On the 26th of April, 1836, the following article appeared in The Reformer newspaper.
SUICIDE OF MR. R. SEYMOUR.
Thursday afternoon an inquest was held at the King’s Arms Inn, Liverpool-road, Islington, before Mr. Stirling and a very respectable jury, to inquire touching the death of Mr. Robert Seymour, aged 38, a gentleman well known for his admirable productions as a caricaturist and artist.
A DREADFUL SIGHT
Mr. John Mason deposed that between seven and eight o’clock, on Wednesday, he was passing Park Place West, Liverpool-road, when he was called to by a gentleman named Cave, who exclaimed, “For God’s sake come in; here is a dreadful sight.”
Witness accordingly went into the residence of the deceased, No. 16, Park-place, and passing through the house into the garden, discovered the deceased stretched on the ground, weltering in blood, which proceeded from a dreadful wound in the chest.
The unfortunate gentleman was apparently quite dead:- a fowling-piece [shotgun] was lying near him. Witness picked up a letter near the spot where the deceased lay; he delivered it to one of the female servants.
DEATH WOULD HAVE BEEN INSTANTANEOUS
Mr. Burroughs, surgeon, of No. 1, Park-place, Islington, said that he was called in between seven and eight o’clock on Wednesday morning, and found the unfortunate gentleman in a situation already described.
On a post mortem examination the heart was found to be shattered by a gun-shot wound.
Death must have ensued instantaneously.
LAST SEEN ALIVE ON THE TUESDAY NIGHT
Eliza Kinsbury, servant to the deceased, deposed that she saw her master last alive on Tuesday night between ten and eleven o’clock, when he was with Mrs. Seymour.
Witness got up about half-part six o’clock on the following morning; her master, however, had previously risen, which was not at all unusual.
HIS CLOTHING WAS ON FIRE
Witness, while walking round the garden was shocked at discovering her master stretched on the ground behind the summer-house; he was covered with blood, and some of his apparel was on fire; a gun was laying close beside him.
Witness gave an immediate alarm, when several persons entered the house; witness received the letter produced from Mr. Mason the first witness.
HIS SUICIDE NOTE
The letter in question was read by the coroner’s clerk ; the following is a verbatim copy:-
“Best and dearest of wives – for best of wives you have been to me – blame I charge you not any one, it is my own weakness and infirmity, I don’t think anyone has been a malicious enemy to me; I have never done a crime my country’s laws punish with death. Yet I die, my life it ends; I hope my Creator will grant me peace, which I have prayed so for in vain whilst living.”
There was no date, signature, or superscription to the letter.
IT WAS THE DECEASED’S HANDWRITING
Mr. Samuel Unott, engraver, of No. 1, Derby-street, King’s-Cross, St. Pancras, nephew to the deceased, identified the writing as that of the deceased, and added that his mind of late had been very much perplexed, which witness has no doubt was caused by his (deceased’s) intense application to his profession. His circumstances were good, and he was universally beloved for his urbanity of manner and kindness of heart.
VERDICT – SUICIDE
Verdict – ” Temporary Derangement.”
The deceased has left a widow and three orphans.
A LARGELY FORGOTTEN FIGURE
Robert Seymour is, today, a largely forgotten figure.
Yet, at the time of his death, he was one of the country’s most popular and respected illustrators and caricaturists.
SKETCHES BY SEYMOUR
In 1834 he had conceived and began working on a sequence of lithographs entitled Sketches by Seymour, which depicted expeditions of over-equipped and under-trained Cockneys – i.e city dwellers – pursuing cats, birds and stray pigs on foot and on horseback.
These proved extremely popular with the public of the age and, in 1836, he proposed to his publishers, Chapman and Hall, that they produce a magazine series of sporting illustrations that would be accompanied by short written sketches that would turn his illustrations into serialised narratives.
Furthermore, he came up with the notion of giving the series a framework by having the characters be members of a club, which he titled “The Nimrod Club.”
What was needed was a “hack” writer who could supply words to accompany Seymour’s illustrations.
To that end, they approached a young 24-year-old journalist who, at the time, was starting to make a name for himself with a series of written sketches which he was writing under the pseudonym of Boz.
