by Martha Rosso
April 30, 2001
A person doesn't have to talk to a member of the Philadelphia Branch very long before he learns that the only full-sized statue of Dickens in the world is located in Clark Park, West Philadelphia.
While Philadelphians are rightly proud of this distinction, there is a shadow over their pride, a blot on the escutcheon, so to speak; for their beloved statue is in a way illegitimate. In his will, Dickens specifically directed that there be no monument or memorial erected in his honor by his family and friends, since he preferred that he be remembered through his published works alone.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, as it later turned out), Frank Elwell, the sculptor who designed and cast the beautiful grouping of Dickens and Little Nell was not aware of this restrictive clause in Dickens's will, thus the statue came into being without the blessing of the Dickens estate and heirs.
When it was completed, in 1894, the statue was shipped to Chicago for exhibition at their World's Fair that year, this being the purpose for which it had been commissioned. When the Fair was over, its directors decided, on account of the statue's subject, to send it to England as a gift from the American people.
But when the then-head of the Dickens family, the author's son, Sir Henry Dickens, heard about this illegal piece of monumental bronze statuary landing on British soil, he became greatly incensed, not to say peeved, that the generally clueless Americans (when it came to observing proper protocol, anyway) had ignored his father's very definitely stated and legally binding wishes. He therefore very stuffily (from the viewpoint of the Americans, anyway) ordered that the statue be returned to its source, not even allowing it to be unpacked. On its return to America, the statue found its way to Philadelphia, there to languish in a warehouse for several years. At last it was installed at its present location, a green and shady playground for children.
Nobody could ever question that the statue in Philadelphia is a great work of art. The seated Dickens, from his superior position atop the plinth, contemplates with benevolence and indulgent affection the little girl standing before him, his hand suspended over her head in a kind of paternal blessing. Little Nell gazes up intently at her creator, her arm resting easily at his feet. The natural patina of the bronze on Dickens's knees and Little Nell's arm is worn off and the metal brightly polished, from the feet of generations of little children who have clambered up to nestle in the curve of Dickens's lap.
The sheer artistry and aesthetic power of this sculpture of a little girl and her creator emanates from its every line, its every surface, its every molded feature. At times there seems to be an aura, an ethereal presence, hovering over it that can be very moving to the perceptive viewer. We think Dickens would have been pleased.