What did Charles Dickens look like?
If I were to pose this question after any of my shows during this year’s A Christmas Carol tour I am sure that most members of the audience would describe an old man with a wild beard and rather unkempt hair. His face would be lined with bags beneath his eyes. He would be dressed soberly and formally, in the Victorian manner and would maybe be leaning on a walking cane.
If I were to ask them to create an image of this man writing A Christmas Carol they would sit him at a dark desk, in a dark room barely illuminated by candles. Papers would be spread over the desk with neat lines of handwriting on them. Maybe the author has stopped for a moment and is pondering the next line, a quill pen in his hand hovering over the page.
To be fair you can forgive Charles Dickens’s 21st century public for clinging onto these images as it is they that are popularly circulated, and the tone of the narrator’s voice in A Christmas Carol is gentle and reassuring – almost as if of a grandfather reading before the fireside.
But the truth could not be further from those pictures. Maybe a slight clue comes from the casting of that nice Matthew Crawley of Downton Abbey fame in ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’ last year – he is young with a flowing mane of hair, eagle eyes and a vibrant personality, but he IS still Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey.
If only we had a snapshot of Dickens, a portrait painted at the very moment he was writing the Carol to dispel the stereotypes. Well, we do.
Currently on display at the Philip Mould gallery in London is a portrait completed in the last months of 1843 showing my great great grandfather in all of his youthful greatness.
The image itself is not a new discovery, for it has been seen before as a black and white engraving which originally appeared as the frontispiece of a book called ‘A New Spirit of the Age’ which collected the works of many authors who were the vanguards of a new era of literature. In a volume that featured Tennyson, Browning, Shelley and Wordsworth it says everything about Dickens’s reputation that it was his portrait that was selected to greet the reader.
With the book in circulation so the engraving has been reproduced on many occasions, but what is the story of the original – the full colour original?
The miniature from which the engraving was taken was painted by Margaret Gillies in 1843 and was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1844, which was the last time it was seen in public. Gillies was a great social reformer in her own right and she must have had some intense and stimulating conversations with her sitter who was campaigning vigorously and continuously. Maybe they spoke of child poverty. Maybe Dickens told her about his upcoming pamphlet ‘An Appeal to the People of England on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child’. Maybe even as he sat with his bright eyes staring at Margaret a new idea began to take shape.
We can only guess as to what passed between the two artists, but the facts of the story are that in December 1843 Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol which immediately sold in huge numbers and in 1844 Margaret Gillies’ portrait was lost.
Nobody knows quite what happened but in 1886 Gillies admitted in a letter that she had ‘lost sight of the portrait itself’. The little miniature was consigned to history and until this year forgotten.
The plot moves to a South African auction house where a general lot was being offered for sale. In a box along with various other items was a dark portrait, the body of which was obscured by mould. Whilst the image may have been dark and dirty the eyes shone bright, and prompted an email to Philip Mould & Co in London, who confirmed that the Gillies miniature had remerged onto the public stage with perfect dramatic timing (2018 marks the 175th anniversary of the first publication of A Christmas Carol).
After cleaning and restoration the portrait is now on display at the Philip Mould gallery in Pall Mall, less than half a mile from the Royal Academy where it was originally hung. A special exhibition ‘Charles Dickens: The Lost Portrait which features not only the painting but many artefacts from the Charles Dickens Museum will run until January 25th, 2019.
I have yet to see the portrait close up but I fully intend to visit the gallery early in the new year and come face to face with the man who has given me so much pleasure (and gainful employment) over the last 25 years.
But just by looking at the images that have been published one can see a youthful man, a man of ambition, of energy, of conscience, of humour, of style, of impatience, of charisma: Those eyes!
Charles Dickens was well aware of his status and, like today’s celebs, he was fiercely protective of the image he promoted. In two portraits that he sat for in 1838 and 1839 he gazes away from the viewer, his eyes looking over our shoulder.
One of these pictures, ‘The Nickleby Portrait’ (on the left above) was painted by his good friend Daniel Maclise and it is interesting that in a letter to Margaret Gillies to confirm a sitting Dickens asked if Maclise could pop in to observe, and probably to advise. But Gillies managed to convince Charles that this time the eyes should engage the viewer and the picture is all the stronger for that.
What next? The exhibition will close in January and who knows where the portrait will end up. It will be sold, maybe to a private collector and then will remain unseen by the wider public once again. This is where the Charles Dickens Museum comes riding in on its white charger – they want the picture for the permanent collection housed at Dickens’s only remaining London home, 48 Doughty Street, where it can be seen by generations of visitors for many years to come.
Sadly the art world is an expensive one and if the museum is to be able to purchase the picture they have to raise a lot of money in a very short period of time – around £180,000 actually.
So I ask you, I appeal to you: if I have 180,000 followers I ask you all to donate £1 today to the appeal and then we have succeed. I realise that that I probably don’t have 180,000 followers, so maybe if I have one follower who would like to donate £180,000, that would work too.
This is a very important discovery and we cant let it slip through our hands for a second time and I know that the museum and the family will be so grateful for any donations that you can make.
Below is a link to a brilliant video about the discovery and also another to the Charles Dickens Museum donations page.
If you do happen to be the individual with 180k in your back pocket then I know that Cindy Sughrue the director of the museum would be very pleased to hear from you directly!