The Lost Portrait of Charles Dickens

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One theory about how the lost portrait ended up in Africa is a connection to George Henry Lewes, best known as the lover of writer George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans). Lewes was already married with children when he met Eliot (and his wife was in a relationship with Thornton Leigh Hunt). In 1865 the Lewes’ eldest son, Charles, married Gertrude Hill, the adopted daughter of Margaret Gillies and Thomas Southwood Smith.

Charles Lewes’ brothers, Herbert and Thornton, both moved to South Africa, settling in what was then called Natal. Perhaps one of the brothers took the painting with him? Or maybe there is some other unknown explanation for how this small, beautiful portrait ended up so far away from where Margaret Gillies painted it.

A new house

The portrait is now back in London. In October 2019, it was unveiled in its new home, the Charles Dickens Museum. Across the desk, he gazes at Dickens’ desk, a reminder of an idealistic young man who so desperately wanted to make the world a kinder, more charitable place.

After the death of her lover in Italy in 1861, Margaret Gillies moved to London with her sister Mary. Margaret died in 1887, a month before her 84th birthday. Thanks to the rediscovery of the lost portrait, the name of Margaret Gillies returns, albeit slowly, to the public consciousness. His obituaries speak of a great lady from the art world, but has glossed over her private life, although Gillies would hopefully have been graced with an obituary in the Derbyshire Advertiser which described her as a “pioneer” of female artists, who had opened the way to “all the women-sisters who came after”.

The obituary writers probably knew nothing of the real life of this woman, who had crawled through sweltering mining tunnels, sketching harrowing images of working women and children, who were often forced to undress while while working, to escape death from heat exhaustion. Gillies’ legacy lives on in the works she produced, her illustrations as shocking and heartbreaking as the writing of Dickens – but much less often noticed today.

Lucinda Hawksley is the author of Dickens’ artistic daughter, Katey

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