In April 1877 Archibald Michie, during his term as agent-general in London for Victoria (1873–79), acquired at auction for the National Gallery of Victoria, for the moderate sum of 18 pounds, seven shillings and sixpence, a small canvas by Robert William Buss, who had died just two years previously (fig. 1). Dispatching this painting, The monopolist, to Melbourne at the end of September, he noted enthusiastically that the work ‘has been engraved, and is generally recognised as an excellent specimen of this painter’s peculiar genius’.1 Archibald Michie, letter to the Chairman of Trustees, 28 September 1877, NGV archive. Had Michie known at the time of the links that existed between the artist Buss and Charles Dickens, then the most celebrated writer in the English-speaking world, he might have written even more excitedly of his new purchase.

‘Blame, I charge you, not anyone’

Early on a Wednesday morning in mid April 1836, Robert Seymour, then one of the most popular illustrators in Britain, left his wife and three children in their semi-rural Islington residence and walked down into the garden. Entering the summer house he supposedly rigged up the trigger of a fowling-piece shotgun with string, placed the weapon’s muzzle in his mouth, and blew out the back of his skull. ‘Best and dearest of wives’, his suicide note is reported to have said, ‘blame, I charge you, not anyone, it is my own weakness and infirmity. I don’t think anyone has been a malicious enemy to me’.2Report of the inquest on Robert Seymour’s death, Bell’s Life in London, 24 April 1836, quoted in Walter Dexter & J. W. T. Ley, The Origin of Pickwick, Chapman and Hall, London, 1936, p. 54. This account of Seymour’s death was that believed by many at the time, including Robert Buss. Jane Cohen has noted, however, that the account of the inquest printed in the Times on 22 April 1836 states that Seymour shot himself though the heart, behind the summer house (Jane R. Cohen, Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators, Ohio State University Press, Columbus, 1980, p. 246, n. 42). Three nights previous, on Sunday, Seymour had accepted an invitation to share a glass of grog with a disgruntled but diplomatic Charles Dickens, who was seeking a resolution to his dissatisfaction with a drawing Seymour had provided for the second monthly instalment of The Pickwick Papers, which had commenced publication on 31 March.

It was Seymour who had had the original idea that became The Pickwick Papers, proposing in 1835 to publishers Chapman and Hall that they bring out a volume of his drawings satirising the follies of middle-aged Cockney ‘sportsmen’. The work would even be more marketable, Seymour felt, if a clever writer could be found to supply witty text inspired by his already highly popular comic work. What happened next was the beginning of the end for Seymour’s frail mental health, as William Hall, interviewing a then still relatively unknown 24-year-old newspaper writer for this secondary authorship, found himself agreeing to a reversal of the roles in the publishing contract – henceforth Seymour was to create illustrations that reacted to freeform comic prose penned by the young Charles Dickens. Dickens’s Sketches by Boz, his first significant work with illustrations by the revered caricaturist George Cruickshank, had just been released by John Macrone in early February 1836, three weeks prior to his meeting with Hall, and instantly received moderate critical success – a fact that doubtless held sway with Chapman and Hall. His sudden demotion from originator of the Pickwick project to Dickens’s illustrative handmaiden proved too much for the highly strung Seymour.

Following Seymour’s death, Chapman and Hall were faced with a dilemma. They were able to use his final completed illustrations for the second instalment of The Pickwick Papers, where they were accompanied by a posthumous tribute to the artist whose immortal legacy was to be, as Dickens himself later put it, ‘his drawing of the Club, and that happy portrait of its founder, by which he is always recognised, and which may be said to have made him a reality’ (fig. 2).3Charles Dickens, preface to the Cheap Edition of Pickwick Papers, 1847; reprinted in The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, Mark Wormald (ed.), Penguin, London, 2003, p. 761. For a good discussion of the immensely complicated relations between Dickens, Chapman and Hall, and Robert Seymour, see Cohen, pp. 39–50. The Dickens scholar Ley published an early vindication of Buss’s work for Chapman and Hall (see J. W. T. Ley, ‘Robert William Buss. A tribute to an unlucky artist’, The Dickensian, February 1910, pp. 33–7; March 1910, pp. 71–5). With no illustrations in hand for the impending third instalment of Dickens’s novel, however, they now turned to ‘a gentleman already well known to the Public, as a very humorous and talented artist’ – Robert Buss.4 ‘Address from the publishers’, accompanying the third instalment of Pickwick Papers, 30 May 1836; reprinted in The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club [2003], p. 757. Curiously, Robert Buss was already tangentially linked to Charles Dickens in a number of ways. He possessed ‘great admiration of the talent shown by Dickens, whose works as Boz I had from the first Sketches in the Morning Chronicle held in great store’.5Robert W. Buss, ‘My connexion with The Pickwick Papers’ [1872], in Dexter & Ley, pp. 122–3. He had recently provided an illustration for Dickens’s sketch ‘A little talk about spring and sweeps’, which was included in Chapman and Hall’s contemporaneous The Library of Fiction. And he was recommended to the publishers by John Jackson, a wood-engraver friend whose brother had engraved the wrapper that Seymour had designed for The Pickwick Papers.

