This striking miniature portrait of the young Charles Dickens captured the public imagination when news emerged of its rediscovery in a box of trinkets in South Africa in 2017.

The buyer sent a photograph of the picture to the British fine art expert Philip Mould, who, together with the team at the Charles Dickens Museum, worked to establish the authorship, authenticity and backstory of the painting.

It is now known to be the portrait of Dickens by Margaret Gillies which was shown at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1844. It shows Dickens aged 31, already famous for his early bestselling novels, and now entering the period of his greatest success.

When Elizabeth Barrett Browning saw the portrait at the Royal Academy, she wrote that it showed Dickens with ‘the dust and mud of humanity about him, notwithstanding those eagle eyes’.

An engraving of the portrait was published in 1844, but the painting has been missing since at least 1886, when Gillies wrote to Dickens’ biographer, Frederick George Kitton, that she had ‘lost sight’ of it.

In contrast to the familiar photographic images of Dickens as a grizzled older man, the author is seen here as youthful and clean-shaven. The sittings for the portrait ran in parallel to the six weeks in the autumn of 1843 in which he wrote A Christmas Carol.

Like Dickens, Gillies was a member of the progressive Unitarian Church, which advocated political engagement and radical action. By the time she painted this portrait she had known Dickens for some years, probably through her partner (she remained unmarried by choice), Dr Thomas Southwood Smith. Southwood Smith was a leading figure in the campaign to alleviate the plight of the poor, a growing crisis in newly industrial Britain which Dickens brought to public attention through his novels. Dickens’ own experiences of child labour and poverty were not publicly known until after his death.

This remarkable portrait, recently conserved and complete in its original frame, now joins the collection of the Dickens Museum at 48 Doughty Street, the author’s London home from 1837 to 1839.

Provenance

The artist; probably the Lewes family; private collection, South Africa; rediscovered and acquired at auction in a general sale by a private individual in 2017; identification confirmed by Charles Dickens Museum and Philip Mould & Co; sold to Philip Mould


Charles Dickens Museum

48-49 Doughty Street, London, Greater London, WC1N 2LX
020 7405 2127
Website

Opening times

Tue–Sun & Bank Holiday Mondays, 10am–5pm (last admission 4pm) Closed Mondays, 25, 26 Dec and 1 Jan

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