In Portsmouth’s Guildhall Square a bronze Charles Dickens reclines on a throne of his first editions. He looks distinctly uncomfortable. He is attempting to cut a fetching figure – graceful with his crossed legs, but you know that our mutual friend is worried about those books. For, as everybody knows, sitting obliquely on a pile of volumes is a dangerous escapade. A slight squirm to the right or left will cause the books to skew and threaten a general collapse.
No wonder then that Dickens steadies himself with one hand behind his back, ready to spring up when the inevitable avalanche comes. So there he sits, for posterity, Britain’s first life size statue of the author.
I arrived just after the official unveiling of the great novelist last Friday. A flutter of local dignitaries lingered around him. Sun shone on their municipal chains of office .They wore the meek smiles of people who do not know quite what to think. Dickens, the great satirist, would have loved and mocked these awkward burghers in equal measure.
I walked around Dickens twice and came and came back to his face. I stared into the blank, bronze eyes and saw…nothing. None of the passion, wit and energy of the most virile writer this country has ever known. Previously, the sculptor, Martin Jennings managed to capture John Betjeman well. His statue of the bumbling laureate stands crumpled and portly in St Pancras Station. Betjeman stares up at the girders. He holds his hat in case it flies off, a carrier bag in the other hand. It is an eloquent and lively representation of the jolly poet.
I wonder if the fact that Betjeman died within living memory, that people knew him, enabled Jennings to imbue vivacity. Conversely, his portrayal of Dickens has a kind of generic Victoriana. He has given Portsmouth’s most famous son an impersonal expression reminiscent of those worthy and stentorious soviet statues of Engels.
If you want pomp in Portsmouth you have only to swivel around and gaze at Alfred Dury’s statue of the great Queen Empress Herself who towers on the other side of Guildhall Square. The hooded eyes and baggy face of the old lady Victoria look down with a lifetime of regal self- possession. Mrs Brown bustles towards you heavily. Yet this woman knows her power. Her regalia is picked with clarity. You can see every fold and seam of her gown.
I would have liked Dickens to have been standing. Perhaps with his head inclined to his queen; the two of them acknowledging that together they defined an epoch. Fundamentally, Dickens should not have been cast in reclined fashion because he was the most restless of writers. This was a man who regularly walked twenty miles a day. A striding and lithe Dickens, his hair dishevelled, would have been much better.
As it is, Jennings’ bronze is like an anonymous man in Charles Dickens fancy dress. Meanwhile, in civic eternity Victoria Imperatorix looks down in the great expectation that the poor fellow opposite will at any moment slide towards the hard times of a bruised coccyx.