Now invited to work directly with Charles Dickens in an emergency situation, Buss agreed to suspend his own work on a major canvas he was preparing for the forthcoming Royal Academy exhibition, and assume the late Seymour’s mantle and distinctive Pickwickian style.

‘A gentleman already well known to the public’

Born in 1804, Buss received initial instruction as a teenager in engraving and enamelling from his craftsman father, William Church Buss (d.1832), before being apprenticed to George Clint, ARA (1770–1837), who trained him in portraiture and subject painting. Clint specialised in theatrical portraiture and introduced Buss, in turn, into this world. Buss was subsequently to paint numerous renowned actors of the 1830s ‘in character’; and sixteen engravings after these portraits were included in John Cumberland’s 39-volume British Theatre (1823–31), which published the scripts of some three hundred plays from Shakespeare to the eighteenth century; as well as its fourteen-volume appendix, Cumberland’s Minor Theatre (1831–32).6A bound volume of these engraved theatrical portraits, as well as numerous sketches for them, is held in the NLCS archives, inv. 3121. All of these ‘character’ portrait paintings, along with other theatrical sketches and comedic paintings by Buss, were exhibited in 1838 as part of the Cumberland Gallery of Pictures at the Colosseum in Regent’s Park.7See A Catalogue of the Cumberland Gallery of Pictures, Containing a Choice Selection of the Ancient Masters, with a Sprinkling of the Modern, The Colosseum, London, 1838; NLCS archives, inv. 3121. Buss also produced drawings on wood (in preparation for subsequent engraving) for Charles Knight’s The Penny Magazine (1832–45), a weekly publication pitched at the working class. His friend the wood engraver John Jackson, who was later to be influential in his selection for the Pickwick project, also worked for The Penny Magazine, frequently engraving Buss’s designs (fig. 3).8The North London Collegiate School conserves a volume of Buss’s original drawings from this period, paired with their renditions in wood engraving by John Jackson; NLCS archives, inv. 1700. The comparisons show the remarkable and quite distinct skills of both artists.

In a more original vein were Buss’s numerous comic paintings, in which he gently satirised the absurdities of daily life in post-Regency and early Victorian England. Typical of this genre is Buss’s The musical bore, 1832, which depicts a portly fifty-something trombonist playing to his heart’s content in the wee small hours, as his outraged landlord, wife and squalling baby, clad in their night-clothes, burst into his room in righteous indignation. Somewhat blacker humour is found in Buss’s Satisfaction! (Royal Academy 1838), in which two combatants in a duel lay respectively dead and dying, yet content in the successfull, if illegal, conclusion of their matter of honour (fig. 4).9Buss later described the origins of this painting: ‘The object I had in view was to show up the extremely foolish, the irreligious, the illegal, illogical, and wicked practice of duelling. This wretched remnant of barbarous and superstitious ages supposes that a bullet or a sword can decide the justice or the injustice, the truth or the falsehood, of any question between man and man … But as gentility and barefaced murder have so frequently been associated by noble lords, persons in the lower ranks of life have aped this privilege of the upper classes; consequently a linen draper, quarrelling on a racecourse with a blackleg, challenged the latter, and on fighting a duel, one was shot in the brain, the other fearfully wounded. This scene I depicted soon after the murder and mutilation, and named the picture “Satisfaction!”’. (Robert William Buss, English Graphic Satire and its Relation to Different Styles of Painting, Sculpture, and Engraving. A Contribution to the History of the English School of Art, The Author and Virtue & Co, London, 1874, p. 13). After their first exhibition these popular paintings were frequently engraved, by which means they achieved wide circulation, and made Buss’s name known to an art-loving public.10The musical bore is a typical example. First exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1832, it was subsequently engraved by Robert Graves for the firm of Hodgson, Boys and Graves. In 1834 The Analyst, commenting approvingly on how in Buss’s conception, ‘the portrait of Handel looking with horror at the murder of science, adds to the comic impression of the incident’, described this reproduction of The musical bore as ‘an extremely desirable print for the porte-feuille, and a fine specimen of the modern British School of engraving’. Across the Atlantic The musical bore was next engraved by John Sartain and reached a wider American audience following the publication in 1839 of an imaginatively written back-story for Buss’s amusing subject (see The Analyst; A Monthly Journal of Science, Literature and the Fine Arts, Simkin & Marshall, London, 1834, vol. I, pp. 45–6; William W. Burton, ‘Mister Richard Doddicombe, a sketch, illustrating a mezzotint engraving on steel, by Sartain, after a celebrated picture by Buss, of The musical bore’, Gentleman’s Magazine and American Monthly Review, October 1839, pp. 175–7). NB: In his 1899 autobiography, Reminiscences of a Very Old Man, John Sartain confused the dating of his work on The musical bore, assigning it to the 1840s. Buss painted Graves’s portrait in 1835; this portrait was in turn engraved by Buss’s friend John Jackson; NLCS archives, inv. 3121.

