HIS BROWN-PAPER PARCEL
My works are well known. I am a young man in the Art line. You have seen my works many a time, though it’s fifty thousand to one if you have seen me. You say you don’t want to see me? You say your interest is in my works, and not in me? Don’t be too sure about that. Stop a bit.
Let us have it down in black and white at the first go off, so that there may be no unpleasantness or wrangling afterwards. And this is looked over by a friend of mine, a ticket writer, that is up to literature. I am a young man in the Art line – in the Fine-Art line. You have seen my works over and over again, and you have been curious about me, and you think you have seen me. Now, as a safe rule, you never have seen me, and you never do see me, and you never will see me. I think that’s plainly put – and it’s what knocks me over.
If there’s a blighted public character going, I am the party.
It has been remarked by a certain (or an uncertain,) philosopher, that the world knows nothing of its greatest men. He might have put it plainer if he had thrown his eye in my direction. He might have put it, that while the world knows something of them that apparently go in and win, it knows nothing of them that really go in and don’t win. There it is again in another form – and that’s what knocks me over.
Not that it’s only myself that suffers from injustice, but that I am more alive to my own injuries than to any other man’s. Being, as I have mentioned, in the Fine-Art line, and not the Philanthropic line, I openly admit it. As to company in injury, I have company enough. Who are you passing every day at your Competitive Excruciations? The fortunate candidates whose heads and livers you have turned upside down for life? Not you. You are really passing the Crammers and Coaches. If your principle is right, why don’t you turn out to-morrow morning with the keys of your cities on velvet cushions, your musicians playing, and your flags flying, and read addresses to the Crammers and Coaches on your bended knees, beseeching them to come out and govern you? Then, again, as to your public business of all sorts, your Financial statements and your Budgets; the Public knows much, truly, about the real doers of all that! Your Nobles and Right Honourables are first-rate men? Yes, and so is a goose a first-rate bird. But I’ll tell you this about the goose; – you’ll find his natural flavour disappointing, without stuffing.
Perhaps I am soured by not being popular? But suppose I AM popular. Suppose my works never fail to attract. Suppose that, whether they are exhibited by natural light or by artificial, they invariably draw the public. Then no doubt they are preserved in some Collection? No, they are not; they are not preserved in any Collection. Copyright? No, nor yet copyright. Anyhow they must be somewhere? Wrong again, for they are often nowhere.
Says you, “At all events, you are in a moody state of mind, my friend.” My answer is, I have described myself as a public character with a blight upon him – which fully accounts for the curdling of the milk in THAT cocoa-nut.
Those that are acquainted with London are aware of a locality on the Surrey side of the river Thames, called the Obelisk, or, more generally, the Obstacle. Those that are not acquainted with London will also be aware of it, now that I have named it. My lodging is not far from that locality. I am a young man of that easy disposition, that I lie abed till it’s absolutely necessary to get up and earn something, and then I lie abed again till I have spent it.
It was on an occasion when I had had to turn to with a view to victuals, that I found myself walking along the Waterloo Road, one evening after dark, accompanied by an acquaintance and fellow-lodger in the gas-fitting way of life. He is very good company, having worked at the theatres, and, indeed, he has a theatrical turn himself, and wishes to be brought out in the character of Othello; but whether on account of his regular work always blacking his face and hands more or less, I cannot say.
“Tom,” he says, “what a mystery hangs over you!”
“Yes, Mr. Click” – the rest of the house generally give him his name, as being first, front, carpeted all over, his own furniture, and if not mahogany, an out-and-out imitation – “yes, Mr. Click, a mystery does hang over me.”
“Makes you low, you see, don’t it?” says he, eyeing me sideways.
“Why, yes, Mr. Click, there are circumstances connected with it that have,” I yielded to a sigh, “a lowering effect.”
“Gives you a touch of the misanthrope too, don’t it?” says he. “Well, I’ll tell you what. If I was you, I’d shake it of.”
“If I was you, I would, Mr. Click; but, if you was me, you wouldn’t.”
“Ah!” says he, “there’s something in that.”
When we had walked a little further, he took it up again by touching me on the chest.
“You see, Tom, it seems to me as if, in the words of the poet who wrote the domestic drama of The Stranger, you had a silent sorrow there.”
“I have, Mr. Click.”
