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Lost Charles Dickens portrait discovered in a trinket box after 175 years

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2018-11-22

The miniature portrait by Margaret Gillies depicts Charles Dickens as a handsome, 31-year-old man
The miniature portrait by Margaret Gillies depicts Charles Dickens as a handsome, 31-year-old man (Image: Philip Mould & Company)

A famous ‘lost’ portrait of Charles Dickens has been rediscovered after 175 years, hidden amongst a box of trinkets in a South African auction

The miniature portrait was painted by Margaret Gillies in 1843, when Dickens was just 31, and in the midst of writing his timeless classic A Christmas Carol.

The incredible discovery was announced this earlier this month by renowned art dealer Philip Mould, well-known to British TV audiences as an expert on the BBC TV show Fake or Fortune.

According to The Guardian, the portrait was found during an auction in 2017 in the South African province of Kwazulu-Natal, where a collector paid the equivalent of £27 for a collection of objects including an old recorder, a metal lobster, a brass plate and a small painting in a gold frame.

The painting was barely distinguishable beneath a thick layer of yellow mold, but something about the facial expression stood out and prevented the collector from simply throwing it away.

Instead he began to research the portrait, and eventually contacted Philip Mould & Company about his discovery.

“When the image came up on my screen I saw a very young, handsome Victorian gentleman staring back at me with these wonderful, quite intense eyes,” said the gallery’s miniatures expert Emma Rutherford. “It really did stop me in my tracks.”

The painting had been missing for 175 years, and was last seen in puiblic during an exbition at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1844
The painting had been missing for 175 years, and was last seen in puiblic during an exbition at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1844 (Image: Philip Mould & Company)

It soon became clear that this was no ordinary Victorian miniature painting: it was a missing portrait of one of the most celebrated writers in literary history.

The portrait is in stark contrast to later, more well-known photographic portraits of a far older Dickens, in which he appears with a large beard and a receding hairline.

But as a young man he was regarded amongst social circles as exceptionally handsome, with one of his contemporaries stating:

“There is something about his eyes at all times that in women we call bewitching; in men we scarcely have any name for it… his complexion is extremely delicate… I should not blame him if he were somewhat vain of his hair.”

Margaret Gillies had originally painted Dickens’ portrait to feature in the 1844 book A New Spirit of the Age, which featured essays on cultural stars of the day including Mary Shelley and Alfred Tennyson.

At the time Dickens had already made a name for himself with novels including The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop.

An engraving of the portrait was reproduced in the book, and the painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1844 to much acclaim, but Gillies soon lost track of the tiny artwork and it vanished without a trace.

The only record of the painting was the engraving used in the 1844 book A New Spirit of the Age
The only record of the painting was the engraving used in the 1844 book A New Spirit of the Age (Image: Phillip J. Pirages Fine Books and Manuscripts)

Experts were only aware of the painting’s existence due to images reproduced from the original 1844 engraving, but its whereabouts had remained a complete mystery and it was considered lost forever.

However, its rediscovery 175 years later and more than 8,000 miles away in South Africa does make a certain amount of sense, as both the brothers-in-law of Gillies’ adopted daughter were early emigrants to South Africa in the 1860s.

“Every now and then something comes through our doors that alone justifies a career devoted to the research and representation of historical art,” said Philip Mould.

“When the small package finally arrived at our gallery on a Monday morning in spring, it represented just such a moment… It was an electrifying moment for us all.”

Having undergone a painstaking restoration, the miniature portrait is now on display at Philip Mould & Company’s gallery in London, as part of an exhibition which runs until January 25.

The exhibition also marks the start of a fundraising campaign by the Charles Dickens Museum, which intends to buy the painting for £180,000 and secure it for the nation.

“The discovery of this long-lost portrait of Charles Dickens by Margaret Gillies is truly thrilling,” said Dr Cindy Sughrue, Director of the Charles Dickens Museum.

“The Charles Dickens Museum is the perfect place to provide it with a permanent home, and today we are launching an appeal for contributions towards the cost of acquiring the portrait for our permanent collection.”