Buss’s output as portraitist and comic inventor was consistent if not prolific. An early commentator on his work, Graham Everitt, recorded that ‘his pictures were seventy-one in number, twenty-five of which were engraved’; while George Layard, advised by the artist’s son, noted that ‘between the years 1826 and 1859 he exhibited twenty-five pictures at the Royal Academy, twenty at the British Institute, forty-five at Suffolk Street, and seven at the New Watercolour Society’.11Graham Everitt, English Caricaturists and Graphic Humourists of the Nineteenth Century, Swan Sonnenschein, Le Bas & Lowrey, London, 1886, p. 366. George Somes Layard, ‘Our graphic humorists: Robert William Buss’, The Magazine of Art, no. 26, June 1902, p. 364. No modern biography of Robert Buss has appeared to date. Further details on his life can be gleaned from the following: ‘Fine-art gossip’, The Athenaeum, no. 2472, 13 March 1875, p. 366; ‘Obituary. Robert William Buss’, The Art Journal, June 1875, pp. 178–9; Michael Bryan, Dictionary of Painters and Engravers, Biographical and Critical, Robert Edmund Graves (ed.), George Bell, London, 1886, vol. I, pp. 204–5; ‘A note on R. W. Buss (communicated by one of his grandsons)’, in Peter Simple by Captain Marryat, Constable & Co., London, 1929, vol. 1, pp. xi–ii. A list of the artist’s major paintings was published by his son shortly after Buss’s death (see Alfred G. Buss, ‘R. W. Buss’, Notes and Queries, series 5, vol. 3, 24 April 1875, pp. 330–1). A biographical website-in-progress is currently being maintained by the artist’s great-great-grandson, Michael Buss, at (http://rwbuss.com). In 1845 Buss was notably commissioned by the fourth Earl of Hardwicke to paint a pair of enormous seven-by-three-metre lunettes depicting The origin of music and The triumph of music for the architectural spaces left blank in John Soane’s Neo-Classical Yellow Drawing Room (1793) at Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire.12
See David Souden, Wimpole Hall, Cambridgeshire, National Trust, London, 1991, pp. 64–5; David Adshead, Wimpole: Architectural Drawings and Topographical Views, National Trust, London, 2007, pp. 124–5.

‘My two unfortunate etchings’

Working quickly in April 1836, Buss drew a range of Pickwickian characters and situations in a manner sympathetic with that of Seymour, as well as finalising the two illustrations selected by Chapman and Hall for the third instalment of The Pickwick Papers; these depicted the Muggleton cricket match and Miss Wardle and Tupman being spied upon in the arbour. Both scenes featured Dickens’s inimitable Fat Boy, whose image remains Buss’s own immortal contribution to the Pickwickian legend (fig. 5). Untrained in the complex medium of etching on steel, however, Buss was obliged to hand over his drawings to a more experienced printmaker for copying into etchings – and the finished product lacked the spontaneity and delicacy of Buss’s direct touch.13 As Buss himself noted, when he felt compelled in 1872 to write his own history of the affair, ‘at this time it was a very difficult thing indeed to find a designer of humorous subjects capable of etching them on steel … in fact the rage or fashion for etching had not then set in’ (Buss, ‘My connexion with The Pickwick Papers’, p. 120). Chapman and Hall understood Buss’s inexperience in this medium when they approached him, and accepted this given their desperate circumstances, which does make their subsequent criticism of his third-party etchings seem unduly unfair. Only a summary account of what transpired has been given here. For the full story of Robert Buss’s short employment by Chapman and Hall, see Cohen, pp. 51–8; also the full text of Buss’s ‘My connexion with The Pickwick Papers’, reprinted in Dexter & Ley, pp. 109–35. Doubtless panicked by a disgruntled Dickens, Chapman and Hall summarily dismissed Buss from the project. From the fourth instalment of The Pickwick Papers in June 1836, all the illustrations were created by George Hablot Browne (or ‘Phiz’). To add insult to injury, when the sudden popularity of the book saw its readership increase from around 1000 to 40,000 in a matter of months, necessitating the reprinting of the earlier instalments, Buss’s designs were replaced with new plates from the hand of ‘Phiz’. Buss was later to muse philosophically: ‘I am, after all, sometimes amused to think how in time to come futile bibliomaniacs will rave over a scarce copy of Pickwick having in it my two unfortunate etchings’.14Buss, in Dexter & Ley, p. 135. According to Kitton only around 700 copies of the original third instalment of Pickwick PapersI were circulated in May 1836, making these prized incunabula today (see Frederic Kitton, Dickens and His Illustrators, George Redway, London, 1899, p. 52). Cohen, pp. 56–7, notes how, by 1837, Buss’s etchings were ‘replaced and his name omitted from the title page of the first bound edition of Pickwick’.

