Dickens and the Visual Imagination Conference

Events have been taking place throughout 2012 to mark the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens. Dickens is an iconic figure in British culture and English literature, and over the course of the year so far the celebrations of his bicentenary have often seemed to merge, along with the Diamond Jubilee and the build-up to the London Olympics, into a larger expression of patriotic pride.

The University of Surrey wanted to do something to mark the Dickens bicentenary, and to consider precisely why this Victorian writer occupies such a prominent place in contemporary culture, within but also beyond Britain. The result was an international conference on Dickens and the Visual Imagination organised by Surrey’s School of English and Languages on 9 and 10 July 2012. Co-hosted by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art (the first day took place at the University of Surrey campus in Guildford and the second day at the Paul Mellon Centre in Bloomsbury), the conference studied the ways in which the uniquely visual qualities of Dickens’s writing affect his reputation and the reception of his work, both in the Victorian era and today. The conference welcomed Dickens experts and enthusiasts from around the world, including scholars from France, Switzerland, the USA, Australia, and India. It also brought together academics from a range of disciplines, including English Literature, Art History, and Law, to present a kaleidoscope of different perspectives on the theme of Dickens and the visual. The genuinely interdisciplinary nature of the conference affirmed the School of English and Language’s commitment to exploring links between English Literature and other art forms and ways of thinking.

A number of papers focused on Dickens’s representations of visual phenomena and on visual appropriations of Dickens in his own time: there were talks on theatrical adaptations of Dickens; on his views about painting and portraiture; on his depictions of the Thames and the London fog; and on the illustrations which invariably accompanied his writing. Other speakers focused on later visual responses to Dickens’s work, including one paper on graphic novel adaptations of his books. Keynote addresses were given by Professor Andrew Sanders (on Dickens’s use of interiors), Professor Sambudha Sen (on the specifically urban quality of the ‘Dickensian aesthetic’), Professor Lynda Nead (on David Lean’s 1946 film adaptation of Great Expectations), and Professor Kate Flint (on Victorian pavement art).

As well as a diverse and thought-provoking range of papers, the conference also included a visit to the Watts Gallery’s Dickens and the Artists exhibition, which showcases a number of works of art that draw on and respond to Dickens’s own visual and verbal artistry. The conference as a whole emphasised the importance of seeing Dickens as an international and visual writer as well as an English literary icon.