Zoomable Image of Portrait of Charles John Huffam Dickens (1812-1870), wearing dark jacket and cravat, white waistcoat, his dark hair worn collar-length in long curls, 1843

Portrait of Charles John Huffam Dickens (1812-1870), wearing dark jacket and cravat, white waistcoat, his dark hair worn collar-length in long curls, 1843

Margaret Gillies RWS (1803-1887)

Portrait of Charles John Huffam Dickens (1812-1870), wearing dark jacket and cravat, white waistcoat, his dark hair worn collar-length in long curls, 1843

Margaret Gillies RWS (1803-1887)

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Watercolour and gouache on ivory


Oval, 5 ½ in (140 mm) high


The artist; Probably the Lewes family; Private collection South Africa


F.G. Kitton, Dickens by Pen and Pencil, and a supplement to Dickens by Pen and Pencil (1890-1), vol.1, facing 51 (woodcut); R. Ormond, National Portrait Gallery Early Victorian Portraits, Vol. 1, London, 1973, p.143; Engraved J. C. Armytage (1820-1897) for R. H. Horne (ed.), A New Spirit of the Age, (2 vols. London, April 1844), i, fig. on p.1; W. J. Linton, ‘The People’s Journal (The People’s Portrait Gallery)’, 3 January 1846, vol. 1, p.8 (reversed image)


Royal Academy, London, May 1844 (no. 660)


Original shaped ormolu mount with floral design, inner gilded mount, the whole within later wood frame

This recently discovered portrait of a young Charles Dickens (1812–1870) has not been seen in public since its inaugural presentation at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1844, the year following the publication of A Christmas Carol.

This recently discovered portrait of a young Charles Dickens (1812–1870) has not been seen in public since its inaugural presentation at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1844, the year following the publication of A Christmas Carol.1 Considered lost, even during the artist Margaret Gillies’ (1803–1887) own lifetime, it is an image heretofore only known to Dickens’ biographers through an engraving published in 1844. Its re-emergence following a house-clearance sale in South Africa adds a significant new likeness to the limited early iconography of the writer.2

When in 1886 Dickens’ early biographer Frederick George Kitton (1856–1904) wrote to Gillies inquiring as to the whereabouts of this portrait, he received the frustrating reply that she had ‘lost sight’ of it.3 There was no photographic record of what the original painting had looked like and Kitton was reduced – as everyone after him has been – to reproducing the engraving taken from the original painting in his review of Dickens’ portraits. One hundred and seventy-five years since it was last seen, and after decades spent lying incognito in South Africa, the portrait is again back on public view. Here, finally, we are able to see what poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861) saw in this portrait of the world-famous author: ‘the dust and mud of humanity about him, notwithstanding those eagle eyes’.4

That the portrait remained unidentified for so long is possibly because it portrays a young Dickens far removed from the grizzled features shown in the ubiquitous black and white photographs of the author.5 Here he is handsome, clean-shaven, with an animated and intense gaze. It is not the conventional icon of Dickens as we have come to know him. The emergence of the portrait provides important new pictorial evidence of the young author’s appearance (he is shown aged thirty-one), and confirms the observation of one contemporary that ‘there is something about his eyes at all times that in women we call bewitching; in men we scarcely have any name for it… his complexion is extremely delicate… I should not blame him if he were somewhat vain of his hair.’6

Yet this portrait reveals so much more about the young Dickens than a record of his appearance. Painted at a pivotal moment in his career, the sittings with Gillies ran parallel to the astonishing six weeks in which he wrote A Christmas Carol. At the time, Dickens’ reputation was resting on a knife-edge. His sales had dropped and his recently published novel Martin Chuzzlewit (1842–1844) was a flop.7 With A Christmas Carol – in which he invested heavily – Dickens was making a gamble: one that could elevate his status from flash-in-the-pan prodigy to literary grandee.8 However, Dickens was not only a writer but an activist for social change. He had made it his mission to make the Victorian bourgeoisie inescapably aware of the appalling poverty in which their social inferiors lived. This he would do in A Christmas Carol to sensational effect. Indeed, unbeknownst to his audience of the mid-1840s, Dickens himself had known poverty and endured factory work as a child.9 Unlike many other Victorian reformers, Dickens knew hardship first-hand and his message was consequently urgent. In this portrait, we see the two faces of Dickens: the writer examining and reflecting on the successes of his career and the impassioned campaigner for social reform.

