Robert Seymour was an early 19th century draughtsman. He is most famous for his illustrations for the Charles Dickens novel 'The Pickwick Papers'. In his lifetime he was dubbed "The Shakespeare of caricature" and hailed as the spiritual successor of William Hogarth. Despite all this praise his promising career was cut short when he tragically committed suicide at the age of only 37. The events leading up to this dramatic decision and how much Dickens and his publisher drove him to it is still a matter of controversy today.
Robert Seymour was born in Somerset, England in 1798. His family later moved to London. When his father died he became a pattern-drawer and moved his way up as an art painter. At the age of 24 his work was exhibited at the prestigious Royal Academy. Since oil painting didn't pay well he became a full-time illustrator for theatrical plays, poetry books, non-fiction books and novels. Seymour started out working for Knight & Lacey, being paid half a guinea for each illustration which was still low compared to the pay other artists received. Gradually the demand for his work rose. He illustrated many classic works of world literature, including Miguel de Cervantes' 'Don Quixote', John Milton's 'Paradise Lost' and the plays of William Shakespeare. He also befriended George Cruikshank and, as a tribute to him, signed some of his own work with "Shortshanks". After Cruikshank complained in 1827 Seymour published under his own name instead.
In 1827 Seymour married. Tragedy struck the same year when his mother passed away and Knight and Lacey went bankrupt, owing him still a lot of money. Luckily the artist found employment at Thomas McLean, where he specialized in caricatures. In 1830 Seymour succeeded William Heath as the home cartoonist of "McLean's Monthly Sheet of Caricatures, or, The Looking Glass". He also illustrated two series of plays published by Richardson between 1827 and 1831, namely 'New Royal Acted Drama' and 'New Minor Drama, 1827-1830'. He also produced some panels containing sequential art, and he even used speech balloons. Notable examples are 'The Mountain in Labour, or, Much Ado About Nothing' (1829) and 'The Adelaide Mill' (1830).
In 1831 Seymour joined Figaro In London, a satirical magazine where he published several humorous drawings. After three years he resigned about a money dispute with Figaro's editor Gilbert à Beckett, who even continued to fight out his personal vendetta with Seymour in the media. The artist was replaced by Isaac Robert Cruikshank, brother of George Cruikshank. Only when Henry Mayhew succeeded à Becket in 1835 as the new editor did Seymour return to its pages.
'The Mountain in Labour, or, Much Ado About Nothing' (1829). The cartoon mocks the Roman Catholic Relief Act, which passed the British Parliament on 24 March 1829. The legislation gave Catholics permission to seat in parliament and have careers in the higher civil service and judiciary. The drawing depicts Prime Minister Arthur Wellesley (better known as the Duke of Wellington) and Robert Peel, who are informed by a female doctor that the Roman Catholic Relief Act will inspire more people to visit Ireland (which is known for having a high Catholic population).
Sadly Seymour died only a year later. A deeply depressive man, he had his first mental breakdown in 1830. He never lived to see the success of his best known work: the illustrations for Charles Dickens' breakthrough novel 'The Pickwick Papers' (1836), which were published posthumously. While Dickens usually gets all the credit for creating this timeless classic, Seymour's role was equally important. He suggested the basic concept to the publisher, that of a club whose members go an several different venues, with hilarious results. Seymour felt these anecdotal stories ought to be published in monthly installments, for which he would provide the illustrations. A writer was sought and the then still unknown Charles Dickens was brought on board. He was shown some preliminary illustrations by Seymour, from which he developed his own stories. Before Seymour knew it he was reduced to being a mere replaceable illustrator of Dickens' imagination. The matter depressed him severely. Underpaid and underappreciated, he made a final illustration to the book, fittingly titled 'Death of a Clown'. 24 hours after his final meeting with Dickens Seymour went home and shot himself. Before taking his life he destroyed all his private papers. Interestingly enough, Dickens would do the same on his own deathbed, 34 years later.
After Seymour's death, 'The Pickwick Papers' became an immediate best-seller, translated in all languages on Earth. Several sequels followed, illustrated by new artists such as Robert W. Buss and Hablot Knight Browne. Dickens himself became one of the most popular novelists of his time, still read to this day. Seymour, on the other hand, received no credit for his work. Dickens even specifically stated that the illustrator had "only contributed to the first 24 pages of his manuscript". Seymour's wife didn't even receive royalties and remained spiteful towards Dickens for the rest of her life. Historians still argue about the controversy. While it's true that Seymour came up with the basic set-up the completed 'Pickwick Papers' share little to no resemblance to his original idea. Seymour envisioned stories about a sports club, but since Dickens didn't know much about this field he turned the Pickwick Club into a more general club, which opened possiblities for different kinds of storylines. The main character, Samuel Pickwick, also looked vastly different in Seymour's original sketches: lean instead of obese. Inspired by Dickens' writings (and possibly suggestions) he eventually evolved into the jolly, well-meaning but naïve old man as readers know him today. Many historians agree that Dickens' role in the success of 'Pickwick Papers' was far more important and definitive than Seymour's contributions. Yet it is true that Seymour's design of Pickwick as it appeared in the final product has become the iconic way all illustrators and film adaptations have visualized him since.
It would take many decades before Robert Seymour was finally rediscovered and given the respect that eluded him for so long in his own lifetime. In 2010 his tombstone, which went missing for more than a century, was tracked down by scholar Stephen Jarvis who found it in the crypt of a London Church. It was unveiled and inaugurated in the back garden of Dickens' old home, which is now a museum. Jarvis also wrote a novel which features Seymour as its main character, called 'Death and Mr Pickwick' (Random House Group, 2015). It explores Seymour’s life, suicide and the story behind the creation of Charles Dickens's first novel.