A relatively recent secular tradition of Christmas in Europe and elsewhere is the seasonal story. Some develop the theme of the long, dark nights of the winter with ghosts and the paranormal, but in both literature and movies, themes based on Christmas have remained popular. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol wasn’t his first attempt at a Christmas story, but probably remains the most successful of any writer in the English language. Published on 19 December 1843, the first edition had completely sold out by 24 December, and in its first year was released in no less than thirteen editions.
Its first edition was graced with the illustrations of John Leech, as shown in its title spread here. The story lends itself to visual representation, and many later editions have also been illustrated. Oddly, though, I haven’t discovered a single ‘standalone’ painting of any part of this story – a subject I’ll return to at the end.
One edition of A Christmas Carol published in 1915 was illustrated by Arthur Rackham (1867–1939), who from about 1900 onwards produced some of the finest illustrations using pen, ink and watercolour. If there is one British illustrator of that time whose work consistently demonstrates that illustration can be fine art, it’s the great Arthur Rackham.
It’s Christmas eve in London: cold, snowy, and bleak. Ebenezer Scrooge is an old miser who runs a business, and hates Christmas. Being so miserly, he sees it as an unwarranted interruption to his making money.
His business partner, Jacob Marley, died seven years ago; his dead sister Fan’s son has invited him to Christmas dinner, but Scrooge refuses. He turns away requests for charity donations, and begrudgingly allows his impoverished clerk, Bob Cratchit, to take Christmas Day off. Scrooge’s attitude to Christmas is encapsulated in his exclamation humbug!
As soon as Bob Cratchit gets out of work on Christmas Eve, he goes down a slide before running home to his family to celebrate with them.
Scrooge retires to his rooms, obsessively locking and bolting himself away before going to sleep.
He’s then visited by the ghost of his former business partner Marley, who wanders the earth shackled by chains and cashboxes after his lifetime of greed.
The ghost warns Scrooge that he faces the same miserable fate, but has one chance of redemption. He will be visited by three further spirits who will show him how. When Marley’s ghost leaves, Scrooge looks out from his window to see many more spirits, each similarly shackled.
The first of those apparitions is the Ghost of Christmas Past, who shows Scrooge episodes from his more promising past. These include his relationship with his sister Fan, and a Christmas party thrown by Scrooge’s first employer Fezziwig. But when faced with the choice between his fiancée Belle and his greed, Scrooge chooses the latter. Belle is seen later, at the time of Marley’s death, happily married with her own family, and describes Scrooge’s miserly existence. At this, Scrooge demands the spirit takes him back to the present.
Next, later in the night of Christmas Eve, comes the Ghost of Christmas Present, who shows what is about to happen on Christmas Day. Much of this centres on the celebrations of Bob Cratchit and his family, particularly his son Tiny Tim, who is seriously ill and likely to die unless the family can be freed from poverty.
The ghost also shows Christmas being celebrated in a miner’s cottage, and in a lighthouse. They then visit Scrooge’s nephew, where they are playing games such as blind man’s buff.
Before leaving Scrooge, the ghost reveals to him two starving children named Ignorance and Want.
The third and final haunting, by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, takes Scrooge to his own funeral, as a disliked and unloved man.
His cleaning woman, laundress and the undertaker pilfer his property, dividing it up to sell for profit.
Scrooge asks the spirit to reveal someone who feels emotion at his death, and is shown a poor couple who have been given more time to put their finances in better order. Scrooge is then shown the Cratchit family mourning the death of Tiny Tim, before being shown his own untended grave. At this, Scrooge sobs and recognises that he must change his ways.
When he awakens on Christmas Morning, Scrooge is a changed man. He sends the Cratchits a large turkey for their lunch, and calls on his nephew Fred to join him and his family for Christmas Dinner.
When Bob Cratchit comes in to work on Boxing Day, Scrooge gives him a big payrise and becomes Tiny Tim’s patron. The miser now treats others with generosity and compassion, becoming the very spirit of Christmas.
You can see images of Rackham’s illustrations at the British Library, and in its Project Gutenberg electronic versions.
Why then didn’t any nineteenth century artist try telling Dickens’ story in their paintings? There were plenty of fine narrative painters among the Pre-Raphaelites, for example.
I think the answer is that Dickens’ books, popular though they were and remain, hadn’t yet crossed into what artists then deemed to be classical. The same can be said for the novels of Émile Zola, despite his intensely graphical writing and contemporary following, particularly among Naturalist painters.
By the time that narrative artists might have considered Dickens and Zola classical enough to merit painting, they had been upstaged by the early cinema, and static narrative painting was fighting for its survival. It’s a great shame, and something that painting in the twentieth century failed to address, claiming that narrative was mere humbug.