The History and Background Behind The World’s First Statue of Charles Dickens

Although I have lived in the West Philadelphia neighborhood of Cedar Park since 2006, I have not really given too much thought to the history of the Charles Dickens statue in the “Park A” part of Clark Park at 43rd Street and Baltimore Avenue. In fact, the statue is of not only Dickens but his character “Little Nell” (i.e. Nell Trent, a character from his 1841 novel The Old Curiosity Shop). I had heard that it is the world’s only statue of Dickens, but this is technically not true, as there is another one in Sydney, Australia and a very recently erected statue of his likeness in his birth city of Portsmouth. Still, I found it quite odd that of all the places on earth where a statue of Dickens could possibly exist, one was here in Philadelphia and not in London, which at least in theory would make much more sense. Thus, I decided to do some investigating.

Photo of statue of Charles Dickens and Little Nell in 1910.

Photo of statue of Charles Dickens and Little Nell in 1910.

As it turns out, the statue was commissioned in 1890 by Washington Post founder Stilson Hutchins to be completed by New York City-based artist Francis Edwin Elwell. Initially, the idea was that it would indeed be placed in London. When Hutchins backed out of the deal, Elwell finished it anyway. The statue was then shipped to London and put on display with the hope of finding a buyer. However, this was unsuccessful namely because Dickens expressed a strong desire to not be depicted in such form. In fact, his will does not allow any “monument, memorial or testimonial, whatever. I rest my claims to remembrance on my published works and to the remembrance of my friends upon their experiences of me.”

The statue of Charles Dickens and Little Nell in Clark Park circa 1959.

The statue of Charles Dickens and Little Nell in Clark Park circa 1959.

After Elwell shipped the statue across the Atlantic and back, it won two gold medals at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1892-3. Despite the awards it received, the work failed to find a buyer and so it was then sent to languish in a Philadelphia warehouse.

Then in 1896, the organization that became the Association for Public Art (back then it was called the Fairmount Park Art Association) negotiated to keep the work in Philadelphia. In 1900, the FPAA purchased it for $7,500 (about $213,000 today) and in 1901, it was placed in its current location and it has stayed there since then despite numerous failed requests to move it to a more prominent location. In November 1989, the sculpture was vandalized but ultimately fully restored.

The entrance to Clark Park circa 1927.

The entrance to Clark Park circa 1927.

Every year in February, Dickens’ birthday is celebrated in Clark Park. In 2013, the celebration included Morris dancing, sampling of Victorian-era desserts, readings from his books and other events.

The statue of Dickens and Little Nell is the only statue that is placed in Clark Park and while we’re not exactly sure of how it got there in the first place, the likely answer is due to Clark Park’s namesake Clarence H. Clark himself. Clark was a wealthy financier and developer who sat on the artworks committee of the FPAA committee. Thus, it was purchased by the FPAA in 1900 and placed at 43rd and Chester in 1901.

In addition to the statue of Dickens and Little Nell, the park also contains a large stone from an area called Devil’s Den in the Gettysburg Battlefield during the Civil War. The stone was placed in the park in June of 1916 and was set up there to remember Union soldiers who were treated at the site, which was once Satterlee Hospital, and “services of the patriotic men and women” who cared for them.

Another example of public art in Clark Park is an initiative set up by the University City District called Heart and Soul. Last summer, 4 decorated pianos were set up all over the park with the goal being spontaneous, random piano performances by whoever wandered by and sat down to play.

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