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Long-lost Youth-capturing Dickens Portrait Goes on Show in London this Christmas

Nothing quite says Christmas like a contemporary adaptation of a Charles Dickens literary classic. Save say, for some garish tree decorations and neon lights subtly declaring your festive intent. After all, ‘A Christmas Carol’ is arguably THE most well-read/watched of all seasonal tales, and has been for generations. Again, if you discount the TV channel omnipresent Christmas movie, ‘The Holiday’, naturally.

But what of the great man/iconic author himself? The man who gave the world ‘Scrooge’, and much more besides. Typically depicted in his later years (complete with a long, bushy beard and messy, balding hair), a rare composition of the great Victorian scribe has emerged of late, where he’s observed significantly more youthful of appearance and fresh-faced. The portrait of Dickens (in which he’s captured looking over his left shoulder, with long, wavy hair yet clean-shaven) went AWOL over 150 years ago, and recently turned up in the most random of places.

Discovered with a film of mould covering its surface area – and sat within a £27 lot which also comprised a metal lobster, an old recorder and a brass plate in a South African market – the miniature watercolour and gouache portrait has now gone on display at the somewhat appropriate, Charles Dickens Museum, in London. Now, officially in the possession of city-based fine art dealers, Philip Mould and Company, the Margaret Gillies painted original piece is said to be valued in the region of £220k.

Just How the Dickens Did It End up in a South African Market?

Capturing the likeness of Dickens in his early 30s, it’s believed the composition was created by Gillies in 1843; which was roughly the time he’d have been writing ‘A Christmas Carol’. The visual had also appeared on the front cover of the title, ‘A New Spirit of the Age’; an 1844 book of essays which focused on the cultural stars of the day, which elsewhere profiled the likes of Tennyson, Browning and Mary Shelley.

Measuring just 14cm, the high oval portrait was stumbled upon by accident this time last year in the KwaZulu-Natal region of South Africa by an unknown buyer. And during the intervening period has undergone restoration to remove the mould and return it to its former visual glories before being made available to the British public’s gaze this Christmas.

In terms of the painting’s history, various sources suggest that 1844 was the last time the portrait was on public display, that time London’s Royal Academy of Arts being the venue. However shortly after that, its whereabouts became a mystery which has endured to now. Gillies herself penned a letter at some point in the 1860s, acknowledging that she knew not of its location, and after much scouring and following false leads it was ultimately reported as ‘unaccounted’ for in 1886.

As to why the figurative painting ended up in South Africa, is again something surrounded in mystery. That being said, one theory is family friends or associates of either the Dickens or Gillies families took it there. Now it’s back on familiar territory, everyone’s in agreeance that it should never be mislaid again. Indeed, the Dickens Museum itself is in the throes of trying to raise the necessary funds (ideally a reduced price of £180k) to purchase the portrait, and therein return it to its rightful place. For the record, the museum is located in the famous novelist’s former residence.

We ourselves are no strangers to the illustrative works of the more visual of past masters of their days, like Van Gogh, Monet and Chagall. Not that we have their actual works on our gallery books. More a case of one of the UK’s foremost re-imaginers of such incredible artists and their most notable works; namely John Myatt. Amongst other equally gifted contemporary exponents of their genres this Christmas, including perennial favourites Doug Hyde and Kerry Darlington.

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