The artist to unite these two facets of Dickens’ character so skilfully was Margaret Gillies. Like Dickens, she was a member of the progressive, non-conforming Unitarian Church, which advocated both political engagement and radical action.10 Appropriately, the conception and purpose of the portrait were far from conventional. Always destined for engraving prior to its public showing at the Royal Academy in 1844, the portrait was to be the leading image in A New Spirit of the Age, a book edited by Dickens’ and Gillies’ associate Richard Henry Horne (1802–1884) and written by anonymous contributors (including Gillies’ sister, Mary).11 A work of prophetic ambitions, it ‘foretold the emergence of an age of greatness’ and sought to inspire a new generation with a carefully curated selection of biographies of the brightest and best young writers of Victorian England.12 At the head of this tome was Dickens’ biography, his portrait engraved from Gillies’ miniature.

The engraving was and still is well known among Dickens enthusiasts, but Gillies, sadly, has slipped into comparative obscurity. Though she deliberately concealed her work and private life from the sanctimonious, patriarchal society in which she lived, research into the present portrait has shone new light on Gillies’ role as a critical figure of social reform. Unmarried by choice, Gillies lived with her partner, the pioneering sanitary reformer and physician Dr Thomas Southwood Smith (1788–1861), who was fifteen years her senior. She had no children of her own, worked in a professional capacity and exhibited her art until the year of her death. A pioneer of women’s liberation, Gillies was among the earliest supporters of the suffrage movement (a campaign that found little favour with the more politically conservative Dickens). She was, in short, an exceptional woman of the Victorian era.13

By the time she painted Dickens, Gillies had known him for some years, most likely through her life partner and fellow Unitarian, Southwood Smith.14 Gillies met Southwood Smith around 1824, when he was separated from (but still married to) his second wife.15 Although little is recorded of their romantic life, their relationship was certainly a meeting of minds. Southwood Smith was a leading figure in the campaign to alleviate the plight of the poor. Like Gillies, he was motivated by a devoutly held belief in change for the good sanctioned by a benevolent God. Together they were a formidable force, although they never made their rather bohemian living arrangements public for fear of censure from Victorian society.

Both Gillies’ portrait and Dickens’ A Christmas Carol were conceived in 1843, as the Industrial Revolution drew to a close and Victorian Britain began to take stock of the social repercussions of this period of immense change. Tensions simmered close to the surface: wealth that had brought fortune to many was unevenly distributed, as Dickens had witnessed at first-hand. Southwood Smith had been at the centre of political attempts to address these tensions, and it was in his role as one of the four commissioners on the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Children’s Employment that he first seems to have met Dickens. The need for progress was urgent: soon after their first meeting in 1840, Southwood Smith took Dickens on a personal tour of the slums of Shoreditch and Bethnal Green (when Lord Ashley (1801–1885) – later 7th Earl of Shaftesbury – made the same tour, he had to cut his visit short, so shocked was he by what he saw).16 Written descriptions of working conditions continued to outrage many in Victorian society, who could hardly believe the appalling circumstances in which children worked. These were made still worse as famine swept through Europe in the decade that became known as the ‘Hungry Forties’.

Something had to be done, and Southwood Smith’s Children’s Employment Commission turned to shock tactics. May 1842 saw the publication of the first Illustrated Report (called a ‘blue book’). This report, which included 26 wood engravings of partly clothed women and children working in ‘systematic slavery’, left readers horror-struck.17 Dickens later said that he broke down and sobbed when he saw it.18 It is now widely accepted that these shocking illustrations were the uncredited reportage of Gillies, meaning that she had witnessed at first-hand scenes that men had been unable to stomach.19 Gillies hid her connection to Southwood Smith’s report, knowing that it would jeopardise her career and personal reputation should the public discover she had drawn such scenes. Her harrowing images provoked outrage and were savaged as ‘disgusting pictorial woodcuts’ that should never have found their way ‘into the boudoirs
of refined and delicate ladies’, the readers having no idea that the illustrator was,
in fact, a woman.20