“I hope, Tom,” lowering his voice in a friendly way, “it isn’t coining, or smashing?”
“No, Mr. Click. Don’t be uneasy.”
“Nor yet forg- ” Mr. Click checked himself, and added, “counterfeiting anything, for instance?”
“No, Mr. Click. I am lawfully in the Art line – Fine-Art line – but I can say no more.”
“Ah! Under a species of star? A kind of malignant spell? A sort of a gloomy destiny? A cankerworm pegging away at your vitals in secret, as well as I make it out?” said Mr. Click, eyeing me with some admiration.
I told Mr. Click that was about it, if we came to particulars; and I thought he appeared rather proud of me.
Our conversation had brought us to a crowd of people, the greater part struggling for a front place from which to see something on the pavement, which proved to be various designs executed in coloured chalks on the pavement stones, lighted by two candles stuck in mud sconces. The subjects consisted of a fine fresh salmon’s head and shoulders, supposed to have been recently sent home from the fishmonger’s; a moonlight night at sea (in a circle); dead game; scroll-work; the head of a hoary hermit engaged in devout contemplation; the head of a pointer smoking a pipe; and a cherubim, his flesh creased as in infancy, going on a horizontal errand against the wind. All these subjects appeared to me to be exquisitely done.
On his knees on one side of this gallery, a shabby person of modest appearance who shivered dreadfully (though it wasn’t at all cold), was engaged in blowing the chalk-dust off the moon, toning the outline of the back of the hermit’s head with a bit of leather, and fattening the down-stroke of a letter or two in the writing. I have forgotten to mention that writing formed a part of the composition, and that it also – as it appeared to me – was exquisitely done. It ran as follows, in fine round characters: “An honest man is the noblest work of God. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0. Pounds s. d. Employment in an office is humbly requested. Honour the Queen. Hunger is a 0 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 sharp thorn. Chip chop, cherry chop, fol de rol de ri do. Astronomy and mathematics. I do this to support my family.”
Murmurs of admiration at the exceeding beauty of this performance went about among the crowd. The artist, having finished his touching (and having spoilt those places), took his seat on the pavement, with his knees crouched up very nigh his chin; and halfpence began to rattle in.
“A pity to see a man of that talent brought so low; ain’t it?” said one of the crowd to me.
“What he might have done in the coach-painting, or housedecorating!” said another man, who took up the first speaker because I did not.
“Why, he writes – alone – like the Lord Chancellor!” said another man.
“Better,” said another. “I know his writing. He couldn’t support his family this way.”
Then, a woman noticed the natural fluffiness of the hermit’s hair, and another woman, her friend, mentioned of the salmon’s gills that you could almost see him gasp. Then, an elderly country gentleman stepped forward and asked the modest man how he executed his work? And the modest man took some scraps of brown paper with colours in ’em out of his pockets, and showed them. Then a fair-complexioned donkey, with sandy hair and spectacles, asked if the hermit was a portrait? To which the modest man, casting a sorrowful glance upon it, replied that it was, to a certain extent, a recollection of his father. This caused a boy to yelp out, “Is the Pinter a smoking the pipe your mother?” who was immediately shoved out of view by a sympathetic carpenter with his basket of tools at his back.
At every fresh question or remark the crowd leaned forward more eagerly, and dropped the halfpence more freely, and the modest man gathered them up more meekly. At last, another elderly gentleman came to the front, and gave the artist his card, to come to his office to-morrow, and get some copying to do. The card was accompanied by sixpence, and the artist was profoundly grateful, and, before he put the card in his hat, read it several times by the light of his candles to fix the address well in his mind, in case he should lose it. The crowd was deeply interested by this last incident, and a man in the second row with a gruff voice growled to the artist, “You’ve got a chance in life now, ain’t you?” The artist answered (sniffing in a very low-spirited way, however), “I’m thankful to hope so.” Upon which there was a general chorus of “You are all right,” and the halfpence slackened very decidedly.
I felt myself pulled away by the arm, and Mr. Click and I stood alone at the corner of the next crossing.
“Why, Tom,” said Mr. Click, “what a horrid expression of face you’ve got!”
“Have I?” says I.
“Have you?” says Mr. Click. “Why, you looked as if you would have his blood.”
“The artist’s?” I repeated. And I laughed, frantically, wildly, gloomily, incoherently, disagreeably. I am sensible that I did. I know I did.
