James H. McKenzie (1862-1952): Art and Reading – Writing Lives

James H. McKenzie (1862-1952): Art and Reading

“It was with an element of pride, that I had been taught to read, write and paint”

James H. McKenzie (228)

There is a sense from reading James McKenzie’s memoir that from an early age he was drawn to hobbies that allowed him to satisfy his creative desires. James notes how initially art and sketching during his childhood allowed him to forget his situation as it gave him the chance to immerse himself in something that was his own way of expression and escapism.

One artist that James admired greatly for depicting the fair community was William Hogarth. He states in his memoir ‘Hogarth in my way of thinking was one of the greatest artists, he painted the fair, who has painted it since, very few. Was it an unworthy subject, or was it amusement for the commoner only!’ (168). James admired Hogarth’s depiction of the novelty of the fair.
Source –

“What few spare moments I had I was sketching”

James H. McKenzie (23A)

During his time in the circus, James states that he was asked by the proprietor to ‘paint the front of the circus’ (101) and it was from this moment on that James discovered a new sense of confidence in his abilities, as he independently had to complete eight large paintings during the course of a ‘long winter’ (101). There is sense from James words that he did not believe he was worthy of completing such a grand piece of art, as he implies that the proprietor must have wanted it done ‘cheap’ (101). Although James recalls men poking fun at his paintings of clowns and horses, it seems that his work impressed the proprietor as he told him that ‘they suited him admirably’ (101). This commission in many ways shaped James, as it allowed him to see how his dedication and hard work was constructive, as he had achieved something that others might have deemed a daunting and demanding task.

“I started copying the circus posters with all the confidence possible, for I thought what a grand offer”

James H. McKenzie (101)

Once James became his own showman, he decided that he would combine his passion for art with his love for the works of Charles Dickens. The writings of Charles Dickens profoundly influenced James throughout his life, as he discloses in his memoir that for many years he illustrated a collection of paintings in which “he copied the illustrations in the Household Edition” (321). James states that he at first saw his collection as a ‘hobby’ and not for the purpose of public display. However, as his collection began to expand to ‘paper mache’ (321) models of the principal characters, James could see the potential of creating and exhibiting a Dickens Gallery. A novel by Charles Dickens that especially influenced James was David Copperfield, as, during the preparation of his exhibit, he decided to construct and build a “Boat similar to Fred Barnard’s Frontispiece” (322).

There is a sense that Dickens played an important role in the lives of circus folk, as he supported and wrote about the fascination of the fair. Paul Schlicke explores how when the amusements of Victorian society were under attack and labelled as vulgar ‘Dickens, the great popular entertainer, was their champion’ (3), as he shared his delight in the fair and offered his ‘support of the ordinary men and women who participate in the national occasion’ (3). James admired Dickens’s honest words as he somehow managed to remove the barrier of prejudice that was associated with the circus community.

James found much inspiration from the works of Charles Dickens. James recalls in his memoir how his greatest achievement was constructing a lifesize model of Mr Peggotty’s houseboat. He notes how he modelled his design from the illustration by found in the Household Edition of David Copperfield.
Source –

James states that he “finished the Boat and two hundred and fifty pictures and busts of many characters were on show” (323). Pride and relief are heard in James’ voice, as the work that he had held on to for many years finally found an audience that desired to see it. There is the sense that this exhibition opened James’ work to a wider audience, as during his time managing the gallery he met many ‘interesting people, the Americans especially’ (325). People’s ‘interest’ in the Gallery encouraged James to carry on with his endeavour and while people remained intrigued and interested in his work he found that he was ‘satisfied’ (323) to continue well into the later years of his life. This entry is found near the end of the memoir and there is the sense that James had finally found a way to honour Charles Dickens after many years of his admiration for his work and for the impact he had on him during his life and career.


‘James H. McKenzie’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 1:473

McKenzie, James H. ‘Strange Truth. The Autobiography of a Circus, Showman, Stage and Exhibition Man’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection Library, 1:473

Schlicke, Paul (1988) Dickens and Popular Entertainment, Taylor & Francis Group, Florence. pp.2 – 16.

Proof read by Sera – click here to read Sera’s Freak Show & the Fairs blog post

Previous Post: The Rise & Fall of Novelty Acts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.