Speeches: Literary and Social, by Charles Dickens

SPEECH: LONDON, MAY 8, 1858.

[The forty-eighth Anniversary of the establishment of the Artists’ Benevolent Fund took place on the above date at the Freemasons’ Tavern. The chair was taken by Mr. Charles Dickens, who, after having disposed of the preliminary toasts with his usual felicity, proceeded to advocate the claims of the Institution in whose interest the company had assembled, in the following terms:-]

Ladies and gentlemen — There is an absurd theatrical story which was once told to me by a dear and valued friend, who has now passed from this sublunary stage, and which is not without its moral as applied to myself, in my present presidential position. In a certain theatrical company was included a man, who on occasions of emergency was capable of taking part in the whole round of the British drama, provided he was allowed to use his own language in getting through the dialogue. It happened one night that Reginald, in the Castle Spectre, was taken ill, and this veteran of a hundred characters was, of course, called up for the vacant part. He responded with his usual promptitude, although knowing nothing whatever of the character, but while they were getting him into the dress, he expressed a not unreasonable wish to know in some vague way what the part was about. He was not particular as to details, but in order that he might properly pourtray his sufferings, he thought he should have some slight inkling as to what really had happened to him. As, for example, what murders he had committed, whose father he was, of what misfortunes he was the victim — in short, in a general way to know why he was in that place at all. They said to him, “Here you are, chained in a dungeon, an unhappy father; you have been here for seventeen years, during which time you have never seen your daughter; you have lived upon bread and water, and, in consequence, are extremely weak, and suffer from occasional lowness of spirits.”—“All right,” said the actor of universal capabilities, “ring up.” When he was discovered to the audience, he presented an extremely miserable appearance, was very favourably received, and gave every sign of going on well, until, through some mental confusion as to his instructions, he opened the business of the act by stating in pathetic terms, that he had been confined in that dungeon seventeen years, during which time he had not tasted a morsel of food, to which circumstance he was inclined to attribute the fact of his being at that moment very much out of condition. The audience, thinking this statement exceedingly improbable, declined to receive it, and the weight of that speech hung round him until the end of his performance.

Now I, too, have received instructions for the part I have the honour of performing before you, and it behoves both you and me to profit by the terrible warning I have detailed, while I endeavour to make the part I have undertaken as plain and intelligible as I possibly can.

As I am going to propose to you that we should now begin to connect the business with the pleasure of the evening, by drinking prosperity to the Artists’ Benevolent Fund, it becomes important that we should know what that fund is. It is an Association supported by the voluntary gifts of those who entertain a critical and admiring estimation of art, and has for its object the granting of annuities to the widows and children of deceased artists — of artists who have been unable in their lives to make any provision for those dear objects of their love surviving themselves. Now it is extremely important to observe that this institution of an Artists’ Benevolent Fund, which I now call on you to pledge, has connected with it, and has arisen out of another artists’ association, which does not ask you for a health, which never did, and never will ask you for a health, which is self-supporting, and which is entirely maintained by the prudence and providence of its three hundred artist members. That fund, which is called the Artists’ Annuity Fund, is, so to speak, a joint and mutual Assurance Company against infirmity, sickness, and age. To the benefits it affords every one of its members has an absolute right, a right, be it remembered, produced by timely thrift and self- denial, and not assisted by appeals to the charity or compassion of any human being. On that fund there are, if I remember a right, some seventeen annuitants who are in the receipt of eleven hundred a-year, the proceeds of their own self-supporting Institution. In recommending to you this benevolent fund, which is not self- supporting, they address you, in effect, in these words:— “We ask you to help these widows and orphans, because we show you we have first helped ourselves. These widows and orphans may be ours or they may not be ours; but in any case we will prove to you to a certainty that we are not so many wagoners calling upon Jupiter to do our work, because we do our own work; each has his shoulder to the wheel; each, from year to year, has had his shoulder set to the wheel, and the prayer we make to Jupiter and all the gods is simply this — that this fact may be remembered when the wagon has stopped for ever, and the spent and worn-out wagoner lies lifeless by the roadside.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I most particularly wish to impress on you the strength of this appeal. I am a painter, a sculptor, or an engraver, of average success. I study and work here for no immense return, while life and health, while hand and eye are mine. I prudently belong to the Annuity Fund, which in sickness, old age, and infirmity, preserves me from want. I do my duty to those who are depending on me while life remains; but when the grass grows above my grave there is no provision for them any longer.”

This is the case with the Artists’ Benevolent Fund, and in stating this I am only the mouthpiece of three hundred of the trade, who in truth stands as independent before you as if they were three hundred Cockers all regulated by the Gospel according to themselves. There are in existence three artists’ funds, which ought never to be mentioned without respect. I am an officer of one of them, and can speak from knowledge; but on this occasion I address myself to a case for which there is no provision. I address you on behalf of those professors of the fine arts who have made provision during life, and in submitting to you their claims I am only advocating principles which I myself have always maintained.

When I add that this Benevolent Fund makes no pretensions to gentility, squanders no treasure in keeping up appearances, that it considers that the money given for the widow and the orphan, should really be held for the widow and the orphan, I think I have exhausted the case, which I desire most strenuously to commend to you.

Perhaps you will allow me to say one last word. I will not consent to present to you the professors of Art as a set of helpless babies, who are to be held up by the chin; I present them as an energetic and persevering class of men, whose incomes depend on their own faculties and personal exertions; and I also make so bold as to present them as men who in their vocation render good service to the community. I am strongly disposed to believe there are very few debates in Parliament so important to the public welfare as a really good picture. I have also a notion that any number of bundles of the driest legal chaff that ever was chopped would be cheaply expended for one really meritorious engraving. At a highly interesting annual festival at which I have the honour to assist, and which takes place behind two fountains, I sometimes observe that great ministers of state and other such exalted characters have a strange delight in rather ostentatiously declaring that they have no knowledge whatever of art, and particularly of impressing on the company that they have passed their lives in severe studies. It strikes me when I hear these things as if these great men looked upon the arts as a sort of dancing dogs, or Punch’s show, to be turned to for amusement when one has nothing else to do. Now I always take the opportunity on these occasions of entertaining my humble opinion that all this is complete “bosh;” and of asserting to myself my strong belief that the neighbourhoods of Trafalgar Square, or Suffolk Street, rightly understood, are quite as important to the welfare of the empire as those of Downing Street, or Westminster Hall. Ladies and Gentlemen, on these grounds, and backed by the recommendation of three hundred artists in favour of the Benevolent Fund, I beg to propose its prosperity as a toast for your adoption.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/dickens/charles/d54sls/chapter50.html

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:30