Mr. Click stared at me in a scared sort of a way, but said nothing until we had walked a street’s length. He then stopped short, and said, with excitement on the part of his forefinger:
“Thomas, I find it necessary to be plain with you. I don’t like the envious man. I have identified the cankerworm that’s pegging away at YOUR vitals, and it’s envy, Thomas.”
“Is it?” says I.
“Yes, it is,” says be. “Thomas, beware of envy. It is the greeneyed monster which never did and never will improve each shining hour, but quite the reverse. I dread the envious man, Thomas. I confess that I am afraid of the envious man, when he is so envious as you are. Whilst you contemplated the works of a gifted rival, and whilst you heard that rival’s praises, and especially whilst you met his humble glance as he put that card away, your countenance was so malevolent as to be terrific. Thomas, I have heard of the envy of them that follows the Fine-Art line, but I never believed it could be what yours is. I wish you well, but I take my leave of you. And if you should ever got into trouble through knifeing – or say, garotting – a brother artist, as I believe you will, don’t call me to character, Thomas, or I shall be forced to injure your case.”
Mr. Click parted from me with those words, and we broke off our acquaintance.
I became enamoured. Her name was Henrietta. Contending with my easy disposition, I frequently got up to go after her. She also dwelt in the neighbourhood of the Obstacle, and I did fondly hope that no other would interpose in the way of our union.
To say that Henrietta was volatile is but to say that she was woman. To say that she was in the bonnet-trimming is feebly to express the taste which reigned predominant in her own.
She consented to walk with me. Let me do her the justice to say that she did so upon trial. “I am not,” said Henrietta, “as yet prepared to regard you, Thomas, in any other light than as a friend; but as a friend I am willing to walk with you, on the understanding that softer sentiments may flow.”
Under the influence of Henrietta’s beguilements, I now got out of bed daily. I pursued my calling with an industry before unknown, and it cannot fail to have been observed at that period, by those most familiar with the streets of London, that there was a larger supply. But hold! The time is not yet come!
One evening in October I was walking with Henrietta, enjoying the cool breezes wafted over Vauxhall Bridge. After several slow turns, Henrietta gaped frequently (so inseparable from woman is the love of excitement), and said, “Let’s go home by Grosvenor Place, Piccadilly, and Waterloo” – localities, I may state for the information of the stranger and the foreigner, well known in London, and the last a Bridge.
“No. Not by Piccadilly, Henrietta,” said I.
“And why not Piccadilly, for goodness’ sake?” said Henrietta.
Could I tell her? Could I confess to the gloomy presentiment that overshadowed me? Could I make myself intelligible to her? No.
“I don’t like Piccadilly, Henrietta.”
“But I do,” said she. “It’s dark now, and the long rows of lamps in Piccadilly after dark are beautiful. I WILL go to Piccadilly!”
Of course we went. It was a pleasant night, and there were numbers of people in the streets. It was a brisk night, but not too cold, and not damp. Let me darkly observe, it was the best of all nights-FOR THE PURPOSE.
As we passed the garden wall of the Royal Palace, going up Grosvenor Place, Henrietta murmured:
“I wish I was a Queen!”
“Why so, Henrietta?”
“I would make YOU Something,” said she, and crossed her two hands on my arm, and turned away her head.
Judging from this that the softer sentiments alluded to above had begun to flow, I adapted my conduct to that belief. Thus happily we passed on into the detested thoroughfare of Piccadilly. On the right of that thoroughfare is a row of trees, the railing of the Green Park, and a fine broad eligible piece of pavement.
“Oh my!” cried Henrietta presently. “There’s been an accident!”
I looked to the left, and said, “Where, Henrietta?”
“Not there, stupid!” said she. “Over by the Park railings. Where the crowd is. Oh no, it’s not an accident, it’s something else to look at! What’s them lights?”
She referred to two lights twinkling low amongst the legs of the assemblage: two candles on the pavement.
“Oh, do come along!” cried Henrietta, skipping across the road with me. I hung back, but in vain. “Do let’s look!”
Again, designs upon the pavement. Centre compartment, Mount Vesuvius going it (in a circle), supported by four oval compartments, severally representing a ship in heavy weather, a shoulder of mutton attended by two cucumbers, a golden harvest with distant cottage of proprietor, and a knife and fork after nature; above the centre compartment a bunch of grapes, and over the whole a rainbow. The whole, as it appeared to me, exquisitely done.