While, if made public, Gillies’ association with these woodcuts may have proved detrimental to her career, in contrast she could paint Dickens and publicise the resulting image, ensuring the ascent of both sitter and artist. In this, she built on the artistic capital she had acquired over 1839 and 1840 from her triumphant likenesses of the writers William Wordsworth (1770–1850) and James Henry Leigh Hunt (1784–1859). Dickens’ first sitting appears to have been in July 1843, and the last in October of that year.21

With social reform at the forefront of Dickens’ mind as he worked on A Christmas Carol, conversation surely turned to this issue, so close to the hearts of both artist and sitter. Indeed, Southwood Smith’s Illustrated Report was the partial inspiration for A Christmas Carol. Dickens wrote to Southwood Smith in March 1843 that he would respond to the publication by ‘writing, and bringing out, a very cheap pamphlet, called ‘An appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child’.22 In the months that followed, he changed his mind, deciding that fiction was a more potent weapon. The message of A Christmas Carol, however, remained the same: the rich ignore the poor at their peril. Author William Thackeray (1811–1863) famously called A Christmas Carol ‘a national benefit’, so immediate and universal was its effect on the public.23

Gillies’ portrait differs incalculably from the later engraving. In it resides a piercing intensity that the engraver was unable to replicate in line (although Dickens’ biographer Claire Tomalin could still refer to the engraving as ‘A powerful, idealizing portrait…’).24 Gillies casts off conventional ‘attributes’ – there was simply no need to seat Dickens, famous as he now was, at his desk and have him hold a quill. Instead, she stripped down the portrait so that the viewer is only aware of the penetrating gaze of the writer, staring out of the dark background (although Gillies took care painting his full, dark curls – a Byronian homage).25 It is striking in its simplicity – an abridged portrait – foreseeing Dickens’ own prediction that he would ‘haunt mankind with [his] countenance’.26

Gillies’ image certainly played into the cult of Dickens’ celebrity, which continued to grow with the astonishing success of A Christmas Carol. Here, Gillies was ingenious in the use of the miniature format. By producing a miniature – traditionally a private object viewed by a limited audience – and having it engraved for mass consumption, she cleverly produced a ‘behind the scenes’ image of the kind that any admirer wishes to see of a celebrity icon. Existing miniatures of the author had until then been painted for private use only; one was given to Dickens’ wife upon the occasion of their betrothal.

It is often difficult to gauge whether documented responses to the portrait refer to the original or, given its early disappearance, to the subsequent engravings. Dickens himself had a curious reaction, exclaiming ‘Heaven knows, my portrait looks in my eyes a little like the Iron Mask without the Man in it!’27 It was not unusual for Dickens to have a negative view of his own portraits; in fact, few appear to have pleased him. But there is almost a false modesty in this remark, which is borne out by his response to other portraits. When commenting on Maclise’s lionising 1839 work, he bashfully observed that ‘Maclise has made another face of me, which all people say is astonishing.’28 In the present case, the cause for his remark may be simpler still. During sittings, Dickens wrote to Gillies to apologise for a cold that had ‘ridden rough-shod… over [his] features’.29 Could this be the iron mask to which he refers?

Gillies has been something of a hidden figure in Dickens’ story to date. A peripheral character, her brief appearance is confined to the engraving taken from her work. Now, she can be recast as one of the key figures in Dickens’ early career, a fellow Unitarian navigating a society that, like the author, she saw as fundamentally cruel and amoral. Although Gillies concealed her private life and involvement in the first Illustrated Report, so close a confidante of her partner Southwood Smith as Dickens probably would have known of her involvement. In turn, Gillies would likely have had direct knowledge of the horrors witnessed by Dickens in the poverty-stricken corners of London. In this portrait, we see a rare unity of purpose between artist and sitter – a desire to
offer up something of Dickens’ inner being to his public in order to inspire a greater good.


