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Charles Dickens by Margaret Gillies, 1843

Collection

Object

Object number (per part)

DH773, 2019.2.1

Object name (per part)

painting

Production person

Gillies, Margaret

Production date

1843

Label

Margaret Gillies painted this extraordinary portrait of Charles Dickens in 1843. He was 31 at the time and writing ‘A Christmas Carol’, emerging as the literary star he would become. Gillies was an established female artist and social campaigner at the time Dickens knew her. She was an early supporter of women’s suffrage and co-habited with the sanitary reformer and physician Dr Thomas Southwood Smith (1788–1861). She provided the illustrations for a report by Southwood Smith for the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Children’s Employment in Mines and Manufactories (1842) – a report Dickens saw and was much impacted by.

The watercolour and gouache on ivory miniature was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1844 but by 1886, Gillies had lost sight of it entirely. The only visual record of it was a black and white engraving, until in 2017 the original re-surfaced in a house clearance sale in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. When it was rediscovered a layer of mould was obscuring part of Dickens’ body. It has now undergone conservation work. It was formally re-identified by art dealers Philip Mould & Company and was placed on display in an exhibition ‘Charles Dickens: The Lost Portrait’ at their gallery in December 2018. In 2019, the Charles Dickens Museum successfully completed a fundraising campaign to acquire the portrait.

Physical description

Gouache and watercolour on ivory miniature in original, ornate ormolu mount, with a gold gilt decorative mount inside a wooden box (modern).

Object history note

This portrait of Charles Dickens as an emerging literary star at the age of 31, was lost for 174 years and miraculously turned up in a box of trinkets as part of a house sale in South Africa in 2017. When it was rediscovered a layer of mould was obscuring part of Dickens’ body. It has now undergone conservation work. It was formally re-identified by art dealers Philip Mould & Company and was placed on display in an exhibition ‘Charles Dickens: The Lost Portrait’ at their gallery in December 2018. In 2019, the Charles Dickens Museum successfully completed a fundraising campaign to acquire the portrait. It is unclear how the portrait came to be in South Africa, but research undertaken by Philip Mould & Company strongly suggests that it arrived via one of two sons of George Henry Lewes (partner to George Eliot) who emigrated to South Africa in the 1860s. The portrait captures Dickens in the months he is writing ‘A Christmas Carol’ - a book that would transform his career.

The portrait was known by a simplified black-and-white print used in the frontispiece of a book entitled ‘A New Spirit of the Age’ (1844) (Museum object number [lib]3498). Edited by Richard Henry Horne, this collection of essays highlighted the great figures of the early Victorian period. Dickens was the first entry. Margaret Gillies was an established female artist and social campaigner at the time Dickens knew her. She was an early supporter of women’s suffrage and co-habited with the sanitary reformer and physician Dr Thomas Southwood Smith (1788–1861). She provided the illustrations for a report by Southwood Smith for the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Children’s Employment in Mines and Manufactories (1842) – a report Dickens saw and was much impacted by.

The Dickens Museum holds correspondence between Dickens and Gillies during the period he sat for her (object number A240, A631) and also a letter Gillies reporting the miniature unaccounted for in 1886 (object number B142). 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.”

Credit line

Purchased with support from the Art Fund, the Arts Council England/V&A Purchase Grant Fund (National Lottery), the Dickens Fellowship and numerous private donors.
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