The person in attendance on these works of art was in all respects, shabbiness excepted, unlike the former personage. His whole appearance and manner denoted briskness. Though threadbare, he expressed to the crowd that poverty had not subdued his spirit, or tinged with any sense of shame this honest effort to turn his talents to some account. The writing which formed a part of his composition was conceived in a similarly cheerful tone. It breathed the following sentiments: “The writer is poor, but not despondent. To a British 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 Public he Pounds S. d. appeals. Honour to our brave Army! And also 0 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 to our gallant Navy. BRITONS STRIKE the A B C D E F G writer in common chalks would be grateful for any suitable employment HOME! HURRAH!” The whole of this writing appeared to me to be exquisitely done.
But this man, in one respect like the last, though seemingly hard at it with a great show of brown paper and rubbers, was only really fattening the down-stroke of a letter here and there, or blowing the loose chalk off the rainbow, or toning the outside edge of the shoulder of mutton. Though he did this with the greatest confidence, he did it (as it struck me) in so ignorant a manner, and so spoilt everything he touched, that when he began upon the purple smoke from the chimney of the distant cottage of the proprietor of the golden harvest (which smoke was beautifully soft), I found myself saying aloud, without considering of it:
“Let that alone, will you?”
“Halloa!” said the man next me in the crowd, jerking me roughly from him with his elbow, “why didn’t you send a telegram? If we had known you was coming, we’d have provided something better for you. You understand the man’s work better than he does himself, don’t you? Have you made your will? You’re too clever to live long.”
“Don’t be hard upon the gentleman, sir,” said the person in attendance on the works of art, with a twinkle in his eye as he looked at me; “he may chance to be an artist himself. If so, sir, he will have a fellow-feeling with me, sir, when I” – he adapted his action to his words as he went on, and gave a smart slap of his hands between each touch, working himself all the time about and about the composition – “when I lighten the bloom of my grapes – shade off the orange in my rainbow – dot the i of my Britons – throw a yellow light into my cow-cum-BER – insinuate another morsel of fat into my shoulder of mutton – dart another zigzag flash of lightning at my ship in distress!”
He seemed to do this so neatly, and was so nimble about it, that the halfpence came flying in.
“Thanks, generous public, thanks!” said the professor. “You will stimulate me to further exertions. My name will be found in the list of British Painters yet. I shall do better than this, with encouragement. I shall indeed.”
“You never can do better than that bunch of grapes,” said Henrietta. “Oh, Thomas, them grapes!”
“Not better than THAT, lady? I hope for the time when I shall paint anything but your own bright eyes and lips equal to life.”
“(Thomas, did you ever?) But it must take a long time, sir,” said Henrietta, blushing, “to paint equal to that.”
“I was prenticed to it, miss,” said the young man, smartly touching up the composition – “prenticed to it in the caves of Spain and Portingale, ever so long and two year over.”
There was a laugh from the crowd; and a new man who had worked himself in next me, said, “He’s a smart chap, too; ain’t he?”
“And what a eye!” exclaimed Henrietta softly.
“Ah! He need have a eye,” said the man.
“Ah! He just need,” was murmured among the crowd.
“He couldn’t come that ‘ere burning mountain without a eye,” said the man. He had got himself accepted as an authority, somehow, and everybody looked at his finger as it pointed out Vesuvius. “To come that effect in a general illumination would require a eye; but to come it with two dips – why, it’s enough to blind him!”
That impostor, pretending not to have heard what was said, now winked to any extent with both eyes at once, as if the strain upon his sight was too much, and threw back his long hair – it was very long – as if to cool his fevered brow. I was watching him doing it, when Henrietta suddenly whispered, “Oh, Thomas, how horrid you look!” and pulled me out by the arm.
Remembering Mr. Click’s words, I was confused when I retorted, “What do you mean by horrid?”
“Oh gracious! Why, you looked,” said Henrietta, “as if you would have his blood.”
I was going to answer, “So I would, for twopence – from his nose,” when I checked myself and remained silent.
