The face of Charles Dickens - portraits of the great author

  • Details
  • Transcript
  • Audio
  • Downloads
  • Extra Reading

Charles Dickens was drawn, painted and photographed more than most of his contemporaries. Great Victorian artist's such as William Powell Frith RA and even the famous US photographers Gurney & Son captured his famous features.

This lecture tells you about these and many more and what Dickens thought about them all.

Next lecture in the series was Curious eyes and steady hands - anatomists in Georgian London

Download Transcript






The Charles Dickens Museum is in Doughty Street, London, and is a house that Dickens lived in at the beginning of his career; it was when he became famous. I mention the word “famous” to start off with, because with the portraits that we will be looking at tonight, the level of Dickens’ celebrity was so high that he really, as you may know, was portrayed probably more times than most of his other contemporaries, other Victorian personalities so to speak.

He was 25 when he moved into Doughty Street, and he was working on Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. He only lived there for three years, but it was obviously a very important time for him. When moved there everyone knew him under his pseudonym, Boz, but by the time he left three years later, the world knew the name “Charles Dickens”.

A short time after working at the Charles Dickens Museum, I became aware of a strange fact: portraits of the author were almost as numerous as his writings. I became very interested in the near obsession with Dickens’ image. This was both during his lifetime and also beyond his lifetime. He is one of the most depicted of the great Victorians. Tonight, I want to show you a wide selection of these very different and unusual portrayals, some of which have become controversial in Dickensian and artistic circles.

Charles Dickens was born in Portsea, or Portsmouth as we now call it, in February 1812, and he was the son of a navy pay clerk, John Dickens. If I don’t tell you where a picture that you see is located, that it’s actually in our collection at the museum.

John is described by one biographer as a “jovial opportunist with absolutely no money sense”. This came to a head in 1824 with him and most of his family being incarcerated in the Marshalsea Debtors Prison in Southwark. Marshalsea Prison has been demolished now, but we have in the museum a grille from the prison.

I’m telling you about this incident because it corresponds with an episode in Dickens’ life that was to remain with him, and actually only really with him, because he only related it during his lifetime to his wife and his best friend, John Forster. When his family were in the Marshalsea Prison, he was sent to Warren’s Boot Blacking Warehouse, which was a factory on Hungerford Stairs.

One of the pictures of Dickens makes him look really wretched, collapsed over his work bench in Warrens. It’s by one of Dickens’ later illustrators, who illustrated towards the end of the 19th Century, called Fred Barnard. Some of you may know some of his works. I really like his picture of Dickens because I don’t really imagine that Warren’s would have been happy to have one of their young boy workers swooning and draped over like that, and I think it’s like picking up on the melodrama of the situation of him having to work there. Certainly, it really affected him, and he of course celebrated this episode when he was writing David Copperfield.

A rather nice engraving of his mother, Elizabeth, shows her in later life. Dickens had quite a cool relationship with his mother because although originally she supported his education, when the family finally came out of the Debtors’ Prison, I think she was quite keen for him to stay on working at the factory, and this was such a traumatic experience for him at the age of 12 that he really was quite angry that she had wanted him to go back there.

I am mentioning her briefly because it was through his aunt, her sister, Janet Barrow, that we have the first authenticated portrait of Dickens. This is a miniature, and it shows him aged 18. It was painted on ivory by his aunt, Janet Barrow. It shows him full-faced, with a slight smile on his lips. The hair is quite long, but not as long as in the portraits that characterise what I like to call his youthful period – that’s the period from the 1830s to the middle of the 1840s.

By 1837 he was getting quite popular, and two of his early illustrators, George Cruikshank and Fiz Knight (Fiz was his pseudonym), tried their hand at capturing him. We are told that Cruikshank took his work so seriously that he refused to allow Dickens to receive his uncle during one sitting. In one portrait you can see the window of his drawing room, which is in 48 Doughty Street, where have the chair in his reconstructed drawing room.

Fiz also drew him, and one of the quotations I like about one particular image is by Frederick Kitten. He was an early Dickens enthusiast and he did a large survey of Dickens’ portraits in the late 1890s, and he said, “Fiz’s forte was evidently not in portraiture”! He did illustrate of course a number of Dickens’ novels – Pickwick Papers, Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities, just to name a few – but I think that Cruikshank really wasn’t that much better

That can’t really be said of Samuel Laurence, whose strength was in the use of pencil, crayon and chalk.

I think there’s a bit of confusion over the number of drawings made by Laurence at this time, but one dates from October 1837. Dickens added his signature, and Laurence signed it too. Laurence was so fond of it that he wouldn’t part with it and, when he died, it was in his studio and it was sold in the sale of his works after his death. Laurence also portrayed other literary figures, including Mrs Gaskill, but a second portrait was dated 1838. Another portrait signed by Boz is in the National Portrait Gallery, although I am not sure if it is still on display.

I know also there was a watercolour produced because it was on display in the museum in 1970 but it has since gone out of the public domain. Recently, an auction house got in touch with me, and a new Samuel Laurence portrait from this period has come up for sale.

Laurence also portrayed Dickens’ wife, Catherine. It’s a lovely picture of her. He tried to portray her early in 1838, but she was quite ill during that year so it wasn’t until the summer that this picture was completed. It hung in the house when Dickens lived in 48 Doughty Street, so it’s nice we have it now back on display again.

