Fagin in the Condemned Cell, Illustration for Oliver Twist
Black-and-white etching of a terrified prisoner in a Victorian jail


George Cruikshank (1792-1878) was the most celebrated comic artist of the early and mid Victorian periods. His caricature-style illustrations were popular in both magazines and serialized fiction. His illustrations for Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist (1837-1838), particularly the image of little Oliver asking for more food in the workhouse, and the picture of the cowering criminal, Fagin, awaiting his execution in Newgate Prison, are among the most memorable and haunting of Victorian illustrations. The featured image, "Fagin in the condemned cell," shows how Cruikshank's caricature style worked well with his medium of reproduction, etching on steel. This was the principal method of image reproduction for inexpensive, popular works such as serialized fiction, from about 1825 to 1855, when it was replaced by wood engraving. The artist could write the caption in cursive on the plate and sign it using the same method as the drawing, by using a needle to incise a waxed metal plate. The plate was then put into an acid bath, which left etched or incised lines to take the ink. This method, known as intaglio, was distinct from letterpress printing, known as relief, so the text and the image could not be set up together. Cruikshank's illustration shows effective use of light and dark in the artist's black-and-white medium. The light from the barred window falls on the condemned man to illuminate his terror and isolation as he awaits his death. Behind him hangs the Sherriff's order for execution by hanging. Under the window is a lectern with a Bible, pointedly ignored by the criminal as he sits on his narrow bed with his shackled legs, biting his fingers. Cruikshank uses the irregular "vignette" shape around the image to create the sense that we are viewing the condemned cell through an intimate portal, sharing a moment in time with this fictional character.

Source:  Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, “Illustration and Literature,” Victorian Encyclopedia

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Timeline of Events Associated with Fagin in the Condemned Cell, Illustration for Oliver Twist


  • George Cruikshank

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