Two years ago, the art dealer Philip Mould was contacted by the miniature’s finder after he bought it for only £27 at a South African auction. Covered in a thick layer of mould, the barely recognisable Dickens portrait had been lying in a tray of trinkets alongside an old recorder and a metal toy lobster.
“He was moments away from basically throwing away this fungus-covered picture and then he started looking at it and realised that the face was very compelling,” remarked Mould. “Dickens’ astonishing re-emergence…could never have been predicted.”
After careful conservation, the Charles Dickens Museum purchased the miniature for a staggering £180,000 from the London art dealership. The amount was raised with the help of donations from across the world and grants given by Art Fund UK and the Arts Council England/V&A Purchase Grant Fund.
Dr Cindy Sughrue, director of the Charles Dickens Museum, said “we are so excited to be bringing the ‘lost’ portrait home… It is a magnificent affirmation of the enduring appeal of Dickens’ writing and the worldwide fascination that he continues to inspire.”
“This important portrait can now be enjoyed by visitors to the museum for years to come” added Art Fund director Stephen Deuchar, “it will brilliantly animate the story of his life and works at his former home in Bloomsbury,”
The fascinating watercolour on ivory was painted by Margaret Gillies (1803-87), whose subjects also included many feminist figures of the period. Dickens was already an emerging literary star when he sat for Gillies six times in 1843.
In the following year Dickens’ portrait was displayed at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, which coinciding with the publication of A Christmas Carol.
Gillies portrait soon became a defining image of Dickens at the time, with the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning describing how it “has the dust and mud of humanity about him, notwithstanding those eagle eyes.”
But in 1886 Gillies had “lost sight of the portrait”, for it to fortuitously reappear 133 years later. Dr Sughrue recalled “it was a memorable, heart-in-mouth moment, to say the least,” when she first found out about the miniature.
Speaking of its mysterious journey from London to South Africa and back again, Mould concluded “it is an epic tale with a supremely happy ending.”
The Charles Dickens Museum will publicly display the miniature from the 24 October 2019.