Plaster cast of a bust of Charles Dickens by Henry Dexter

 

This bust is a cast from an original sculpture (now lost) produced by Henry Dexter in Boston, USA, in 1842. Dexter was one of only two artists that Charles Dickens sat for on his first visit to the United States. Perhaps due to Dexter’s diligence and use of measuring aids, this bust is the most accurate portrayal of the author’s visage. Copies were placed on exhibition in all the principal US cities and wherever Dickens gave readings, there were agencies for the sale of it. Dickens was also pleased with the result and the completed work was lauded for its precise likeness by many, including his wife, Catherine. In the Atlantic Monthly October 1870, Dickens’s secretary George Putnam wrote an account of its production: 'in one corner of the room Dexter, the sculptor, was earnestly at work modelling a bust of Mr. Dickens. While Mr. Dickens ate his breakfast, read his letters and dictated the answers'.

Object history note

The bust currently on display is a painted plaster cast of an original sculpture that has been presumed lost. It was created by Henry Dexter in 1842, during Charles Dickens’s first visit to Boston and the United States. Before leaving England, Dickens had already organised to sit for a portrait for Francis Alexander and was asked to model for a sculpture by Dexter soon after; Alexander and Dexter were the only two artists that Dickens officially sat for. Dickens was quickly inundated with letters, invitations, requests for autographs and appointments, so decided to hire a secretary, George Putnam, who contributed the most complete account relating to the production of the bust. In Atlantic Monthly for October 1870, Putnam carefully describes a scene at Tremont House where ‘in one corner of the room Dexter, the sculptor, was earnestly at work modelling a bust of Mr. Dickens. While Mr. Dickens ate his breakfast, read his letters and dictated the answers, Dexter was watching with the utmost earnestness the play of every feature, and comparing his model with the original. Often during the meal he would come to Dickens with a solemn, business-like air, stoop down and look at him sideways, pass round and take a look at the other side of his face, and the go back to his model and work away for a few minutes; then come again and take another look, and go back to his model; soon he would come again with his callipers and measure Dickens’ nose, and go and try it on the nose of the model; then come again with the callipers and try the width of the temples, or the distance from the nose to the chin, and back again to his work, eagerly shaping and correcting his model. The whole soul of the artist was engaged in his task, and the result was a splendid bust of the great author. Mr. Dickens was highly pleased with it, and repeatedly alluded to it during his stay as a very successful work of art’.

Perhaps then, due to Dexter’s diligence and use of measuring aids, this bust is the most accurate portrayal of the author’s visage. Copies of the bust were placed on exhibition in all the principal cities of the country and wherever Dickens gave readings, there were agencies for the sale of it. There are a number of letters praising the artist for his work, including one from Catherine Dickens stating:

'My Dear Mr. Dexter, 

I did not see you before I left Boston, and had not the opportunity of expressing to you how much I was delighted with your bust of my husband, which I think Is a beautiful likeness. I should much like our English friends to see it, and hope for an early cast.

Catherine Dickens'

One of Dickens’s most intimate friends Professor C.C. Felton also wrote to Dexter saying:

‘Ever since I saw your admirable bust of Charles Dickens, the best and most characteristic likeness that has ever been made of him, I have considered you the best, or certainly one of the best portrait-sculptors.'


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