We returned home in silence. Every step of the way, the softer sentiments that had flowed, ebbed twenty mile an hour. Adapting my conduct to the ebbing, as I had done to the flowing, I let my arm drop limp, so as she could scarcely keep hold of it, and I wished her such a cold good-night at parting, that I keep within the bounds of truth when I characterise it as a Rasper.
In the course of the next day I received the following document:
“Henrietta informs Thomas that my eyes are open to you. I must ever wish you well, but walking and us is separated by an unfarmable abyss. One so malignant to superiority – Oh that look at him! – can never never conduct
P.S. – To the altar.”
Yielding to the easiness of my disposition, I went to bed for a week, after receiving this letter. During the whole of such time, London was bereft of the usual fruits of my labour. When I resumed it, I found that Henrietta was married to the artist of Piccadilly.
Did I say to the artist? What fell words were those, expressive of what a galling hollowness, of what a bitter mockery! I – I – I – am the artist. I was the real artist of Piccadilly, I was the real artist of the Waterloo Road, I am the only artist of all those pavement-subjects which daily and nightly arouse your admiration. I do ’em, and I let ’em out. The man you behold with the papers of chalks and the rubbers, touching up the down-strokes of the writing and shading off the salmon, the man you give the credit to, the man you give the money to, hires – yes! and I live to tell it! – hires those works of art of me, and brings nothing to ’em but the candles.
Such is genius in a commercial country. I am not up to the shivering, I am not up to the liveliness, I am not up to the wanting-employment-in-an-office move; I am only up to originating and executing the work. In consequence of which you never see me; you think you see me when you see somebody else, and that somebody else is a mere Commercial character. The one seen by self and Mr. Click in the Waterloo Road can only write a single word, and that I taught him, and it’s MULTIPLICATION – which you may see him execute upside down, because he can’t do it the natural way. The one seen by self and Henrietta by the Green Park railings can just smear into existence the two ends of a rainbow, with his cuff and a rubber – if very hard put upon making a show – but he could no more come the arch of the rainbow, to save his life, than he could come the moon-light, fish, volcano, shipwreck, mutton, hermit, or any of my most celebrated effects.
To conclude as I began: if there’s a blighted public character going, I am the party. And often as you have seen, do see, and will see, my Works, it’s fifty thousand to one if you’ll ever see me, unless, when the candles are burnt down and the Commercial character is gone, you should happen to notice a neglected young man perseveringly rubbing out the last traces of the pictures, so that nobody can renew the same. That’s me.
Charles Dickens, 1812-1879. Somebody’s Luggage, Chapter III – His Brown Paper-Parcel, 1862
His Brown Paper Parcel is part of the series of short stories, ‘Somebody’s Luggage’, published in the extra Christmas number of ‘All the Year Round’, 1862.
Image: Edward G. Dalziel, A London Sidewalk Artist. Wood engraving, 8.5 cm high by 6.5 cm wide. The image is an uncaptioned title-page vignette for Chapter III, ‘His Brown-Paper Parcel’, published in Christmas Stories, 1877.
The pavement artist, referred to only as Tom or Thomas, is in the ‘Fine-Art line’. He creates chalk pictures of popular subjects, “Mount Vesuvius going it (in a circle), supported by four oval compartments, severally representing a ship in heavy weather, a shoulder of mutton attended by two cucumbers, a golden harvest with distant cottage of proprietor, and a knife and fork after nature; above the centre compartment a bunch of grapes, and over the whole a rainbow.”
The pavement art is located in Piccadilly and the Waterloo Road, South of the River Thames, Tom rents out his pavement exhibits to street artists with the appearance of poverty who are skilled in eliciting money from a crowd of spectators. The slang for a pavement artist is Screever, an Elizabethan term c. 1560, derived from the word scrivener (a clerk, scribe or notary), describing the Copperplate penmanship and proverbs, presented alongside the pictures of London pavement artists. Tom bemoans the role of the genius artist in a commercial country, as unfitted for office work and regular hours, and “only up to originating and executing the work.” He describes himself as an idler: “I am a young man of that easy disposition, that I lie abed till it’s absolutely necessary to get up and earn something, and then I lie abed again till I have spent it.”
Dickens describes artists in the following works: Nicholas Nickleby 1838-39; The Ghost of Art, 1850; Little Dorrit, 1857; The Portrait-Painter’s Story, 1861; Somebody’s Luggage: His Brown Paper-Parcel,1862.