Hablot Knight Browne (1815-1882), known as 'Phiz' Under the name of Phiz, Hablot Knight Browne became known as Charles Dickens’ essential illustrator, responsible for imaging the immortal characters to 10 of the major novels, from The Pickwick Papers to A Tale of Two Cities. He was also associated with the popular fiction of Charles Lever, his illustrations for which communicated his love of life, especially its equestrian aspects. A versatile artist, in technique as well as subject, he could etch his own designs, and also painted in oil and watercolour. Descended from Huguenot refugees, H K Browne was born in Lower Kennington Lane, London in June or July 1815, and baptised on 21 December 1815 at St Mary’s, Lambeth. He was brought up as the fourteenth child of the merchant, William Lowder Browne. However, it is now known (as the result of the researches of Valerie Browne Lester) that he was the illegitimate son of W L Browne’s daughter, Kate, and Captain Nicolas Hablot, a cavalry officer in Napoleon’s imperial guard.
In 1822, W L Browne fell in to debt and absconded to the United States, leaving his wife to bring up the children in a house in Euston Square. H K Browne was educated at a boarding school in Botesdale, Suffolk, where the headmaster, the Reverend William Haddock, encouraged his artistic talents. He was removed from the school by his brother-in-law (that is, his uncle) Elhanan Bicknell, who then financed his apprenticeship with the engravers William and Edward Finden, of Southampton Place, Euston Square, London. (Bicknell was a whaling magnate and one of J M W Turner’s leading patrons.) Browne’s studies included visits to the British Museum and classes at William Taylor’s Living Model Academy. In 1834, Browne quit his apprenticeship and set up a studio with his fellow student, Robert Young, at 3 Furnival’s Inn, Holborn (across the court from Charles Dickens’ lodgings). From this time until his marriage in 1840, he lived at Bedford Place, and then in the artists’ quarter north of Oxford Street. Browne and Young complemented each other’s talents perfectly, with Browne excelling at drawing and Young at printing, and they remained friends until Browne’s death. In spring 1836, the publishers Chapman and Hall asked Browne to illustrate Sunday under Three Heads (1836), an anti-Sabbatarian pamphlet written by Charles Dickens, under the name ‘Timothy Sparks’, and to contribute illustrations to a new monthly periodical, The Library of Fiction. As a result of his work on these publications, Dickens employed Browne to illustrate his first full-length novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1839), as a replacement for Robert Seymour (who had committed suicide) and Robert Buss (who proved incompetent). At an early stage in this project, Browne began to sign his work ‘Phiz’, which harmonised with Dickens’ pseudonym, ‘Boz’. The success of their collaboration helped establish Browne as Dickens’ leading illustrator. Over the following three decades, he would provide images for 10 of the major novels (up to and including A Tale of Two Cities in 1859), for reprints and for shorter publications. During the late 1830s, Browne and Dickens were sufficiently close to travel together. At the close of the decade, Browne illustrated Harry Lorrequer by the Irish writer and physician, Charles Lever; so he began the second of his two close collaborations, comprising 17 novels and a collected edition published over four decades. The subjects of these novels gave him many opportunities to draw on his love of horses and hunting, and when he visited Lever in Ireland they would go out riding together. In the same period, Browne also began to contribute to numerous periodicals, including the New Sporting Magazine (1839-43), Punch (1842-44, 1850-51, 1861-69), The Illustrated London News (1844-61), The Illuminated Magazine (1843-45) and Sharpe’s London Magazine (1845-47). In 1840, Browne married Susannah Reynolds, the daughter of a Norfolk Baptist minister, at Holy Trinity Church, Marylebone, and together they rented a house on Howland Street. They would have nine children to survive into adulthood. Always ambitious to be more than an illustrator, Browne exhibited paintings at the British Institution (1843-69), and entered two preparatory ‘cartoons’, apparently ‘tongue in cheek’ (Patten and Lester), to the competition for decorations of the Houses of Parliament. However, with the development of his reputation as an illustrator, he would be increasingly preoccupied in providing images for literary texts both contemporary and classic. In 1844, Browne superseded George Cruikshank as illustrator to Harrison Ainsworth, and illustrated six of his novels. Other projects during the 1840s and 1850s included illustrations to new editions of novels by Walter Scott (from 1842), Henry Fielding and Tobias Smollett (1855), and frontispieces to novels by Bulwer Lytton (from 1849). In the late 1840s, the Brownes moved out to Surrey for the sake of Susannah’s health. They lived first at Thornton House, Thornton Heath; then at a new villa on Duppas Hill, Waddon; and, finally, in rural Banstead. However, in 1859, they returned to London, and settled in Notting Hill. Living first at 2 Horbury Crescent, they moved to 19 Blenheim Crescent in 1868, and then to 99 (now 239) Ladbroke Grove in 1874. Browne’s return to London, in 1859, marked the beginning of a new phase in his career. Responding to changes in both book technology and the tastes of readers, he diversified his talents and so re-established himself, if without recapturing the glittering success of his collaborations with Dickens and Lever. He also persevered as a painter in oil and watercolour, overcoming an episode of paralysis to his right side in 1867 to exhibit at both the Society of British Artists and the British Institution until 1869. Furthermore, he contributed illustrations to the periodical Judy from then until his death 13 years later. Never a great businessman, Browne began to suffer from poverty late in his career and, in 1880, the Royal Academy was prompted by the painters, Luke Fildes and William Powell Frith, to give him a small pension, one that had been previously assigned to George Cruikshank. In the same year, the Brownes moved to Hove, Sussex. He died at home on 8 July 1882 of progressive paralysis and a stroke. A memorial exhibition was held at the Liverpool Art Club and the Fine Art Society, London, in 1883. His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the V&A; and the Free Library of Philadelphia and The University of Texas at Austin.