[1] A Christmas Carol was published 19 December 1843 by London publishing house Chapman and Hall.

[2] Michael Slater in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online edn.) refers to Gillies’ portrait only through the woodcut and incorrectly spells her name: ‘J. C. Armytage, stipple, pubd 1844 (after M. Gillier, 1843), NPG’. In: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [Viewed 15 October 2018]. Available from:

[3] ‘I have lost sight of the portrait itself’. Letter from Margaret Gillies to F. G. Kitton, dated 8 July 1886. [Manuscript]. London: Charles Dickens Museum.

[4] Letter from Elizabeth Barrett Browning to R.H. Horne, dated 5 March 1844. In: Stoddard, R.H. (1887). Life, Letters and Essays of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. New York: Worthington. p. 201. Browning knew both Gillies and Dickens. She was also a contributor to A New Spirit of the Age.

[5] ‘Dickens belonged to the first generation of celebrities thus recorded for posterity’. In: Collins, P., ed. (1981). Dickens, Interviews and Recollections. London: Palgrave Macmillan. vol. 1. p. xvii.

[6] In Collins, P., ed. (1981). Dickens, Interviews and Recollections, London; Palgrave Macmillan, vol. 1, p. 42.

[7] The early 1840s had been a lean time for publishing generally.

[8] Initially, almost all the profits from A Christmas Carol were swallowed up by the production costs of the book: the beautiful binding (in Dickens’ favourite cinnamon) with gold lettering, coloured endpapers, coloured plates and advertising were not met by the five shillings he charged for the book. Of the 6,000 copies published just before Christmas, Dickens made £137 (approximately £17,000 in today’s money) but was expecting to make £1,000.

[9] The first that anyone – whether the general public or even his own children – knew about Dickens’ childhood was when Forster published passages from his unfinished autobiography. See Forster, J., (1872). Life of Charles Dickens. London: Chapman and Hall. vol. 1., chapter 2.

[10] 0Dickens joined the Unitarian Church in the early 1840s, writing to Unitarian Harvard Professor Cornelius Felton, ‘I have carried into effect an old idea of mine and joined the Unitarians, who would do something for human improvement if they could; and practice charity and toleration.’ See Letter from Charles Dickens to Cornelius Felton, dated 2 March 1843. In: House, M., Storey, G. and Tillotson, K., eds. (1974). The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens. Oxford: Oxford University Press. vol. 3. pp. 455-6. Dickens was extremely active at the Unitarian Little Portland Street Chapel in late 1843 when he was writing A Christmas Carol.

[11] 1That Dickens knew of the project from the outset is clear in his correspondence with Gillies, where he jovially notes that the artist Daniel Maclise had been much struck with the ‘“spirit” of your portrait as photographed’ – most likely referring to the title of the forthcoming book, A New Spirit of the Age. The reference to photography here suggests that Gillies relied on photographs taken between sittings to work on the miniature. See Letter from Charles Dickens to Margaret Gillies, dated 23 October 1843. In: [Pilgrim Letters. vol. 3. pp. 584-5].

[12] Schlicke, P., (2005). Hazlitt, Horne, and the Spirit of the Age. Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 (45)4, 830.

[13] This is borne out in Gillies’ obituaries, particularly in the London North News and Finsbury Gazette, where she was described as ‘remarkable not only for her talents but for the fact she was one of the pioneers amongst women lady artists. Indeed, it is not too much to say that it is owing in a considerable degree to her examples and exertions that the path of art has been made easy for all the sister-women who have come after her.’ See (1887) London North News and Finsbury Gazette. 30 July.

[14] The two men appear to have been in correspondence from at least 1840. In December of that year, Dickens wrote to Southwood Smith, stating: ‘It must be a great comfort and happiness to you to be instrumental in bringing about so much good. I am proud to be remembered by one who is pursuing such ends and heartily hope that we shall know each other better.’ In: [Pilgrim Letters. vol. 2. p. 165].

