Hablôt Knight Browne (1815-1882), English artist, famous as "Phiz," the illustrator of the best-known books by Charles Dickens, Charles Lever and Harrison Ainsworth in their original editions. His talents in other directions of art were of a very ordinary kind. As an interpreter and illustrator of Dickens's characters, "Phiz," as he always signed his drawings, was in some respects the equal of his rivals Cruikshank and Leech, while, in his own way, he excelled them both. Of Huguenot extraction, he was born in Lambeth on the 11th of June 1815. His father died early and left the family badly off. Browne was apprenticed to Finden, the eminent engraver on steel, in whose studio he obtained his only artistic education. To engraving, however, he was entirely unsuited, and having in 1833 secured an important prize from the Society of Arts for a drawing of "John Gilpin," he abandoned engraving in the following year and took to other artistic work, with the ultimate object of becoming a painter. In the spring of 1836 he met Charles Dickens. It was at the moment when the serial publication of Pickwick was in danger from the want of a capable interpreter for the illustrations.
Dickens knew Browne slightly as the illustrator of his little pamphlet Sunday under Three Heads, and probably this slight knowledge of his work stood the draughtsman in good stead. In the original edition of Pickwick, issued in shilling monthly parts from early in 1836 until the end of 1837, the first seven plates were drawn by Robert Seymour, a clever illustrator who committed suicide in April 1836. The next two plates were by R.W. Buss, an otherwise successful portrait-painter and lecturer, but they were so poor that a change was imperative. Browne and W.M. Thackeray called independently at the publishers' office with specimens of their powers for Dickens's inspection. The novelist preferred Browne. Browne's first two etched plates for Pickwick were signed "Nemo," but the third was signed "Phiz," a pseudonym which was retained in future. When asked to explain why he chose this name he answered that the change from "Nemo" to "Phiz" was made "to harmonize better with Dickens's Boz." Possibly Browne adopted it to conceal his identity, hoping one day to become famous as a painter.
It is to be noted, however, that "Phiz" is usually attached to his better work and H.K.B. to his less successful drawings. "Phiz" undoubtedly created Sam Weller, so far as his well-known figure is concerned, as Seymour had created Pickwick. Dickens and "Phiz" were personally good friends in early days, and in 1838 travelled together to Yorkshire to see the schools of which Nicholas Nickleby became the hero; afterwards they made several journeys of this nature in company to facilitate the illustrator's work. The other Dickens characters which "Phiz" realized most successfully are perhaps Squeers, Micawber, Guppy, Major Bagstock, Mrs Gamp, Tom Pinch and, above all, David Copperfield. Of the books by Dickens which "Phiz" illustrated the best are David Copperfield, Pickwick, Dombey and Son, Martin Chuzzlewit and Bleak House. Browne made several drawings for Punch in early days and also towards the end of his life; his chief work in this direction being the clever design for the wrapper which was used for eighteen months from January 1842. He also contributed to Punch's Pocket Books. In addition to his work for Dickens, "Phiz" illustrated over twenty of Lever's novels (the most successful being Harry Lorrequer, Charles O'Malley, Jack Hinton and the Knight of Gwynne). He also illustrated Harrison Ainsworth's and Frank Smedley's novels.
Mervyn Clitheroe by Ainsworth is one of the most admirable of the artist's Works. Browne was in continual employment by publishers until 1867, when he had a stroke of paralysis. Although he recovered slightly and made many illustrations on wood, they were by comparison inferior productions which the draughtsman's admirers would willingly ignore. In 1878 he was awarded an annuity by the Royal Academy. He gradually became worse in health, until he died on the 8th of July 1882.
Most of Browne's work was etched on steel plates because these yielded a far larger edition than copper. Browne was annoyed at some of his etchings being transferred to stone by the publishers and printed as lithographic reproductions. Partly with the view to prevent this treatment of his work he employed a machine to rule a series of lines over the plate in order to obtain what appeared to be a tint; when manipulated with acid this tint gave an effect somewhat resembling mezzotint, which at that time it was found practically impossible to transfer to stone. The illustrations executed by Browne are particularly noteworthy because they realized exactly what the reader most desired to see represented. So skilful was he in drawing and composition that no part of the story was avoided by reason of the elaborateness of the subject. Whatever was the best incident for illustration was always the one selected.
See D. Croal Thomson, Hablôt Knight Browne, "Phiz": Life and Letters (London, 1884); John Forster, Life of Charles Dickens (London, 1871-1874); F.G. Kitton, "Phiz": A Memoir (London, 1882); Charles Dickens and his Illustrators (London, 1899); M.H. Spielmann, The History of Punch (London, 1895).
(D. C. T.)