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Blacking Warehouse and Fitness Studio — A Successful Novelist Seen in Bookplates


At the age of twelve, when his impoverished father was sent to the debtor’s prison, his schooling came to an abrupt end. Suddenly he found himself among the many children in the soot black London of the 19th century who were exploited in child labour. Later he used his experiences in a rat-infested blacking warehouse at the Thames in his literary work. His photographic memory retained places and persons and helped him to make them come to life again in his great novels.

Charles Dickens whose 200th anniversary is celebrated this year went through all ups and downs in life: bitter poverty and humiliation as well as extreme wealth and fame.

Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

Dickens is said to be the most important novelist of the 19th century. He was a humorist with a critical social concern whose books made his readers cry and laugh. He did not forget his experiences with poverty and the living conditions of the socially deprived when a legacy got his father a release from the debtor’s prison and him a late school leaving certificate. As clerk in a law office and later as a freelance reporter writing about legal proceedings he met with crime and its causes and was a keen and precise observer of people and their fates in the metropolis London. The city with its mixture of curious but also pitiable figures forms the setting and focus of most of his novels.

David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, A Tale of two Cities have their firm place in world literature. In all his texts the characters Dickens describes are modelled on persons he personally knew. His own biography is mirrored best in David Copperfield.

Presumably it is due to his bitter experiences of poverty during his childhood and youth as well as the later rise to an author already celebrated in his lifetime that he ennobled himself with his personal bookplate. His originally middleclass, later impoverished, father never had called a family crest his own. So Dickens "borrowed" one from a namesake.1 But there is also a simple book label for the books he left.

Proof copy of Charles Dickens’ bookplate  Copper engraving

Oleg Besedin, a Siberian bookplate artist, used Dickens’ plate in a witty design for V. L. Petrovsky. The 19th century gentleman sitting astride a rather tame lion and brandishing what might be a Dickensian serial resembles Mr. Pickwick as drawn by Phiz.2

In 1970, the 100th anniversary of his death, Dickens was commemorated on bookplates, too.

Vojtech Cinybulk, X2, 1963 Jenö Kertes-Kollman, P1, 1970

Eugen Strobel-Matza, a German collector and artist designed a plate where he places the novelist against the background of London with the imposing structures of Tower Bridge and the Houses of Parliament. Dickens’ raised right hand conjures up young David Copperfield who resembles not only Hugh Dancy, the movie actor, but also the young Dickens.

Eugen Stobel-Matza, P8, 1970

Dickens published his first novels as serials in instalments which clearly shows in the episodic character of their plots. Each episode ended with a climax of suspense which made the reader keep his breath and eagerly await the next instalment. One can read that in the USA readers hurried to the ports when ships were expected that brought periodicals from England. "Is little Nell dead?" they are reported to have shouted to the sailors when the fate of Nell Trent from the Old Curiosity Shop was in everyone’s mouth.

Margaret E. Webb, P1. Little Nell Trent from The Old Curiosity Shop

The first novel in episodes that Dickens published were The Pickwick Papers (1838). In the centre of this picaresque novel, which in its structure resembles Cervantes’ Don Quixote, is the philanthropist and scholar Samuel Pickwick, a wealthy, somewhat eccentric and quixotic gentleman who means well with his friends and acquaintances meeting in the Pickwick Club, founded by him. The goal of the club is to study and fathom life.

The original idea of this story in sequels came from the caricaturist and illustrator Robert Seymour whose publisher entrusted young Dickens, then still writing under the pseudonym Boz, with writing the text. The serials were a huge success and the author instantly became known.3

When the depressive Seymour committed suicide after the second serial, Hablot Browne took over the illustrations under the pseudonym Phiz; he later also drew pictures for other novels by Dickens. Dickens had changed Seymour’s original ideas and also exerted influence on his drawings. Thus he rejected Seymour’s idea to establish the Pickwick Club as a sports club and instead sent Mr. Pickwick and his friends on travels by coach.

Jürgen Czaschka, Copper engraving, 1999

Jürgen Czaschka in his copper engraving for Dr. Roland Freund changes the original idea of a sports club and transfers the 19th century scholar into a present-day fitness studio. Using the means of satire, exaggeration and contrast, the artist carries on Dickens’ satirical world view.

There he is, the stout, spectacled elderly gentleman in his old-fashioned bourgeois clothes, almost bald, with his cigar, his book and his paunch and incorporates in the truest sense of the word another world, a world in which smoking cigars and reading a real book provide an authentic lust for life, and where the body is accepted the way it is.

Behind the visibly satisfied smoker and reader we see in a one-dimensional presentation body obsessed women and men tormenting themselves at the torture machinery of a fitness studio. Their values are dominated by heaps of muscles and six pack abs, by the lure of flesh and sexually stimulated body worlds.

Charles Dickens in his tomb in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey would look upon such bodybuilding follies with utter astonishment.

Film Poster



  1. Cf.: Heinz Decker: Schätze der Exlibriskunst – Dichterexlibris, Frankfurt 2006.
  2. The plate is shown in: W.E. Butler: Modern Soviet Literary Bookplates. Frederikshavn 1988, p. 13.
  3. David Perdue: Charles Dickens Page – Pickwick Papers


Ex Libris Chronicle
Director: James P. Keenan