Posted by: meghanhealy | September 13, 2010

Bleak House and Portraits

I have been particularly interested in Dickens’ continual referencing to portraits and the ways in which, as he presents them in different manners, he develops a complex theorization of the value and importance of portraits.

Bleak House is described as having dispersed portraits: “Half-length portraits, in crayons, abounded all through the house; but were so dispersed that I found the brother of a youthful officer of mine in the china-closet, and the grey old age of my pretty young bride, with a flower in her bodice, in the breakfast room.” (87, Ch. 6). In this passage, it is striking that, rather than having a dauntingly-impressive portrait gallery presenting ancestors in order, Bleak House’s portraits present a visual history that is neither coherent nor unified. The fact that some portraits are relegated to a china closet underlines the fact that the servants not only have access to these portraits, but also that they may seem some of them more than the inhabitants of the house. Depending on what rooms inhabitants frequent, they are exposed to different strands of the family line, rather than seeing a unified collection, and each person would therefore interpret the family differently, depending on which representations they see. It seems as though Dickens here presents portraits almost as clues to a larger whole, and Esther—or other viewers—must search to uncover the whole family’s history.

In other scenes, Dickens shows that portraits symbolize aristocracy and inheritance—“It has come down, through the illustrious line, like the plate, or the pictures, or the place in Lincolnshire” (255, Ch. 16). They link generations—in ways that may or may not be desired. They serve as a reminder of the past and as a substitute for the deceased person. They are a means to convey class, as well as attributes and characteristics that that person can no longer communicate: “‘I feel when I look at it,’ said Mr Badger,‘that’s a man I should like to have seen’ It strikingly bespeaks the first-class man that Captain Swosser pre-eminently was” (206, Ch. 13).

One passage I found particularly interesting was the following: “But what Mr Weevle prizes most, of all his few possessions…is a choice collection of copper-plate impressions from that truly national work, The Divinities of Albion, or Galaxy Gallery of British Beauty, representing ladies of title and fashion in every variety of smirk that art, combined with capital, is capable of producing. With these magnificent portraits, unworthily confined in a band-box during his seclusion among the market-gardens, he decorates his apartment; and as the Galaxy Gallery of British Beauty wears every variety of fancy dress, plays every variety of musical instrument, fondles every variety of dog, ogles every variety of prospect, and is backed up by every variety of flower-pot and balustrade, the result is very imposing” (330, Ch. 20). Mr. Weevle’s collection is striking in that it by no means seeks to fulfill what, in other houses, was a major function of portraits: to represent a family’s heritage. It is, nevertheless, imposing, though this characteristic appears more as a result of the overwhelming variety and number than from the sense of prestige linked to, for example, the “nine-hundred-years-old name” in “My Last Duchess.” This passage seemed relevant to Ellen’s comment on the Treasurer’s House and its portraits, though in this case, Mr. Weevle’s “magnificent portraits” are copper-plate impressions—which suggests the reproducibility of artwork that we discussed in class. Dickens’s language is telling, for he describes the gallery as a “truly national work”—inscribing the portraits in the national realm rather than merely the familial. Moreover, in describing the portraits as “art, combined with capital” and the ladies as being “produc[ed],” Dickens suggests that this art is linked to capitalism and to industrial production.

Another element of portraiture that particularly struck me was the way it serves as a representation not only of the past but also the present—as a means of identification, as a clue to a mystery. Guppy declares, “Your ladyship, I do assure you that having Miss Summerson’s image imprinted on my art–which I mention in confidence–I found, when I had the honour of going over your ladyship’s mansion of Chesney Wold while on a short out in the county of Lincolnshire with a friend, such a resemblance between Miss Esther Summerson and your ladyship’s own portrait that it completely knocked me over, so much so that I didn’t at the moment even know what it was that knocked me over. And now I have the honour of beholding your ladyship near … it’s really more surprising than I thought it…. “Your ladyship, there is a mystery about Miss Esther Summerson’s birth and bringing up…Now, as I have already mentioned to your ladyship, Miss Summerson’s image is imprinted on my ‘eart. If I could clear this mystery for her, or prove her to be well related, or find that having the honour to be a remote branch of your ladyship’s family she had a right to be made a party in Jarndyce and Jarndyce, why, I might make a sort of a claim upon Miss Summerson to look with an eye of more dedicated favour on my proposals than she has exactly done as yet. In fact, as yet she hasn’t favoured them at all. A kind of angry smile just dawns upon my Lady’s face.” (464-5, Ch. 29) Although Guppy seeks knowledge for an entirely selfish reason, his desire to know is apparently troubling, and it is suggested that the availability of the gaze, the opportunity for family portraits to be exposed to—almost paraded before—the public, has perhaps an undesired, even dangerous side-effects.

*All page numbers are from the Penguin Edition of Bleak House.

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