The lost portrait of Charles Dickens (1812-70) was painted over the course of 6 or 7 sittings in late 1843, during the same weeks Dickens was writing A Christmas Carol. The artist was Margaret Gillies (1803-87), a professional portrait painter, ardent campaigner for social reform and an early supporter of women’s suffrage. The portrait was last seen in public in 1844 when it was exhibited as part of the annual summer exhibition held at the Royal Academy of Arts. The portrait has now returned to us in time for the 175th anniversary of Dickens’ Christmas masterpiece, A Christmas Carol first mentioned by the author in a letter dated to a day that he was sitting for Gillies.
Until now the portrait has been known only by a simplified black-and-white print, which has none of the brilliance of the original and which formed the frontispiece of a book entitled A New Spirit of the Age (1844).
Despite attempts to locate the portrait during her lifetime, even Gillies herself was at a loss to know what had happened to it. Dickens’ contemporary, the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, had seen the original and remarked that it showed him as having ‘the dust and mud of humanity about him, notwithstanding those eagle eyes.’ When it was rediscovered in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, a layer of mould was obscuring part of Dickens’ body. The work has now been conserved returning this spectacular image back to its original glory. On describing the significance of this find Philip has stated:
‘Every now and then something comes through our doors that alone justifies a career devoted to the research and representation of historical art. When the small package finally arrived at our gallery on a Monday morning in spring, it represented just such a moment. Although covered with a particularly virulent species of South African mould, following its unwrapping Dickens’ indomitable expression was still as affecting as it had been to the Victorian audience of the Royal Academy when it was last seen in public one hundred and seventy-four years ago. It was an electrifying moment for us all.’
The exhibition also signifies the start of a fundraising campaign by the Charles Dickens Museum to secure the work for the nation. The intention is that the portrait becomes part of the permanent collection of the Museum at 48 Doughty Street, a perfectly preserved London house in which Dickens lived with his family.
“The discovery of this long-lost portrait of Charles Dickens by Margaret Gillies is truly thrilling,” said Dr Cindy Sughrue, Director of the Charles Dickens Museum. “The Charles Dickens Museum is the perfect place to provide it with a permanent home, and today we are launching an appeal for contributions towards the cost of acquiring the portrait for our permanent collection.”
Should you wish to donate to the Charles Dickens Museum’s fundraising campaign, details of which can be found here
The Charles Dickens Museum
48 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LX. Tel +44 (0)20 7405 2127
The Charles Dickens Museum is the trading name of The Dickens House & Dickens House Fund, a charitable trust (charity no. 212172) and Accredited Museum (Arts Council England Museums Accreditation Scheme).