My new novel, Death and Mr. Pickwick
, tells the story of the origins of Charles Dickens's first novel, The Pickwick Papers
. Its main character is Dickens's tragic illustrator Robert Seymour, who shot himself while working on the pictures for Pickwick
. Something of Seymour's troubled state of mind is surely conveyed in this self-portrait, with its strange, haunted expression.
2. Better Luck Next Time. It would be easy to say, after seeing Seymour's picture Better Luck Next Time, that the artist had longstanding thoughts of suicide. However, the failed suicide attempt portrayed here seems to be an impulsive act, almost a whim: a man who is rejected by a woman decides to hang himself, but is saved when the rope breaks. This is very different from Seymour's planning of his own suicide, which included writing a suicide note and making certain that he would not be disturbed in the act. Also, the method he chose — firing a fowling gun at his own heart — left no possibility of survival. If Better Luck Next Time reflected Seymour's state of mind, then he had thoughts of suicide some years before his death, but there was not the firm determination then to actually carry it out.
3. Lord Jeffrey. Seymour was the most prolific political cartoonist of his era — he drew literally thousands of cartoons and was dubbed "The Shakespeare of Caricature." Here he portrays the Scottish politician Lord Jeffrey, who was known for his strict morality, and who preached on the effects of "unco gede living," Scottish dialect for exceptionally good living, or a morally correct existence. Seymour interprets "good living" in another sense — and shows its effect upon Jeffrey's waistline.
4. John Bull's Nightmare. Seymour was so prolific that it is estimated he drew one-third of all the British political cartoons of his era, a phenomenal rate of output, twice as productive as his nearest rival. Here, he portrays the state of England as a man's nightmare, with the demon of national debt sitting on John Bull's chest.
5. The March of Intellect. Sometimes. Seymour's pictures seem futuristic. Here, he shows the forces of progress as a gigantic robot, sweeping away medical quacks, unreformed vicars, and dishonest lawyers — the dust and garbage to be cleansed by society's advance.
6. Shaving by Steam. Seymour frequently portrayed the downside of technological advances. In this picture, he shows a steam-powered shaving machine — which cuts off a man's nose.
7. Sleeping Angler. Robert Seymour was a keen fisherman, and many of his pictures portray the misadventures of anglers.
8. Pickwick Papers Wrapper. The theme of the sleeping angler is used again on the wrapper for the original serial-parts issue of The Pickwick Papers. At the bottom of the wrapper, Mr. Pickwick is shown angling in a punt moored near Putney Bridge in London — he is a "Putney puntite," one of a notorious group of anglers whose main concern was eating, drinking, and smoking.
9. Cockney Sportsman. In Seymour's time, the word "cockney" meant a pretentious, affected person — and so a cockney sportsman was a lower-class fellow who tried to imitate the hunting pursuits of a country gentleman. Mr. Winkle in The Pickwick Papers is an example of this type of character.
10. Norfolk Coach at Christmas. Some of Seymour's finest work appears in The Book of Christmas (1835). Here, he shows a coach from Norfolk, loaded with turkeys, heading for London.
11. Mr. Pickwick Addresses the Club. Seymour's most famous picture — indeed, for almost a century, it was the most famous book illustration in the entire world, and has even been called the Mona Lisa of book illustrations.
12. The Dying Clown. Seymour's last picture for The Pickwick Papers. A few days after completing this picture, the artist lay dead in his garden, his heart literally torn to pieces by the gunshot.
13. Robert Seymour's Tombstone. In 2005, I found Robert Seymour's tombstone lying abandoned in a church crypt in Islington, London. In 2010, I finally secured the permission from the church authorities to move the tombstone to the Dickens Museum in London, where it may be seen today, along with a commemorative plaque.