Throughout these awkward proceedings Buss seems never to have met Charles Dickens in person, which may account for the fact that he later bore the author no animosity, placing all the blame for his ill-treatment with the publishers Chapman and Hall.15Cohen, p. 56, discusses Dickens’s ‘uncharacteristic aloofness’ from Chapman and Hall’s dilemma following Seymour’s suicide, which may explain why he never met with Buss. While stung by his Pickwick experience, to the extent that he put away all his work on the project and for decades could not bear to have the subject referred to, Buss soon established a new reputation for himself as an illustrator of, at the time, equally popular works of literature by Captain Frederick Marryat (Peter Simple, 1837) and Mrs Trollope (The Widow Married, 1839). Despite these successes, now all but forgotten, The Pickwick Papers remained, of course, the colossus that got away from Buss.

In these years, however, Buss continued to read Dickens’s works as they appeared, and was frequently happily inspired by them. In 1844 he exhibited at the Royal Academy a painting based on Barnaby Rudge, which had been serialised in Dickens’s own journal Master Humphrey’s Clock in 1841. He also created works illustrating The Chimes of 1844 and The Cricket on the Hearth of 1845; as well as Oliver Twist, which was serialised in Bentley’s Miscellany from February 1837 to April 1839, and Dombey and Son, which was published in monthly instalments between October 1846 and April 1848.16See Kitton, p. 55; Cohen, p. 57.

A very humourous work

Given that this was the climate in which Buss conceived The monopolist in 1840, it is not surprising perhaps to see echoes of the already legendarily stout and bespectacled Samuel Pickwick in its protagonist, who warms his bottom before a cheery fire in the Victoria Dining Rooms, blissfully oblivious to the plight of a cold and wet workman who reaches a shivering, mittened hand towards the warmth so amply hogged by this monopolist. A Pickwickian reading of this painting would certainly explain the mirth it afforded a critic such as Layard, who argued of Buss that

it was human nature in its humorous attitudes that almost invariably attracted him … the satire [in his paintings] did not lie in his treatment or exaggeration of the subjects chosen, so much as in the truthful presentation of human nature discovered at ridiculous moments. I need only mention the oft-engraved pictures of ‘Satisfaction’ and ‘The Monopolist’ as evidencing what I mean.17Layard, ‘Our graphic humorists: Robert William Buss’, p. 361.

A more serious undercurrent to The monopolist’s humour was proposed by Buss himself. Commenting on the painting’s portly protagonist, he wrote:

The man is a type of the class of persons who live by fattening on the poor. Such a fellow would buy up all the corn and coals in the country, if possible, and only sell at high prices, though the poor around him might die of starvation. ‘The Monopolist,’ true to his instincts, takes up The Times and the whole fire to himself, utterly regardless of the wet and shivering visitor who has just arrived.18Buss, English Graphic Satire, p. 193.

Our interpretation of this work is today somewhat compromised by the deterioration of the paint surface that has occurred in the lower-left quadrant, obscuring the drenched newcomer’s umbrella (which can be clearly seen in contemporary engravings after the painting), and encouraging an incorrect reading of the narrative as an attempt on his part to pick the monopolist’s pocket, rather than an innocently bedraggled plea for a share of the fire’s warming comfort (fig. 6). What remains for us to enjoy, though, is Buss’s meticulous attention to detail in depicting the cosy setting and furnishings (the carafes, half-filled wine glass and cheerful advertisements for hot roast joints and Ramsbottom ale) that situate so captivatingly this vignette of selfishness in the Victoria Dining Rooms.19Kitton noted approvingly: ‘It may be said of Buss … that his works, whether in colour or black-and-white, are regarded as affording authentic information respecting costumes and other accessories; for he was exceedingly conscientious in matters of detail, preferring to incur infinite trouble to secure accuracy rather than rely upon his imagination’ (Kitton, p. 54). Buss’s care in preparing this composition is evident from the pentimenti that are visible under infrared photographic examination – the lowering of the table top at the right, and new renderings of its carafe and glass; and an earlier clock face beneath and to the left of the painting’s final timepiece. One curious anomaly invades The monopolist however – the numbers on the portion of the clock face visible at the top of the composition are reversed, as though seen in a mirror; while the advertisements pasted to the walls are not. I am most grateful to NGV conservators John Payne and Michael Varcoe-Cocks for their kind help with technical examination of The monopolist.

