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  • Writer's pictureRomina Rosso

Charles Dickens: the mystery of the lost portrait and the Christmas Carol

Updated: Apr 10, 2021

Margaret Gillies, Portrait of Charles Dickens, 1843

Charles Dickens was one of the most famous people of the Victorian period and for sure one of the most popular writers of his time.

About Dickens, it was thinking that most of the material in public and private collection was found and that there was nothing to discover.

Everything changed in 2017, when it was rediscovered after 173 years, that so called “the lost portrait” of Dickens, which was lost track after an exhibition in 1844.

The portrait, a small miniature, was found in South Africa in the province of Kwazulu-Natal.

A collector, in an auction, paid the equivalent of £27 for a “box of junk” with many objects and among them the small portrait was found.

In 2018, the collector contacted Emma Rutherford, miniatures expert of Philip Mould & Company in London, for an expertise as the portrait was barely distinguishable beneath a thick layer of yellow mould.

The miniature was neglected for many years, the paint in that period had a lot of gum mixed with the watercolours and this can attract mould.

After the restoration, it was possible to identified that this was the portrait of Dickens made to feature for the frontispiece of A new spirit of the age. It was a compendium of essays of the creativity genius of the Victorian period as Tennyson, Browning, Mary Shelley and the first chapter, of course, was dedicated to Dickens.

Frontispiece of A new spirit of the age, 1844.

The miniature portrait was painted by the Scottish artist Margaret Gillies.

As the portrait she painted Margaret Gillies has been largely been forgotten, a professional artist, a pioneer, a feminist, an early supporter of female suffrage, unmarried by choice to be an independent woman.

She fell in love with Dr Southwood Smith. She was happy to live with him without being married and both shared a desire to bring about changes in society.

Southwood Smith worked on the Poor Law Commission, writing reports for the government on sanitation and poverty and sought to meet likeminded people who could help with his campaigns. One of those was Charles Dickens, and it was probably through this friendship that Gillies came to paint Dickens in the autumn of 1843.

This portrait came in critical times in the carrier of Dickens.

Dickens was 31 years old, already the famous author of Oliver Twist and The Old Curiosity Shop, a tireless social reformer but he has just written two flops and he was on trouble struggling with financial and emotional depression.

During the months this portrait was painting something astonished happen, Dickens is hit by a sort of lighting boat of creativity and he started to work in what is arguably his most famous piece of writing A Christmas Carol.

John Leech, A Christmas Carol, first edition frontispiece, 1843

Dickens had been asked to write a government pamphlet about child poverty but he modified the idea in A Christmas Carol, that highlight the need for the wealthy to help the poor.

John Leech, A Christmas Carol, Ignorance and Want,1843

He also focused on two desperate child characters, Ignorance and Want, who appear with the Ghost of Christmas Present.

Dickens wrote the novel in just six weeks, in which during that time he had about six or seven sittings with Gillies. Looking at the intense expression in his eyes in Gillies’s miniature, a viewer can imagine artist and sitter sharing impassioned conversations.

Gillies had already illustrated a government report into the working conditions of women and children in mines.

Incredibly, in A Christmas Carol, Scrooge, the main character in the novel, is taken to see the miners in Cornwall, so probably Dickens was influenced by the work of Gillies.

In 1844 Margaret Gilles exhibited this miniature portrait in the Royal Academy of Arts in London, and that was the last time that it was seen in public. The miniature was only known by the future generations because of the engraving made from it.

In 1886, Gilles was contacted by the writer Frederick George Kitton, who was doing researches about Dickens to produce a book with a lot of illustrations and different portraits of the novelist.

Margaret, an elderly woman, wrote back that she has:“ lost sight of the portrait itself”.

How the miniature arrived in South Africa still a mystery but there is a probable connection with the painter.

The family of the husband of Gillies’ adopted daughter moved to South Africa in the same area where the miniature portrait was found. In October 2019, the miniature was bought by the Charles Dickens museum in London and it is exhibited in his study over the Dickens’s desk, as a reminder of a young idealistic man who so desperately wanted to make the world a kinder, more charitable place.

Portrait of Dickens in the Charles Dickens Museum, London.

The portrait of Margaret is so different from the others of the writer with his intense gaze straight to the viewer that capture you in his word and show the genius behind the young man.

While Gillies painted, Dickens had no idea of the sudden and huge success A Christmas Carol would be, nor that his life was about to change forever.

Dickens was struggling to interest his publishers to the idea for a Christmas story, and they had only agreed to publish it if he paid a large amount of the costs.

Dickens published his novels in monthly or weekly instalments, pioneered the serial publication of narrative fiction, which became the dominant Victorian mode for novel publication.

Dickens worked in close collaboration with his illustrators, supplying them with an overall summary of the work for each instalment so that work on the illustrations could begin before he wrote them.

The illustrations give us a glimpse of the characters as Dickens described them to the illustrator and approved when the drawing was finished to provide the reader with what he considered key scenes needing emphasis.

John Leech, A Christmas Carol, Marley's Ghost, 1843
John Leech, A Christmas Carol, Scrooge extinguishing the first spirit, 1843

Film makers still use the illustrations as a basis for characterization, costume, and set design in the dramatization of Dickens' works.

In A Christmas Carol Dickens chose as illustrator John Leech, cartoonist and illustrator famous for his work for Punch, a satire magazine.

If Dickens had the modern idea of Christmas, we need to give the credit to Leech and his illustrations to create the sceneries and the characters who invented Christmas.

A Christmas Carol, a novel of 1843, remains especially popular and continues to inspire adaptations in every artistic genre.

John Leech, A Chistmas Carol, Ghost of the Christmas Present, 1843
John Leech, A Christmas Carol, The Last of the Spirits, 1843

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