In 1843, the artist Margaret Gillies painted a miniature portrait of a wide-eyed, chestnut-haired Charles Dickens. Though he was only 31 years old at the time, Dickens was already the celebrated author of such works as Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, and Gillies’ portrait was put on display at the Royal Academy of Arts in London the following year. The work drew admiration from the likes of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who proclaimed that its subject “has the dust and mud of humanity about him, notwithstanding those eagle eyes.”
But at some point over the next 40-odd years, the painting disappeared. Writing to the Dickensian researcher Frederic Kitton in 1886, Gillies confessed that she had “lost sight” of it.
The work remained missing for more than a century, until it turned up at an auction in South Africa in 2017. Now the Charles Dickens Museum, which is based in the London home where Dickens lived with his family, has announced that it has acquired the portrait and is excited to return it to public view.
According to the Guardian’s Mark Brown, the painting had been stashed in a box of trinkets that was purchased by a buyer in the South African city of Pietermaritzburg for the equivalent of around $34 (or £27). Also included in the box were, 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 portrait miniatures, in a video describing the discovery.
But after conducting some online research, the buyer began to suspect that he had unwittingly purchased a painting of one of the Victorian era’s most famous authors. He reached out to Philip Mould & Company, a London-based art dealer, which, in turn, reached out to the Dickens museum for help with researching the portrait’s origins.
Though the whereabouts of Gillies’ miniature were unknown for many years, experts had a good sense of what the portrait looked like because a black-and-white print of it had appeared in A New Spirit of the Age, an 1844 book that profiled the era’s leading cultural figures. Louisa Price, a curator at the museum, writes that she and her colleagues were “bowled over” when an image of the painting was emailed to them. But further work was needed to confirm that the piece was indeed Gillies’ original. To start, the portrait was in desperate need of cleaning; after years of neglect, the work had been covered in what Rutherford describes as a “particularly virulent, nasty yellow mould.”
Upon examination, experts noted that both its technique and distinctive mount bore remarkable similarities to Gillies’ other paintings. “By the summer of 2018, we were satisfied that this was in fact the 1843 portrait of Charles Dickens by Margaret Gillies,” Price writes. Just how this artwork ended up in South Africa is uncertain, but researchers with Philip Mould & Company think it was taken there by the brothers-in-law of Gillies’ adopted daughter, who emigrated to South Africa in the 1860s.
After the discovery of the artwork was announced, the piece went on temporary display at both the Philip Mould 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 came in from Dickens fans around the world, and the museum also received “substantial grants” from the Art Fund and the Arts Council England/V&A Purchase Grant Fund. After raising approximately $225,000 (around £180,000), the museum was finally able to purchase the artwork, which will go on display in October.
“We are so excited to be bringing the ‘lost’ portrait home and are extremely grateful for, and touched by, the generous support that we have received from individual donors all over the world,” says Cindy Sughrue, the museum’s director.
Back in 1843, the sittings for the portrait coincided with one of the most important times of Dickens’ career—the period when he was writing A Christmas Carol, one of his most popular works. The museum has letters from Dickens to Gillies, who painted many great writers and thinkers of the Victorian era. “Tomorrow Tuesday at three o’clock I will dutifully present myself: having now got rid (almost) of a cold which had ridden rough-shod, as the newspapers say, over my features,” Dickens wrote in one correspondence.
The partnership between Dickens and Gillies represented a meeting of two like minds. Dickens was a social reformer; A Christmas Carol, for instance, sought to call attention to the plight of England’s poor and inspire generosity among the privileged. Gillies, though not nearly as well known as her author friend, was similarly committed to activist causes. She was a supporter of women’s suffrage and chose not to marry her partner, the 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 depict that Gillies executed the project anonymously.
Gillies’ portrait of Dickens is similarly bold, the art dealer Philip Mould explains. In contrast to other author images of the Victorian era, Gillies’ subject stares straight at the viewer, his gaze penetrating and magnetic.
“The way he looks at you, he’s drawing you into his world,” Mould says. “Margaret Gillies is not just sensitively and convincingly the features of what’s in front of her in the form of Charles Dickens, but also the inner man, the genius that lies behind him.”