CHARLES DICKENS, NO LESS!
Boz was, in fact, Charles Dickens and, on accepting the commission, he made it quite clear that, not being a sporting enthusiast himself, he would be unable to provide narratives that would be exclusively devoted to sporting pursuits.
Dickens was, it is apparent, eager to stamp his own style onto the work and, to that end, he wrote to William Hall informing him that, rather than follow Seymour’s illustrations, “I would like to take my own way.”
Taking his own way included making a significant change to Seymour’s original conception of the work. Dickens liked the idea of the characters being members of a club, but he wasn’t overly impressed with that club being named “The Nimrod Club.”
Thus, when the first instalment appeared, its title had been changed to The Posthumous Papers of The Pickwick Club.
To add insult to injury – at least as far as Robert Seymour was concerned – from the the outset Dickens was determined that he was to have total control over the narrative and Seymour was to be his illustrator.
NO MENTION OF SEYMOUR
Indeed, when the first instalment appeared, on March 31st 1836, Seymour must have viewed its cover with mixed emotions as it was simply credited as “Edited By Boz, With Illustrations.” In other words, there was no mention whatsoever of Robert Seymour.
THE STROLLER’S TALE
For Seymour, a man who was prone to bouts of depression, the situation evidently began to pray on his mind.
As Dickens set to work on the second number of Pickwick Papers, he began to move away from the idea of a sporting theme and, instead, opened with The Stroller’s Tale, which was the story of a pantomime clown who drank himself to death and who was plagued by dreadful hallucinatory visions in his dying moments.
On receiving Seymour’s illustration for the scene, Dickens found fault with every figure in the sketch and wrote to tell Seymour of the failings. He did concede, perhaps rather tactlessly, that, “the furniture of the room you have depicted admirably.”
DICKENS SUMMONS SEYMOUR
On Sunday the 17th April 1836, Dickens “invited” Seymour to “take a glass of grog” with him at his [Dickens’s] chambers at Furnival’s Inn, Holborn. This was the only time the two of them ever met face to face, as all their other exchanges had been done either by letter or intermediaries.
The meeting was a fraught one, as Dickens was insistent that Robert Seymour change his latest illustration to fit better with his [Dickens’s] narrative.
Robert Seymour had had enough of this young upstart, and the bitter exchange ended with him informing Dickens that “a younger, more adaptable artist might suit Mr. Dickens better.”
So-saying, he flounced from the room and headed back to his house in Liverpool Road, Islington.
THE DEATH OF SEYMOUR
Over the next few days, he worked on the changes that Dickens had requested.
But, on Wednesday 20th April 1836, he went out into his garden, placed his shotgun against his chest, and shot himself dead.
Interestingly, when a search was made of his studio to try to locate the missing illustrations for Pickwick, the plates “were found unfinished with their faces turned to the wall.”
WAS DICKENS TO BLAME?
Despite the fact that Seymour’s pencilled suicide note had urged, “blame I charge you not any one”, it was, and has, been suggested that Dickens bore some of the responsibility.
However, it should be noted that Seymour was prone to melancholy and he had made three previous attempts at suicide.
So, whereas Dickens behaviour over the project didn’t help, he can be absolved of having been directly responsible for Seymour’s suicide.
A NEW ILLUSTRATOR
Dickens wasted little time mourning Seymour, and the decision was taken to bring in a new illustrator, preferably one who would be more compliant to Dickens wishes. The commission first went to Robert William Buss, but, after just one instalment, his illustrations judged unsatisfactory, and the job passed to to Hablot Knight Browne, who took the pen name of Phiz in order to better go with Dickens Boz.
DICKENS FAME ERUPTS
Subsequent issues met with general critical indifference and sales simply limped along until, in episode four, Dickens introduced the character Sam Weller into the narrative, whereupon sales rocketed from around 400 copies to in excess of 40,000 copies, and soon Charles Dickens was on his way to establishing himself as the greatest and best known writer of his generation, and the name of Boz was on everyone’s lips.
And, as Dickens fame grew, so the name of Robert Seymour would be reduced to little more than a footnote in the story of Charles Dickens.