What the Dickens?! Long-lost portrait of writer found in SA
Small painting discovered in KwaZulu-Natal portrays Charles Dickens as he looked when he wrote 'A Christmas Carol'
Covered in mould and lying unloved in a box of trinkets, the portrait had seen better days.
But a buyer who picked up the box as a job lot for £27 at an SA antiques sale had stumbled upon something extraordinary. The young man in the picture is a 31-year-old Charles Dickens, and the ivory miniature is a portrait that had been lost to historians since the middle of the 19th century.
Now restored and authenticated, the work is back in Britain and the Charles Dickens Museum is launching a £180,000 campaign to buy it.
“Because Dickens was so popular in his day, we never thought there was anything connected to him that could be left to find.
“We knew the portrait had once existed but assumed that it had not survived. The discovery is truly thrilling,” said Dr Cindy Sughrue, the museum’s director.
“If you ask anyone to draw a picture of Dickens, the character that emerges will be middle-aged, with a scraggy beard and dishevelled hair. This portrait changes our perception.
“It is such an intimate and engaging portrait – as if you are seeing Dickens just passing through the room, stopping and fixing you with his gaze before moving on. There is something really alive in this portrait that I have never seen in any other portrait of Dickens.”
The picture was painted in 1843 by Margaret Gillies, a professional artist and social campaigner who knew Dickens well. By that time, he had published The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge, and was a household name.
The museum has a letter in the collection from the author to Gillies, confirming a date for the sitting and saying he was looking forward to it. Other letters written during that week show that he was working at the time on A Christmas Carol.
The portrait, measuring about 10cm tall, was last seen in public in 1844 when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. It was most likely done as the template for a black-and-white illustration included that year in an essay collection, A New Spirit of the Age.
But it then disappeared, and Gillies wrote in 1886 that she did not know what had become of it. It is believed that the portrait ended up in SA via one of her family members. Gillies’s adopted daughter was married to a son of George Henry Lewes, partner to the novelist George Eliot. Members of the Lewes family are known to have emigrated to KwaZulu-Natal.
It was there that the portrait was found and the buyer contacted Philip Mould, the British-based art dealer, who formally identified it and went on to buy it.
Mould said: “The buyer was one of those people who enjoys a country sale. He came across a job lot of objects in one of those cardboard trays you get fruit in at the supermarket.
“There was a metal lobster, a brass bowl, a child’s recorder and this very mouldy miniature, so covered in fungus you could barely make out the face. He had to buy the whole tray of contents together, and it cost £27.
“He had a hunch it could be something interesting, so contacted us. We bought if from him and we are now keen for the Dickens Museum to have it.
“Works of art often degrade in hot climates, hence the mould, but the V&A did a brilliant job of restoring it.
“This portrait adds greatly to our perception of the charismatic young blade that Dickens was at the time and is so different to the avuncular, bearded man we know from photographs.”
The Charles Dickens Museum said the rare portrait of Dickens in his 30s “fills a significant gap in portraiture throughout his life”.
It will be on display in the museum at 48 Doughty Street, London, the writer’s former home, until January 25.
Sughue said: “It has been offered to us at a much reduced price and we will be fundraising widely to bring it into our permanent collection.
“We want to make it publicly accessible, so it doesn’t disappear into a box of trinkets again.”
– © Telegraph Media Company Limited