The monopolist was shown at the seventeenth exhibition of the Society of British Artists at Suffolk Street, East Pall Mall, in 1840, where it was described by one contemporary journal as ‘a very humourous work’.20 ‘Society of British Artists’, The Polytechnic Journal, A Monthly Magazine of Art, Science and Literature, Polytechnic Institute, London, 1840, vol. II, p. 310. The painting was acquired, possibly from this exhibition, by the Scottish engineer and shipbuilder Robert Napier (1791–1876). Nicknamed ‘the father of Clyde shipping’, in the 1840s Napier had West Shandon House constructed in the village of Shandon on the Gare Loch on Scotland’s west coast, in order to house his enormous art collection. Napier loaned The monopolist to the spectacular Art Treasures of Great Britain exhibition, held in Manchester from May to October 1857 – an astonishing display of 16,000 works of art that attracted 1.3 million visitors during its five-month run. The work then remained in Napier’s collection until the dispersal of his estate at the Shandon sale organised by Christie, Manson & Woods on 11 April 1877. Here, despite a typographical error in the auction catalogue that attributed lot 548 to ‘S. W. Buss’, it caught the attention of Archibald Michie and thus entered the collections of the National Gallery of Victoria.21See Catalogue of the Celebrated Assemblage of Works of Art and Vertu, Known as The Shandon Collection, Formed During the Last Half-Century by that Well-Known Amateur, Robert Napier, Esq., Deceased, Late of Glasgow. First Portion, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 11 April 1877, lot. 548.

‘His talents were simply wonderful’

In 1850 Buss’s 23-year-old daughter, Frances Mary Buss, who, along with her mother, Frances Fleetwood Buss, had a lifelong commitment to the advancement of women’s education, established the North London Collegiate School for Ladies in Camden Town. Buss became actively involved in this enterprise as the school’s inaugural art teacher; and his duties expanded over the following twenty-five years to include the teaching of chemistry, mechanics, botany and other practical subjects as required.22Kitton argued that ‘after 1854 Buss’s pictures were for some reason excluded from the Royal Academy Exhibitions, and this so seriously affected the sale of his work that he was compelled to have recourse to teaching drawing as a means of supplementing a precarious income’ (p. 56). The reverse of this is actually more likely, the artist placing his public career on hold while helping his daughter establish and develop her school. Three remarkable volumes, richly illustrated, of Buss’s 1868 lessons for ‘Elements of linear perspective’ and ‘Free-hand drawing from the flat and the round’, are conserved at the North London Collegiate School; NLCS archives, inv. 3349, 3350, 3351. One of the original thirty-five girls from the school’s opening class of 1850 recalled:

His talents were simply wonderful, and all of them were showered down upon us without stint for many years. He was in advance of any South Kensington master in drawing and painting. Art was in his soul. In Science he was equally at home, and his delightful lectures in Botany, Zoology, Geology, and Astronomy, each illustrated with profuse diagrams, were equal to those of any professor of the present day. His Chemistry series was marvellous, especially for the smells and explosions, while his Elocution lessons and the little plays he arranged for us with costumes made us his devoted pupils.23Annie Martinelli, quoted in The North London Collegiate School, 1850–1950. A Hundred Years of Girls’ Education, R. M. Scrimgeour (ed.), Oxford University Press, London, 1950, p. 32. The North London Collegiate School for Ladies was very much a family concern as, apart from her father, Robert Buss, and her mother, Frances Fleetwood, Frances Mary’s brothers Septimus and Alfred also taught there. There is a considerable literature on Frances Mary Buss who was a pioneer in women’s education in Britain (see esp., Sara A. Burstall, Frances Mary Buss, An Educational Pioneer, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London, 1938; Nigel Watson, And Their Works Do Follow Them. The Story of the North London Collegiate School, 1850–2000, James & James, London, 2000).

Perhaps inspired by these new teaching commitments, in 1853 Buss took four carefully prepared lectures on the history of caricature and satire in English art on tour to London, Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester and other cities. Buss himself recalled how ‘the success of these lectures was great, as I had engagements at almost every literary and scientific institution in London, its suburbs, and the principal towns in the provinces’. He illustrated his performances, which considered satirical art from the time of Hogarth to his own day, with

examples drawn by my own hand on cartoons, each measuring between six and seven feet. There were sixty of these cartoons, which, passing over rollers, were thus displayed behind a handsome portable frame … visible to a numerous audience.24Buss, English Graphic Satire, p. vii. Buss had privately printed a prospectus containing selections from twenty-two reviews of his 1853–54 performances of his ‘Lectures on English comic & satiric art’. The Journal of the Society of Arts commented on 17 February, 1854, for example: ‘Mr. R. W. Buss, the artist, has been giving his four lectures on Humorous and Satiric Art, with great eclat at the Leeds Mechanics’ Institution and Literary Society. The idea of examining this branch of Art, which in a certain sense, is truly historical, both aesthetically, and in relation to the events the several sketches introduced in illustration are designed to render ludicrous, has a great deal of originality, and, as developed by Mr. Buss, yielded much instruction, both as regards the principles of art, and its use as a powerful corrective of vice, affectation, and folly’. NLCS archives, inv. 818.

