The Charles Dickens Museum will need to raise £180,000 in order to secure the portrait of the author Charles Dickens by Margaret Gillies for the nation, bringing it into the Museum’s permanent collection and placing it on public display.
This captivating portrait was thought to have been lost for more than 150 years until it was rediscovered in South Africa in late 2017. Unlike most other portraits of Dickens it is vibrant and dynamic and beardless. When she saw the portrait, the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning said that Dickens had “the dust and mud of humanity about him, notwithstanding those eagle eyes.”
Letters in the Museum’s archive reveal details about Dickens sitting for Gillies during the autumn of 1843, the period when he was writing A Christmas Carol. The portrait brilliantly captures both the celebrity aura and inner self-doubt at a pivotal moment in Dickens’s writing career.
To find out more about the appeal and to donate, head to the the Lost Portrait Appeal on The Charles Dickens Museum website.
THE LOST PORTRAIT OF CHARLES DICKENS REDISCOVERED IN SOUTH AFRICA
The lost portrait of Charles Dickens as an emerging literary star at the age of 31, lost for over 130 years, recently turned up in a box of trinkets in South Africa. Painted in late 1843 by Margaret Gillies (1803–1887) during the same weeks Dickens was writing A Christmas Carol, it was last seen in public in 1844 when exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. The painting is on display until 25 January 2019 at the Philip Mould Gallery in in an exhibition entitled ‘Charles Dickens: The Lost Portrait’.
The portrait was known by a black-and-white frontispiece of a book entitled A New Spirit of the Age published in 1844. Edited by Richard Henry Horne, this collection of essays highlighted the great figures of the early Victorian period, from Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning to Romantic stalwarts such as William Wordsworth and Mary Shelley. Dickens was the first entry.
Despite attempts to locate the portrait during her lifetime, Gillies herself had no idea what had happened to it, reporting it unaccounted for in 1886. 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 a layer of mould was obscuring part of Dickens’ body. Conservation work has revealed the stunning detail beneath.
Dr Cindy Sughrue, Director of the Charles Dickens Museum has commented:
‘This discovery would have been remarkable in any event, but it is even more so because the portrait itself is exquisite. The skill of the artist is evident in the fineness of every brushstroke, in each strand of hair and the sparkling eyes that look right into yours.’
The lost portrait is also remarkable for being made by a professional woman, herself an important and overlooked artist and social campaigner. Well known as a miniaturist, Margaret Gillies painted a portrait of the poet William Wordsworth among others. An early supporter of women’s suffrage, she never married but co-habited with her partner, the pioneering sanitary reformer and physician Dr Thomas Southwood Smith (1788–1861). Gillies shared with Dickens a passion for social reform and a deeply felt concern for those living in poverty. The sittings for the lost portrait, which started in late 1843, coincided with one of Dickens’ most intense and ground-breaking periods of social campaigning – the six weeks in which he wrote A Christmas Carol. Dickens first mentions the book in a letter dated the same day as one of his sittings. Initially intending to write a pamphlet about child poverty, he diverted to writing a short ghost story with a clear political agenda. A Christmas Carol catapulted Dickens to even greater fame and can be said to have saved his reputation, which was suffering from the poor reception of his most recent novel, Martin Chuzzlewit.
It is unknown 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), both of whom emigrated to South Africa in the 1860s. Both Gillies and Dickens were close to the Lewes family and Gillies’ adopted daughter was married to another of Lewes’ sons. The portrait was found at a general sale in a tray containing a number of antiques and everyday objects, including an old recorder, a brass dish and a metal lobster. Suspecting the portrait might be of note, its purchaser contacted Philip Mould & Company.
The intention is that the portrait becomes part of the permanent collection of the Charles Dickens Museum at 48 Doughty Street, the only house in which Dickens lived in London that survives. As the portrait goes on display, the Museum, which holds the world’s most comprehensive collection of material relating to the life and work of Dickens, is beginning a campaign to raise the necessary funds to secure the future of the painting.
“The discovery of this long-lost portrait of Charles Dickens by Margaret Gillies is truly thrilling,” said Cindy Sughrue. “The Chares 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.”