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Free Exhibition Celebrates Charles Dickens on his 200th Birthday


The New York Public Library explores the influence of the great author’s characters on fine art, illustration, theater, and film

September 14, 2012—The New York Public Library celebrates the 200th birthday of one of English literature’s most beloved authors with Charles Dickens: The Key to Character, a free exhibition opening September 14, 2012.

Held in the Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III Gallery of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, the exhibition explores how the great writer brought his characters to life and why they have remained remarkably inspiring to generations of artists and readers.

The exhibition looks at characters across Dickens’s career, from beloved novels like A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist, and David Copperfield to lesser-know works including Martin Chuzzlewit and Dombey and Son.

According to one count, some 3,592 individuals populate Dickens’ universe. His fictional creations represent a cross-section of society—from law clerk to crossing-sweeper, miser to midwife—and are united by the vividness with which they are described. His brilliantly imagined characters have served as muses for illustrators, dramatists, composers, and even fashion designers, and two centuries after his birth, Dickens’s works have been adapted for film more often than those of Shakespeare.

Charles Dickens: The Key to Character demonstrates this influence with works by nearly thirty illustrators—including unpublished watercolors by the well-known Phiz—along with rare translations, original sheet music, and the memoranda book the author used to jot down possible names for characters.

Also on display: an 1867 pocket diary filled with the code Dickens used to communicate with his mistress, Ellen Ternan; a couture gown by Prabal Gurung, a contemporary fashion designer inspired by the decayed elegance of Great Expectations’s Miss Havisham; and recordings from the special collections of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

William Moeck, British literature professor at Nassau Community College, SUNY, and co-editor of Paradise Lost 1668-1968: Three Centuries of Commentary, curated the exhibition. He was also curator of the Library’s 2008 exhibition John Milton at 400: A Life Beyond Life.

Charles Dickens: The Key to Character is accompanied by a free lecture series. More details can be found at or by clicking here.

Exhibition Details:

Charles Dickens: The Key to Character
September 14, 2012 through January 27, 2013
Free Admission
Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III Gallery
The New York Public Library, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

Monday, Thursday-Saturday: 10 a.m.–6 p.m.
Tuesday & Wednesday: 10 a.m.–7:30 p.m.
Sunday: 1– 5 p.m.

Support for The New York Public Library’s Exhibitions Program has been provided by Celeste Bartos, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, Mahnaz Ispahani Bartos and Adam Bartos Exhibitions Fund, and Jonathan Altman.