In 1874 the artist published these lectures as a single volume entitled English Graphic Satire, which he dedicated to his daughter Frances Mary, who ‘shared my hopes and fears while I was pursuing an arduous and uncertainly remunerated profession’.25Buss, English Graphic Satire. The State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, possesses a copy of this limited edition publication that was printed solely for private circulation, inscribed on its title page by Buss: ‘To my dear old Friend, Alfred Clint, Feb. 1875’; and further annotated: ‘The above was written by my dear old Friend Robert William Buss a few days before the 26th of February 1875 on which day he died’. Alfred Clint (1807–1883), a successful marine painter, was the son of Robert Buss’s first teacher, George Clint.

As Buss travelled across the country on this extended lecture circuit, he delighted in telling his audiences how

between Hogarth and our great novelist, Charles Dickens, there existed a great similarity in style, thought, and in power of description. Dickens had studied deeply the great works of Hogarth, the thought displayed in them, their touches of humour, and their truth of delineation. His talk about Hogarth was delightful. Had Hogarth’s genius led him exclusively to literature, he would have written as forcibly as Dickens; and, on the other hand, had Dickens adopted the pencil, he would have painted like Hogarth.26ibid., p. 87.

Given her father’s enduring Dickensian enthusiasm, it is not surprising that Frances Mary Buss also used to regularly cite Dickens to inspire her students; for example, his classic character Mark Tapley, the ostler from the novel Martin Chuzzlewit (1843–44):

Mark’s secret was this. He always would discover some cause for ‘being jolly’ – that is, cheerful. He would look at the bright side of things, and when matters were bad, he would cheerfully thank himself that they were no worse.27Leaves from the Note-Books of Frances M. Buss, being Selections from her Weekly Addresses to the Girls of the North London Collegiate School, Grace Toplis (ed.), Macmillan, London, 1896, p. 27.

After Dickens’s death in 1870, Buss began a final tribute to the great writer, the famous Dickens’s dream, a painting left unfinished at Buss’s own death in February 1875 (fig. 7). The artist’s grandson, who donated this work to the Charles Dickens Museum in 1928, noted that ‘the novelist is represented seated in his library at Gad’s Hill, dreaming of his works, the walls being covered with all the notable Dickens characters from Pickwick to Edwin Drood’.28F. Fleetwood Buss, ‘Dickens’s dream. The last picture of R. W. Buss’, The Dickensian, 1932, p. 265. Dickens scholar Jane R. Cohen has written tellingly of how this final work could be called

‘Buss’s Dream’, for now, at last, he had illustrated many of the author’s major characters. In this creative way, Buss tried to overcome, if not obliterate, the painful reality of his short-lived association with Dickens.29Cohen, p. 58.

Ted Gott, Senior Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2011).

Notes

I am most grateful to the North London Collegiate School (NLCS), Middlesex, and especially Karen Morgan, Librarian, for permission to study the rich archives pertaining to Robert Buss and Frances Mary Buss that are held at this renowned institution. Research in London was funded by Joan and Peter Clemenger, to whom I am also immensely grateful.

1      Archibald Michie, letter to the Chairman of Trustees, 28 September 1877, NGV archive.

2      Report of the inquest on Robert Seymour’s death, Bell’s Life in London, 24 April 1836, quoted in Walter Dexter & J. W. T. Ley, The Origin of Pickwick, Chapman and Hall, London, 1936, p. 54. This account of Seymour’s death was that believed by many at the time, including Robert Buss. Jane Cohen has noted, however, that the account of the inquest printed in the Times on 22 April 1836 states that Seymour shot himself though the heart, behind the summer house (Jane R. Cohen, Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators, Ohio State University Press, Columbus, 1980, p. 246, n. 42).

3      Charles Dickens, preface to the Cheap Edition of Pickwick Papers, 1847; reprinted in The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, Mark Wormald (ed.), Penguin, London, 2003, p. 761. For a good discussion of the immensely complicated relations between Dickens, Chapman and Hall, and Robert Seymour, see Cohen, pp. 39–50. The Dickens scholar Ley published an early vindication of Buss’s work for Chapman and Hall (see J. W. T. Ley, ‘Robert William Buss. A tribute to an unlucky artist’, The Dickensian, February 1910, pp. 33–7; March 1910, pp. 71–5).

4      ‘Address from the publishers’, accompanying the third instalment of Pickwick Papers, 30 May 1836; reprinted in The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club [2003], p. 757.

5      Robert W. Buss, ‘My connexion with The Pickwick Papers’ [1872], in Dexter & Ley, pp. 122–3.

6      A bound volume of these engraved theatrical portraits, as well as numerous sketches for them, is held in the NLCS archives, inv. 3121.

7      See A Catalogue of the Cumberland Gallery of Pictures, Containing a Choice Selection of the Ancient Masters, with a Sprinkling of the Modern, The Colosseum, London, 1838; NLCS archives, inv. 3121.

