Lost young Dickens found – in a trinket box

A lost portrait of Charles Dickens at the age of 31 has been found, in a South African trinket box.

It was painted in 1843 - when Dickens was at the start of his career and writing A Christmas Carol- by the miniaturist painter Margaret Gillies, but has not been seen in public since 1844 when it was shown at the Royal Academy. It is now thought to be worth £200,000. 

The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning saw it and said it showed him as having “the dust and mud of humanity about him, notwithstanding those eagle eyes”.

How it came to be in South Africa is not known, but it came to light at a sale in a box of trinkets. The buyer contacted the London art dealer Philip Mould, presenter of the BBC TV programme Fake or Fortune?, who identified it.

“To have a portrait of Dickens at this specific time – when his career was on a knife-edge – makes it all the more compelling” said the portrait miniature specialist Emma Rutherford. “His future was uncertain – he was overdrawn, with a growing family and living beyond his means. Gillies seems to capture both vulnerability and confidence. 

The Charles Dickens Museum, in Dickens’s former Bloomsbury home, is hoping to acquire the miniature.

 “This discovery would have been remarkable in any event, but it is even more so because the portrait itself is exquisite” said its director, Dr Cindy Sughrue. “The skill of the artist is evident in the fineness of every brushstroke, in each strand of hair and the sparkling eyes that look right into yours.”

The image is part of an exhibition at Philip Mould & Company, 18 – 19 Pall Mall, London SW1Y 5LU, which opens today and runs until January 25. 

Image: Margaret Gillies RWS (1803–1887), Portrait of Charles Dickens (1812–1870), courtesy Philip Mould & Company

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