Charles Dickens lost portrait

In the 1880s, not long before her death, Scottish artist Margaret Gillies was approached by the writer Frederick George Kitton, who wanted to know what had happened to one of Gillies’ early portraits. Kitton was writing a biography of Charles Dickens and he knew Gillies had painted the author in 1843, but where was the picture now? Gillies replied she didn’t know, saying she had “lost sight of it”. This comment could be applied to her own legacy. Like so many female artists, it was destined that the future would “lose sight” of Margaret Gillies.

Born in London in 1803, Gillies was the fourth in a family of five children. Her mother died when she was eight, and her father sent Margaret and her older sister Mary to his native Scotland, where they lived in Edinburgh with an aunt and uncle. Their uncle, Adam Gillies, Lord Gillies, was a judge, and paid for the sisters to be educated. Margaret’s artistic talent was recognised and, in the 1820s, she was taught by Scottish miniaturist Frederick Cruickshank. Later in her career she would start to experiment with larger-format paintings, and in the early 1850s she spent time in Paris with the brothers Ary and Henri Scheffer. These Dutch-born artists ran one of the most fashionable art studios in Paris, and their neighbour was the author George Sand (the pen name of Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin), a woman who, like Margaret Gillies, lived an unconventional life.

Sometime in the early 1820s, Gillies met Dr Thomas Southwood Smith, who was married but separated from his wife. Gillies, who was determined to make her own money and work hard at her career, was an early supporter of female suffrage; she had no desire to marry and lose what few rights she had as an independent woman. So, when she fell in love with Southwood Smith, she was happy to live with him without being married.

Both Southwood Smith and Gillies shared a desire to bring about changes in society. They were champions of the poor, and actively worked to alleviate suffering. Southwood Smith, who was 15 years older than Gillies, worked on the Poor Law Commission, wrote 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 was when Dickens was writing what would become his most famous book, A Christmas Carol. 

It was the first of five Christmas books, and grew from Dickens’s desire to end child poverty. Through his work with Southwood Smith, Dickens had been asked to write a government pamphlet, an appeal on behalf of the poor man’s child. Dickens soon turned this idea into A Christmas Carol, which highlighted the need for the wealthy to help the poor. He also focused on two desperate child characters, Ignorance and Want, who appear with the Ghost of Christmas Present. Dickens wrote the book in just six weeks, during which 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. As it would have been shocking for people to know it was a woman who had witnessed such terrible sights, the illustrator’s identity was kept secret, although it is likely her friends, including Dickens, would have known. In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is taken to see the miners in Cornwall. Was that episode inspired by Gillies’s stories?

At the time he was being painted, the author was struggling with financial and emotional depression. He had been saddened by the poor reception of his travelogue American Notes and again by a lacklustre response to his current novel, Martin Chuzzlewit. Dickens’s publishers were losing confidence in him; he had struggled to get them interested in his idea for a Christmas story, and they had only agreed to publish it if he paid a large amount of the costs. 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. When he was sitting for Gillies, he was a stressed young father, haunted by his own impoverished childhood and terrified of not being able to support his growing family.

The portrait was painted for a book entitled A New Spirit of the Age, written by a team of anonymous writers – one of whom was Margaret’s sister, Mary. The book was intended to inspire its readers to positive action.

A female pioneer

Portrait of Charles Dickens was also exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1844. The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote that the portrait’s subject “has the dust and mud of humanity about him, notwithstanding those eagle eyes”. Although the Royal Academy did not accept female members at this date, the 1844 exhibition catalogue proves several female artists exhibited that year. All of the women named in the catalogue have disappeared into obscurity, while many of the male artists remain famous today, including J M W Turner, Sir Edwin Landseer, Abraham Solomon, Daniel Maclise and William Etty. Of the 1,410 works on display, four were by Margaret Gillies.

That exhibition was the last time Gillies’s portrait of Dickens was seen in public for decades, and future generations only knew about it because of the engraving made from it. Over the decades, Gillies’s painting of the hauntingly handsome young author – so different from the more famous images of him in bearded older age – came to be known by art historians and Dickensians as “the lost portrait”. Lost, assumed destroyed.

The subsequent journey of the painting remains shrouded in mystery. What is known is that it somehow ended up in South Africa from where, in 2018, the Philip Mould Gallery in London received an email asking for advice about a small painting, so covered in fungus and dirt that the image was barely discernible. The collector had bought it in a “box of junk”, and he paid, for the whole box, the equivalent of £27.

One theory as to how the lost portrait ended up in Africa is a connection with George Henry Lewes, best known as the lover of writer George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans). Lewes was already married with children when he met Eliot (and his wife was in a relationship with Thornton Leigh Hunt). In 1865 the Lewes’s eldest son Charles married Gertrude Hill, the adopted daughter of Margaret Gillies and Thomas Southwood Smith. 

Charles Lewes’s brothers, Herbert and Thornton, both moved to South Africa, settling in what was then called Natal. Perhaps, one of the brothers took the painting with him? Or perhaps there is some other unknown explanation as to how this small, beautiful portrait, ended up so far away from where Margaret Gillies had painted it.

A new home 

The portrait has now returned to London. In October 2019, it was unveiled in its new home, The Charles Dickens Museum. It looks across the study to Dickens’s desk, a reminder of a young idealistic man who so desperately wanted to make the world a kinder, more charitable place.

Following the death of her lover, in Italy, in 1861, Margaret Gillies set up home in London with her sister Mary. Margaret died in 1887, a month before her 84th birthday. Through the rediscovery of the lost portrait, the name of Margaret Gillies is returning, albeit slowly, to the public consciousness. Her obituaries wrote of a grande dame of the art world, but glossed over her private life, although Gillies would hopefully have been gratified by an obituary in the Derbyshire Advertiser which described her as a “pioneer” of female artists, who had smoothed the way for “all the sister-women who have come after”.

Probably the obituary writers knew nothing of the real-life of this woman, who had crawled through suffocatingly hot mining tunnels, sketching heartrending images of women and child workers, who were often forced to strip while working, to escape death by heat exhaustion. Gillies’s legacy remains in the works she produced, her illustrations as shocking and heart-rending as Dickens’s writing – just far less frequently remarked upon today.

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