8      The North London Collegiate School conserves a volume of Buss’s original drawings from this period, paired with their renditions in wood engraving by John Jackson; NLCS archives, inv. 1700. The comparisons show the remarkable and quite distinct skills of both artists.

9      Buss later described the origins of this painting: ‘The object I had in view was to show up the extremely foolish, the irreligious, the illegal, illogical, and wicked practice of duelling. This wretched remnant of barbarous and superstitious ages supposes that a bullet or a sword can decide the justice or the injustice, the truth or the falsehood, of any question between man and man … But as gentility and barefaced murder have so frequently been associated by noble lords, persons in the lower ranks of life have aped this privilege of the upper classes; consequently a linen draper, quarrelling on a racecourse with a blackleg, challenged the latter, and on fighting a duel, one was shot in the brain, the other fearfully wounded. This scene I depicted soon after the murder and mutilation, and named the picture “Satisfaction!”’. (Robert William Buss, English Graphic Satire and its Relation to Different Styles of Painting, Sculpture, and Engraving. A Contribution to the History of the English School of Art, The Author and Virtue & Co, London, 1874, p. 13).

10      The musical bore is a typical example. First exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1832, it was subsequently engraved by Robert Graves for the firm of Hodgson, Boys and Graves. In 1834 The Analyst, commenting approvingly on how in Buss’s conception, ‘the portrait of Handel looking with horror at the murder of science, adds to the comic impression of the incident’, described this reproduction of The musical bore as ‘an extremely desirable print for the porte-feuille, and a fine specimen of the modern British School of engraving’. Across the Atlantic The musical bore was next engraved by John Sartain and reached a wider American audience following the publication in 1839 of an imaginatively written back-story for Buss’s amusing subject (see The Analyst; A Monthly Journal of Science, Literature and the Fine Arts, Simkin & Marshall, London, 1834, vol. I, pp. 45–6; William W. Burton, ‘Mister Richard Doddicombe, a sketch, illustrating a mezzotint engraving on steel, by Sartain, after a celebrated picture by Buss, of The musical bore’, Gentleman’s Magazine and American Monthly Review, October 1839, pp. 175–7). NB: In his 1899 autobiography, Reminiscences of a Very Old Man, John Sartain confused the dating of his work on The musical bore, assigning it to the 1840s. Buss painted Graves’s portrait in 1835; this portrait was in turn engraved by Buss’s friend John Jackson; NLCS archives, inv. 3121.

11      Graham Everitt, English Caricaturists and Graphic Humourists of the Nineteenth Century, Swan Sonnenschein, Le Bas & Lowrey, London, 1886, p. 366. George Somes Layard, ‘Our graphic humorists: Robert William Buss’, The Magazine of Art, no. 26, June 1902, p. 364. No modern biography of Robert Buss has appeared to date. Further details on his life can be gleaned from the following: ‘Fine-art gossip’, The Athenaeum, no. 2472, 13 March 1875, p. 366; ‘Obituary. Robert William Buss’, The Art Journal, June 1875, pp. 178–9; Michael Bryan, Dictionary of Painters and Engravers, Biographical and Critical, Robert Edmund Graves (ed.), George Bell, London, 1886, vol. I, pp. 204–5; ‘A note on R. W. Buss (communicated by one of his grandsons)’, in Peter Simple by Captain Marryat, Constable & Co., London, 1929, vol. 1, pp. xi–ii.  A list of the artist’s major paintings was published by his son shortly after Buss’s death (see Alfred G. Buss, ‘R. W. Buss’, Notes and Queries, series 5, vol. 3, 24 April 1875, pp. 330–1). A biographical website-in-progress is currently being maintained by the artist’s great-great-grandson, Michael Buss, at (http://rwbuss.com).

12      See David Souden, Wimpole Hall, Cambridgeshire, National Trust, London, 1991, pp. 64–5; David Adshead, Wimpole: Architectural Drawings and Topographical Views, National Trust, London, 2007, pp. 124–5.

13      As Buss himself noted, when he felt compelled in 1872 to write his own history of the affair, ‘at this time it was a very difficult thing indeed to find a designer of humorous subjects capable of etching them on steel … in fact the rage or fashion for etching had not then set in’ (Buss, ‘My connexion with The Pickwick Papers’, p. 120). Chapman and Hall understood Buss’s inexperience in this medium when they approached him, and accepted this given their desperate circumstances, which does make their subsequent criticism of his third-party etchings seem unduly unfair. Only a summary account of what transpired has been given here. For the full story of Robert Buss’s short employment by Chapman and Hall, see Cohen, pp. 51–8; also the full text of Buss’s ‘My connexion with The Pickwick Papers’, reprinted in Dexter & Ley, pp. 109–35.

14      Buss, in Dexter & Ley, p. 135. According to Kitton only around 700 copies of the original third instalment of Pickwick Papers were circulated in May 1836, making these prized incunabula today (see Frederic Kitton, Dickens and His Illustrators, George Redway, London, 1899, p. 52). Cohen, pp. 56–7, notes how, by 1837, Buss’s etchings were ‘replaced and his name omitted from the title page of the first bound edition of Pickwick’.

