Tantalising mystery of artist who worked with Dickens - then shot himself

PUBLISHED: 18:18 19 November 2007 | UPDATED: 14:38 07 September 2010

Stephen Jarvis with illustrations by Robert Seymour, circa 1830

Stephen Jarvis with illustrations by Robert Seymour, circa 1830

Author Stephen Jarvis explains why a Ham&High reader may hold the key to one of literature's unsolved mysteries. Over five years ago I heard an edition of Radio 4 s Desert Island Discs in which the comedian Griff Rhys-Jones chose The Pickwick Papers as his book: this inspired me to borrow PickwickPapers from my library, having never read it before – indeed I had

Over five years ago I heard an edition of Radio 4's Desert Island Discs in which the comedian Griff Rhys-Jones chose The Pickwick Papers as his book: this inspired me to borrow PickwickPapers from my library, having never read it before - indeed I had read very little of Dickens's canon up to that point.

In the Preface, I found one line referring to the artist Robert Seymour and his suicide. I was instantly fascinated.

I am now currently writing a book about Seymour, who was probably the most prolific cartoonist and illustrator of his generation, responsible for literally thousands of images in a relatively short life.

Nowadays, however, Seymour tends to be remembered for his association with Charles Dickens: Seymour originated the project which resulted in PickwickPapers, Dickens's hugely successful first novel. Dickens - then an almost unknown journalist - was hired to write text to accompany Seymour's illustrations. Relations between the two men are shrouded in mystery, but in 1836, shortly after the Pickwick project began, Seymour shot himself.

In spite of Seymour's pivotal role in Dickens's life, he remains something of a shadowy figure and no book has ever been written about him. However, there is one source of information which is likely to completely illuminate Seymour's personal history and his relationship with Dickens - namely, a 350-page unpublished manuscript, The Life of Robert Seymour, which has been missing for eighty years.

The manuscript was written by a certain R.D. (Rowland Dalmer) Morewood, who was a close friend of Seymour's son, and it was (at least at one time) stored in a deedbox along with a great deal of other material relating to Seymour, such as letters and notebooks and even apparently two of the original acid-etched steel plates for Pickwick.

I have little doubt that overall this is the most important archive of material relating to Seymour in the world - I have been trying to locate it for about two years, in the hope that the current owner will allow me to read all the material. And there are good reasons for thinking that this archive might be in the Ham&High's circulation area.

From what I have discovered, it seems that R.D. Morewood made an unsuccessful attempt to sell the manuscript (and the rest of the material in the deedbox) at Sotheby's in 1919; after his death, the deedbox came into the possession of his niece Emily Morewood, who lived in Beckenham - and confirmation that the manuscript was in her possession until at least 1927 is to be found in an article in The Connoisseur magazine, published in that year, which stated that she was the current owner of R.D. Morewood's manuscript.

This was the last-known reference to the manuscript - and what happened to it after 1927 is a mystery: Emily Morewood died unmarried, childless, and poverty-stricken in 1937, without leaving a will. There is, though, one tantalising clue that suggests the deedbox might have been handled by someone in the Ham&High area about 20 or so years ago.

About that time, another important Seymour artefact - namely an album of his pictures collected by R.D. Morewood - was found by a print collector in a secondhand bookshop in Bell Street, near the Edgware Road. The crucial significance of this find is that this album was also, at one time, in Emily Morewood's possession - it was mentioned in the 1927 article in The Connoisseur Magazine.

So whoever placed the album in the bookshop almost certainly had possession of the manuscript as well - unfortunately, there was no sign of the manuscript in the bookshop, nor is there any clue in the album as to who placed it there.

I know that over 20 years have passed since that discovery in Bell Street, but it is conceivable that there may be someone who may be able to shed light on the fate of the deedbox.

In addition, there is another factor which leads me to believe that a Ham&High reader may have vital information. Firstly, The Pickwick Papers has, in its opening pages, (and therefore most likely to be connected to Seymour's influence on Dickens), the famous reference to the leading character's (Mr Pickwick's) spoof-learned treatise "Speculations on the Source of the Hampstead Ponds, with some Observations on the Theory of Tittlebats" - 'tittlebats' being a childish or dialect term for a stickleback - which is frequently quoted whenever the Hampstead Ponds are mentioned.

Indeed, Highgate is mentioned at the start of Pickwick too, as being another place where Mr Pickwick had conducted research.

If anyone does have information, my contact details are:

Stephen Jarvis, 1 Riverine, Grosvenor Drive, Maidenhead, Berks SL6 8PF, email: stephenjarvis@hotmail.com.

Editor's note: Stephen Jarvis is a member of Management Committee of the Dickens Fellowship and edits the Fellowship's newsletter, The London Particula. He also serves on the recently-established committee Dickens 2012, which is concerned with the commemoration of the bicentenary of Dickens's birth. He is a published author, and his last book, The Ultimate Guide to Unusual Leisure explored the world of unusual hobbies, and was written in a humorous vein.

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