Dickens as you never knew him

This is unmistakably the author of Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities, but as you’ve never seen him, thanks to a new colourisation process.

The Charles Dickens Museum in London has released the image ahead of the 150th anniversary of his death on June 9.

It shows Dickens in 1859 at the age of 47, looking smart, cheerful and tanned, in contrast to the austere images we have had of the author from later black and white photographs. He’s wearing a navy blue coat over a green and blue tartan waistcoat with light tanned trousers, a white shirt and bow tie. Charles Mackay, his colleague at the Morning Chronicle, recalled …a fresh, handsome, genial young man, with a profusion of brown hair, a bright eye, and a hearty manner – rather inclined to what was once called ‘dandyism’ in his attire, and to a rather exuberant display of jewellery on his vest and on his fingers".

The original black-and-white collodion print was made by the photographer Herbert Watkins, but new photography and colourisation techniques used by London-based portrait and still life photographer Oliver Clyde add a new depth to our understanding of Dickens. His descendants have also helped in the realisation of the image.

“Dickens’s face appears to alter and age him at different times; the creases and colouring around his eyes in this first image, for example, are largely gone in later pictures|” he said. “Eye colour is a contentious area. There is some debate over whether he had blue or green eyes, whereas in photographs they seem quite dark. Also, Dickens bucks the image of the pallid Victorian complexion by being tanned and healthy looking. We know he loved travelling and being outside in the sun and that is reflected in the images. Seeing Dickens in colour reveals so much; you can see photographs where he clearly hasn’t run a comb through his hair for days, where his beard is all over the place or where he’s sweating after being made to stand in a hot room for hours on end.”

The image is part of a new exhibition at the museum in Doughty Street, where Dickens once lived, called Technicolour Dickens: The Living Image of Charles Dickens which will open as soon as the museum can. It will show how images of Dickens were avidly circulated as soon as he found fame, throughout his career and after his death, with clothing, personal items and descriptions by those who knew and saw him.

It will also include the vivid new suite of eight colour photographic portraits of Dickens taken from the museum’s collection will be the spectacular finale to the exhibition, for which the museum has researched the details of each original portrait session, the clothes and accessories chosen by Dickens for each and the objects included in the original photographs.

The process has also involved photography and study of the complexion and skin tone of two of Dickens’s great-great grandsons, Gerald Dickens and Mark Dickens, in conditions akin to the original photography sessions to ensure that the colourisation is as accurate as possible.

 “Technicolour Dickens presents a new vision of Dickens, which will be a revelation to many people” said the museum’s curator Frankie Kubicki. “It can be easy to picture Dickens as an austere figure, posing slightly gloomily in later life, but descriptions of Dickens and his clothes paint a picture of a Savile Row shopper with a keen sense of style, a fondness for a natty waistcoat and a daring eye for a lively ensemble.

“By surveying the museum’s brilliant collection of images and portraiture, as well as objects, we can see how Dickens was aware of the power of his image and shaped it throughout his lifetime to engage with his public. From Nicholas Nickleby onwards, he made a point of associating himself closely with his characters and stories. We will show the images that he liked best and those that his family thought captured him to a T. Even 150 years after his death, we can still see Dickens anew. We can’t wait to re-open the museum and welcome people in for a close look at the Charles Dickens they’ve never seen before.”

Cindy Sughrue, director of the Charles Dickens Museum which receives no subsidy and must raise al its own funding, said her team had been working hard to have the exhibition – which was to have been its main summer draw - ready to open as soon as the museum can.  "With nearly all of our income streams cut off this has been exceptionally challenging” she said. “I am extremely grateful for everyone who has already donated to our fundraising appeal but we're not there yet; we need £30,000 each month during closure to cover the basic costs of caring for Dickens's house and the world-class collection it holds."

Donations can be made athttps://www.justgiving.com/campaign/DickensMuseumAppeal

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