15      Cohen, p. 56, discusses Dickens’s ‘uncharacteristic aloofness’ from Chapman and Hall’s dilemma following Seymour’s suicide, which may explain why he never met with Buss.

16      See Kitton, p. 55; Cohen, p. 57.

17      Layard, ‘Our graphic humorists: Robert William Buss’, p. 361.

18      Buss, English Graphic Satire, p. 193.

19      Kitton noted approvingly: ‘It may be said of Buss … that his works, whether in colour or black-and-white, are regarded as affording authentic information respecting costumes and other accessories; for he was exceedingly conscientious in matters of detail, preferring to incur infinite trouble to secure accuracy rather than rely upon his imagination’ (Kitton, p. 54). Buss’s care in preparing this composition is evident from the pentimenti that are visible under infrared photographic examination – the lowering of the table top at the right, and new renderings of its carafe and glass; and an earlier clock face beneath and to the left of the painting’s final timepiece. One curious anomaly invades The monopolist however – the numbers on the portion of the clock face visible at the top of the composition are reversed, as though seen in a mirror; while the advertisements pasted to the walls are not. I am most grateful to NGV conservators John Payne and Michael Varcoe-Cocks for their kind help with technical examination of The monopolist.

20      ‘Society of British Artists’, The Polytechnic Journal, A Monthly Magazine of Art, Science and Literature, Polytechnic Institute, London, 1840, vol. II, p. 310.

21      See Catalogue of the Celebrated Assemblage of Works of Art and Vertu, Known as The Shandon Collection, Formed During the Last Half-Century by that Well-Known Amateur, Robert Napier, Esq., Deceased, Late of Glasgow. First Portion, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 11 April 1877, lot. 548.

22      Kitton argued that ‘after 1854 Buss’s pictures were for some reason excluded from the Royal Academy Exhibitions, and this so seriously affected the sale of his work that he was compelled to have recourse to teaching drawing as a means of supplementing a precarious income’ (p. 56). The reverse of this is actually more likely, the artist placing his public career on hold while helping his daughter establish and develop her school. Three remarkable volumes, richly illustrated, of Buss’s 1868 lessons for ‘Elements of linear perspective’ and ‘Free-hand drawing from the flat and the round’, are conserved at the North London Collegiate School; NLCS archives, inv. 3349, 3350, 3351.

23      Annie Martinelli, quoted in The North London Collegiate School, 1850–1950. A Hundred Years of Girls’ Education, R. M. Scrimgeour (ed.), Oxford University Press, London, 1950, p. 32. The North London Collegiate School for Ladies was very much a family concern as, apart from her father, Robert Buss, and her mother, Frances Fleetwood, Frances Mary’s brothers Septimus and Alfred also taught there. There is a considerable literature on Frances Mary Buss who was a pioneer in women’s education in Britain (see esp., Sara A. Burstall, Frances Mary Buss, An Educational Pioneer, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London, 1938; Nigel Watson, And Their Works Do Follow Them. The Story of the North London Collegiate School, 1850–2000, James & James, London, 2000).

24      Buss, English Graphic Satire, p. vii. Buss had privately printed a prospectus containing selections from twenty-two reviews of his 1853–54 performances of his ‘Lectures on English comic & satiric art’. The Journal of the Society of Arts commented on 17 February, 1854, for example: ‘Mr. R. W. Buss, the artist, has been giving his four lectures on Humorous and Satiric Art, with great eclat at the Leeds Mechanics’ Institution and Literary Society. The idea of examining this branch of Art, which in a certain sense, is truly historical, both aesthetically, and in relation to the events the several sketches introduced in illustration are designed to render ludicrous, has a great deal of originality, and, as developed by Mr. Buss, yielded much instruction, both as regards the principles of art, and its use as a powerful corrective of vice, affectation, and folly’. NLCS archives, inv. 818.

25      Buss, English Graphic Satire. The State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, possesses a copy of this limited edition publication that was printed solely for private circulation, inscribed on its title page by Buss: ‘To my dear old Friend, Alfred Clint, Feb. 1875’; and further annotated: ‘The above was written by my dear old Friend Robert William Buss a few days before the 26th of February 1875 on which day he died’. Alfred Clint (1807–1883), a successful marine painter, was the son of Robert Buss’s first teacher, George Clint.

26      ibid., p. 87.

27      Leaves from the Note-Books of Frances M. Buss, being Selections from her Weekly Addresses to the Girls of the North London Collegiate School, Grace Toplis (ed.), Macmillan, London, 1896, p. 27.

28      F. Fleetwood Buss, ‘Dickens’s dream. The last picture of R. W. Buss’, The Dickensian, 1932, p. 265.

29      Cohen, p. 58.