Charles Dickens featured at new Museum of London exhibition

Charles DickensThe Museum of London has opened a major new exhibition on one of the city’s greatest writers–Charles Dickens. Dickens and London celebrates Dickens’ 200th birthday looks at the relationship between the writer and the city he used as inspiration for many of his novels.

The exhibition recreates the sights and sounds of 19th century London, something the museum does very well for many eras. London 200 years ago was one of the greatest cities of the world, and one of the worst. The center of global commerce and culture, it was also home to grinding poverty and drug abuse. One item on display is Dickens’ notes from an opium den he used as inspiration for one of his scenes.

Dickens often wrote about the plight of the poor and he knew what he was talking about. When still a child, he had to work ten-hour shifts in a shoe polish factory while his father spent time in debtor’s prison.

The British Library in London is also marking the bicentennial with a small exhibition titled A Hankering after Ghosts: Charles Dickens and the Supernatural. Dickens loved a good horror story and penned many, although another author once accused Dickens of plagiarism, an accusation that had some foundation in fact.

Dickens fans will also not want to miss the Charles Dickens Museum. Although Dickens only lived here from 1837-1839, the prolific author finished The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and Nicholas Nickleby in that time. Even if you’re not terribly interested in him, his house gives you a good idea of a moderately wealthy family home of the era.

Dickens and London will run until June 10, 2012.

Photo of Dickens with his two daughter courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

London’s seamy side revealed in new exhibition

London
London has always had an underworld, a dangerous side. Just go out late on a Saturday night and you’re sure to see a fight. For many, the hint of danger is one of the city’s attractions, at least if you don’t have to deal with it full time.

Back in the 18th and 19th century, there was nothing attractive about the St. Giles Rookery. It got its name because tiny apartments were stacked atop one another like birdhouses. Only the poorest of the poor lived there–the beggars, the prostitutes, the gin addicts. Especially the gin addicts. Gin was a national addiction, a cheap way to get blasted. Gin addiction was immortalized in Hogarth’s engraving Gin Lane, showing a drunken mother accidentally knocking her baby over a railing while a tradesman hawks his tools and a man hangs himself within view of an uncaring crowd.

Hogarth was no teetotaler. He liked a good drink, as his engraving Beer Street shows. It’s the same scene, gentrified. Industrious drinkers of real ale prosper and flirt in clean, attractive surroundings. It must have seemed like heaven to the denizens of the Rookery.

A new exhibition by the Museum of London looks at the lives of these nearly forgotten people, thanks to an excavation the museum sponsored at the site of the old Rookery. London’s Underworld Unearthed: The Secret Life of the Rookery features finds from the excavation along with contemporary and modern depictions of this Hell on Earth.

The finds remind us that these were real people living here. Children’s toys, simple crockery, and trick glasses used in drinking games give us a glimpse of their lives, and the gin bottles hint at how many of them died. The modern art, created by Jane Palm-Gold, draws comparisons with today’s urban blight. The permanent collection at the Museum of London is well worth a visit too in order to get a better understanding of one of the world’s most fascinating cities.

The show runs until June 3 at the Coningsby Gallery.

[Hogarth prints courtesy Wikimedia Commons.]