of their relationship.
The edition shown here dates from 1911 and includes Cruikshank’s excellent illustrations, but this time reproduced in full colour. As a result they gain in terms of vitality, humour and panache but perhaps lose something of the gravity they possessed in black and white. Mr Bumble the Beadle may look more comically buffoonish than ever in colour, but the villainous characters – Fagin, Sikes and Monks – arguably looked more menacing in their original shades of black, white and grey. Either way, almost 80 years after their first appearance, Cruikshank’s illustrations were clearly still regarded as integral to the novel.