[15] Southwood Smith’s first marriage ended after the death of his wife Anne (née Read) in 1812. His second marriage to Mary Christie ended possibly as a result of Southwood Smith’s strained financial situation, as he often worked without pay. Their separation, in Southwood’s own words, was amicable, and they managed to preserve a ‘mutual respect’ for each other. Margaret was also close to Southwood Smith’s eldest daughter, Caroline Hill (1809–1902), who was only six years younger.

[16] Oliver Twist contains a description of Jacob’s Island in Bermondsey, London, when Bill Sikes dies among ‘loathsome... filth, rot and garbage’ in Folly’s ditch. See Dickens, C., (1839). Oliver Twist. London, Richard Bentley p. 241.

[17] Commissioners for Inquiring into the Employment and Condition of Children in Mines and Manufactories., (1842). The Condition and Treatment of the Children employed in the Mines and Colliers of the United Kingdom. Carefully compiled from the appendix to the first report of the Commissioners appointed to inquire into this subject. London: William Strange.

[18] Letter from Dickens to Southwood Smith, 6 March 1843: ‘I am so perfectly stricken down by the blue book you have sent me.’ In: [Pilgrim Letters. vol. 3. p. 459].

[19] Gillies’ biographer, Charlotte Yeldham (Margaret Gillies RWS, Unitarian painter of Mind and Emotion 1803–1887, Lewiston, Queenston, Lampeter, 1997, p. 48), suggests that it would have been quite possible for the artist to accompany Southwood Smith when he inspected mines but not the mines investigated by the other inspectors, which were at far flung locations. The drawings are fully attributed to Gillies based on their cataloguing by the Wellcome Library. See Wilcock, A. A., (2006). An Occupational Perspective of Health. New Jersey: Slack Inc. p. 281, fig. 9-2. This is backed by numerous other publications, including the recent book on Southwood Smith’s granddaughter, Octavia Hill, where Gillian Darley describes the report as ‘visually polemic’. See Darley, G., (2016). Octavia Hill: lessons in campaigning. In: Baigent, E. and Cowell, B., eds. ‘Nobler Imaginings and Mightier Struggles’: Octavia Hill, social activism and the remaking of British Society. London: University of London. p. 31.

[20] Vane, C. W. (Marquess of Londonderry)., (1842). A Letter to Lord Ashley on the Mines and Collieries Bill. The Morning Chronicle. (15 July). For Dickens’ anonymous reply to this letter, see Dickens, C., (1842) The Morning Chronicle (20 October).

[21] The gap between sittings can be explained by Dickens taking a house in Broadstairs with his family for the months of August and September 1843. See Letter from Charles Dickens to Margaret Gillies, dated 21 July 1843. [Manuscript]. A631. London: Charles Dickens Museum.

[22] Letter from Charles Dickens to Thomas Southwood Smith, dated 6 March 1843. In: [Pilgrim Letters. vol. 3. p. 459]. Dickens also adds ‘with my name attached of course’ – astutely aware that his fame would attract readers.

[23] Thackeray, W., (1844). A Box of Novels. Fraser’s Magazine. (February issue).

[24] Tomalin, C., Charles Dickens, A Life, London, 2011, opposite. p. 97

[25] Dickens was often compared to Byron, particularly in terms of his sudden fame. Although there is no direct evidence that Dickens consciously mirrored the earlier poet’s looks, he was well aware of the effect Byron had on women, noting the schoolgirls overwhelmed upon seeing Byron’s representation in Jarley’s waxworks in The Old Curiosity Shop. See Dickens, C. (1841). The Old Curiosity Shop. London: Chapman and Hall. p. 221-2.

[26] [Pilgrim Letters. vol. 8. p. 232].

[27] Letter from Charles Dickens to Thomas Talfourd, dated 19 March 1844. In: P. Schlicke, ed. (2011). The Oxford Companion to Charles Dickens: Anniversary Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 471. Again, this comment is assumed to relate to the engraving taken from the portrait.

[28] Kitton, F. G., (1890). Charles Dickens by Pen and Pencil. London: Frank T. Sabin. p. 27.

[29] [Pilgrim Letters. vol. 3. p. 584]. Dickens’ cold is perhaps testament to his gruelling work regime: after a long day of writing he would walk at night, often covering fifteen or twenty miles.

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