In 1843, artist Margaret Gillies painted a miniature portrait of a wide-eyed, chestnut-haired Charles Dickens. Although he was only 31 at the time, Dickens was already the famous author of works such as Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, and Gillies’ portrait was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in London the following year. The work won the admiration of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who proclaimed that its subject “has the dust and mud of humanity around it, despite those eagle eyes”.
But at some point over the next 40 or so years, the painting disappeared. Writing to Dickens scholar Frederic Kitton in 1886, Gillies confessed that she had “lost sight of” him.
The work remained missing for more than a century, until it was presented at an auction in South Africa in 2017. Today, the Charles Dickens Museum, which is based in the London house where Dickens lived with his family, has announced that he has acquired the portrait and is delighted to return it to public view.
According to Guardianby Mark Brown, the painting had been hidden in a trinket box that had been purchased by a buyer in the South African town of Pietermaritzburg for the equivalent of around $34 (or £27). The box also contained, among other things, a metal lobster and an old recorder.
“The auction house had absolutely no idea what [the portrait] was,” says Emma Rutherford, an art historian who specializes in miniature portraits, in a video describing the find.
But after researching online, the buyer began to suspect he had unwittingly purchased a painting by one of the most famous authors of the Victorian era. He contacted Philip Mold & Company, a London-based art dealer, who in turn contacted the Dickens Museum for help in tracing the portrait’s origins.
Although the location of the Gillies miniature was unknown for many years, experts had a good idea of what the portrait looked like because a black and white print of it had appeared in A New Age Spirit, an 1844 book that profiled the major cultural figures of the time. Louisa Price, a curator at the museum, writes that she and her colleagues were “shattered” when an image of the painting was emailed to them. But further work was needed to confirm that the piece was indeed Gillies’ original. For starters, the portrait desperately needed cleaning; after years of neglect, the work had been coated with what Rutherford describes as a “particularly virulent and disagreeable yellow mold”.
Upon examination, experts noted that his technique and distinctive mount bore remarkable similarities to other Gillies paintings. “By the summer of 2018, we were convinced that this was in fact the 1843 portrait of Charles Dickens by Margaret Gillies,” Price writes. It’s unclear exactly how this work ended up in South Africa, but researchers at Philip Mold & Company believe it was brought there by the brothers-in-law of Gillies’ adopted daughter, who emigrated in South Africa in the 1860s.
After news of the work’s discovery was announced, the piece went on temporary display at the Philip Mold Gallery and the Charles Dickens Museum. In November 2018, the museum launched an appeal to raise funds that would help it purchase the painting and make it a permanent part of the institution’s collections. Donations have come in from Dickens fans around the world, and the museum has also received “substantial grants” from the Art Fund and the Arts Council England/V&A Purchase Grant Fund. After raising around $225,000 (around £180,000), the museum was finally able to purchase the artwork, which will go on display in October.
“We are thrilled to bring home the ‘lost’ portrait and are extremely grateful and humbled by the generous support we have received from individual donors around the world,” said Cindy Sughrue, director of the museum.
In 1843, the sittings for the portrait coincided with one of the most important moments of Dickens’s career – the period when he was writing A Christmas Carolone of his most popular works. The museum has letters from Dickens to Gillies, who painted many great Victorian writers and thinkers. “Tomorrow Tuesday at three o’clock I shall present myself dutifully: having now got rid (almost) of a cold which had trampled, as the newspapers say, on my features,” wrote Dickens in correspondence.
The partnership between Dickens and Gillies represented a meeting of two like minds. Dickens was a social reformer; A Christmas Carol, for example, sought to draw attention to the plight of England’s poor and inspire generosity among the privileged. Gillies, although not as well known as her author friend, was also committed to militant causes. She was a supporter of women’s suffrage and chose not to marry her partner, physician Thomas Southwood Smith – highly unusual for the time. Gillies also provided uncompromising illustrations for a report on the exploitation of poor children in mines and factories; this subject was considered so radical for a woman to portray that Gillies performed the project anonymously.
Gillies’ portrayal of Dickens is equally bold, says art dealer Philip Mold. Unlike other images by Victorian authors, Gillies’ subject looks straight at the viewer, his gaze penetrating and magnetic.
“The way he looks at you, he draws you into his world,” Mold says. “Margaret Gillies is not only sensitive and compelling about the characteristics of what is before her in the form of Charles Dickens, but also the inner man, the genius behind him.”