A Curator’s View on the Lost Portrait by Louisa Price

The story of Philip Mould & Company unearthing a lost Charles Dickens portrait has been grabbing headlines since it was announced on the 21st November 2018. There is poetry in the timing of the discovery during the 175th anniversary of A Christmas Carol: this iconic image captures the author in the midst of penning the Christmas classic in 1843. As we celebrate 100 years of Women's Suffrage, there is a second reason that this discovery is also timely: the miniature brings to the fore the work of a talented professional female artist, Margaret Gillies, who was one of the movement's earliest supporters.

The Museum’s role in the story of the lost portrait actually began a year ago, when we received a message to contact miniature specialist Emma Rutherford at the Philip Mould Gallery about a portrait she was researching. With a healthy dose of scepticism (we regularly receive enquiries about portraits that ‘might’ be new images of Dickens), we contacted her and were promptly bowled over the moment she emailed the image. Firm proof was needed, but this was going to be the real deal.

Dickens Lost Portrait

Initially covered with a ‘virulent yellow mould’, the miniature was partially cleaned and then brought over from South Africa to London where a team at the Victoria & Albert Museum worked to bring the artwork back to its original glory.
Image courtesy of Philip Mould & Company.

A quick word search for Margaret Gillies in the Museum's collection database turned up some excellent source material: two letters from Dickens to Gillies confirming his appointments with her, another from Catherine Dickens reflecting on the portrait, and even more thrilling - a letter from Margaret Gillies to the Dickensian researcher, Frederic Kitton in 1886, recalling her memories of painting the portrait and confirming she had 'lost sight of it'.

Gillies Letter Part 1

This letter from Margaret Gillies, written in the spidery handwriting of an elderly lady, provides a fascinating insight into the production of the portrait.
Image: Charles Dickens Museum Collection

Although the original watercolour was last seen in 1844, the Gillies portrait itself was familiar because an engraving of it appeared in A New Spirit of the Age, an 1844 publication comprising a series of essays on cultural titans of the day. We have multiple versions of the engraving in our collection and we even sell erasers printed with the image! I remember smiling and picking one up as I passed through the shop after the first meeting with the Philip Mould team. Soon, visitors would have the chance to see the brilliant, technicolour original.

Spirit of the Age Frontispiece

Frontispiece showing the engraving of Charles Dickens in 'A New Spirit of the Age, Volume I,' R.H Horne, ed., Smith, Elder & Co., London,1844.
Image: Charles Dickens Museum Collection 

In the next months, we waited with baited breath for the item to reach these shores and for conservation and meticulous research to reveal the artwork and confirm its provenance. By the summer of 2018, we were satisfied that this was in fact the 1843 portrait of Charles Dickens by Margaret Gillies.

In a flurry of three months, we worked alongside the Philip Mould team on a podcast, catalogue, short film and an exhibition to celebrate the artwork and share the exciting story of its discovery. Much thought was given to what would be suitable and complementary objects from our collection to enrich an exhibition about the portrait. Twenty objects were selected which included letters from Dickens and Gillies, an 1842 bust of Dickens by Henry Dexter, a first edition of A Christmas Carol and the original Leech sketches of scrooge. We also lent curious, personal items such as a travelling mirror, razors, hairbrush and perfume bottle to illustrate Dickens’s investment in maintaining and shaping his public image.

Dickens's Razors

Razors owned by Charles Dickens around the 1860s.
Image: Charles Dickens Museum Collection

It was an enormous privilege to be part of the big reveal on 21st November 2018 and in the following days to see the public’s reaction to the portrait. The most common response has tended to be ‘isn’t he handsome!’ Many other comments confirm what we have all long felt: this is a very significant portrait that captures in a powerful way a British literary icon at a pivotal moment in his career.

Dickens Lost Portrait in final mount

Image courtesy of Philip Mould & Company

The Charles Dickens Museum has been given the opportunity to acquire this exceptional portrait for its permanent collection and is now seeking to raise £180,000 to complete the purchase. Please go to The Lost Portrait Appeal page on our website for further information.

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Museum Blog

This blog takes you behind the scenes at the Charles Dickens Museum, giving fresh insight on everything from discoveries new and old in our collection, to exhibitions, events and learning initiatives.

You’ll be hearing from a variety of Museum staff and volunteers, as well as guest curators, academics, artists and Dickens enthusiasts. Why not join the debate and let us know you thoughts on the latest blog by using our hashtag #CDMBlog

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