Robert William Buss

(1804—1875) painter and etcher

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Chapman and Hall hired the young portraitist to illustrate Dickens's story ‘A Little Talk about Spring and the Sweeps’ in their June 1836 number of the Library of Fiction. When Seymour's April suicide left the publishers without an illustrator for the third part of Pickwick, John Jackson, the wood engraver who had cut Buss's Library of Fiction plate, recommended the artist to Chapman and Hall. Buss did a trial plate from the second number, ‘Mr Pickwick at the Review’, and sketched pen-and-ink portraits of Seymour's Pickwickians (Morgan Library). Trained as an engraver, Buss tried to teach himself etching; although his trial plate was ineptly bitten in, the publishers announced that the illustrations for the third number would be done by Buss, ‘a very humorous and talented artist’. Buss then drew two scenes, ‘The Cricket Match’ and ‘The Fat Boy Awake’, and after trying to prepare the plates himself, gave them over to a professional etcher whose faithful execution lacked the verve and spontaneity of the original artist's hand. Buss went ahead with drawings for the fourth number, ‘Mr. Pickwick and his Friends under the Influence of “the Salmon”’ and ‘The Break-down’, designed a new title-page and an illustration of ‘Mr Winkle's First Shot’, and presumed that he was now the continuing illustrator for this project. However, the other partners agreed that the quality of the two published plates was inferior—although just exactly how much interest Dickens took in the whole affair is uncertain. Paying the artist what he termed ‘the wretchedly ridiculous sum’ of 30 shillings for his efforts, the publishers fired Buss and hired Hablot Knight Browne. Buss kept his outrage to himself, even when his Library of Fiction plate was scrapped in favour of a substitute by George Cruikshank, and his two Pickwick plates were redesigned by Browne. However, prompted by Forster's slighting reference in the first volume of his Life of Dickens (1871), Buss wrote an explanation of his association for Forster (11 December 1871), and later elaborated it in ‘My Connexion with The Pickwick Papers’, completed 2 March 1872 but unpublished until Walter Dexter and J. W. T. Ley printed it in The Origin of Pickwick (1936). Buss remained a great admirer of Dickens's humour and moral vision and painted or drew a number of subjects from Dickens's novels. After Dickens's death, Buss began a large watercolour of the writer at his Gad's Hill desk, surrounded by the creatures of his fancy. In poor health himself, Buss did not live to finish the picture, ‘Dickens's Dream’, now at Dickens house.

From Oxford Reader's Companion to Dickens in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: Literary Studies (19th Century).

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