It’s funny though because Dickens always had something to say, or a lot of the time had something to say about his portraits, and was constantly bemoaning various aspects of them, but I think probably the most frustrating element of portraiture at the time was the lengthy amount of hours you would have to sit to an artist. I think we get the first hint of what’s going to come about Dickens complaining about this in a letter he writes to his friend Forster about sitting for Laurence in 1838: “Not a write for me today. Sitting first, then a hasty dinner, then Nickleby, who has scarcely advanced a jot.” So this is the first time I think we get the mention of him getting a bit fed up with this.

In 1839, Dickens sat for his great friend, the artist Daniel Maclise. A copy is in the possession of the Dickens’ family still. We have got a copy in the museum, but it’s a really bad copy. I’m sure many of you are familiar with the image; it’s in the National Portrait Gallery if you want to go and see it.

Dickens had asked Maclise to repaint the face, but once it was fully finished, he was able to report, in typical Dickens style: “All people say that it is astonishing”. That’s not strictly true because George Elliot thought that it suffered, as she said, “from odious beautification”, although Thackeray, a good friend of Dickens, said that he found it to be “perfectly amazing”. The portrait was commissioned by Dickens’ publishers, Chapman & Hall, and they had it engraved for the frontispiece of Nicholas Nickleby.

There is an engraving by a chap called William Finden, who engraved a number of portraits at the time, and if you look at the frontispiece of an early edition of Nicholas Nickleby, you’ll see this in the front. What is interesting about this is Dickens then becomes rather fused with an image of Nicholas Nickleby.

There is a collection of illustrations that we have in the collection at the museum. It includes the heads from Nicholas Nickleby, but what’s interesting is in the middle is Dickens, but is it Dickens or is it Nicholas Nickleby? I think it is obviously very similar to the Samuel Laurence, and like the Maclise portrait, but it’s got Nicholas Nickleby written above it, so Dickens is already in this celebrity status, having his image pushed forward.

Samuel Laurence’s portrait was the first image of Dickens to be sold to the public.

There is a lovely painting of Catherine, and it was described as a companion portrait to the Maclise painting. I don’t actually think it was a companion, because really it was done in the late 1840s, so it was about ten years after the Maclise one of Dickens, but it is such a lovely painting, and you can see that on display in the museum.

It wasn’t only paintings and illustrations of Dickens, or engravings; there is a bust by Angus Fletcher that dates from April 1839, and it’s clearly similar to the Maclise portraits, and also he’s got the, for the time, fashionably long hair that is in the Laurence and in the Maclise paintings.

I want to talk about a portrait that I’m rather interested in next. The original now is no longer in the public domain. It was on loan when the museum opened to the public in 1925 – we’re celebrating our 80 th anniversary this year. It did come up for auction about ten years ago, but it went to the States and I’m not sure of its whereabouts now. It is a portrait by an artist called Samuel Drummond. I think of all the portraits it’s remarkable because of the debate it has excited, and this is due to a number of scholarly errors made at the beginning of the 20th Century which resulted in its authenticity being questioned. I think this is principally because it offers an image of Dickens that is unwelcome to Dickens scholars. It shows him in the early 1840s, and it is painted in the majestic style of Sir Thomas Laurence, who was Drummond’s near contemporary. Dickens has brilliant eyes, dark irregular hair, flaring nostrils, and a curling upper lip. I think this is quite similar if you think of those portraits that Laurence has done of Byron, so you’re getting Dickens being portrayed like the previous generation of writers, and a lot of the early Dickensians really, really didn’t like this portrait, and they really went to great lengths to discredit it.

There is another portrait related to it. Back in 1835, Dickens wanted to present Catherine with a wedding gift, so he went to see a miniaturist, Rose Emma Drummond. Rose Emma Drummond was the daughter of Samuel Drummond, and they both worked from the same studio. I think Dickens may have even used her in Nicholas Nickleby as the model for the miniaturist, Miss La Creevy. This portrait again is now lost. But if you look at a copy of it and study the eyes in this portrait, and the nose and the mouth, and then go back to the Samuel Drummond portrait, although the nose is slightly different, the lips and the eyes are quite similar to the previous one, the miniature of Rose Emma Drummond. Dickens undoubtedly would have seen Samuel Drummond going to the studio if they were both working there, and also I think it might be safe to hazard a guess that he could have used Rose Emma Drummond’s sketches and studies for her miniature.

That’s just my theory on it, but I also find it interesting to know about the history of this picture, because it belonged to Angela Burdett-Coutts, Baroness Burdett-Coutts. She was the Coutts heiress and a friend of Dickens, and I just love the picture of her – it’s such a remarkable Victorian image, with her wearing an amazing outfit. We are told that she had her clothes specially made for her by Worth in Paris.

Among some of the projects that she embarked on with Dickens, there was, most famously I think, the home for fallen women in Shepherd’s Bush. If you read Dickens’ letters, it is worthwhile reading the correspondence about these because there are some very, very funny stories about what these fallen women get up to in the house there, like inviting policemen back and getting drunk in the cellar and that sort of thing!

Just a few little titbits about Angela Burdett-Coutts before we move on to go back to the Drummond portrait: she was the first woman to be made a baroness in her own right in 1871, because of her many charitable works. She even invented a drying machine for the soldiers’ uniforms in the Crimea. In 1880 she scandalised society by marrying a much, much younger man. You know, typical Victorian double standards: it was all very well for an old Victorian man to marry a young woman, but not the other way round, but I think she really stuck her fingers to her nose at society, and seemed to be very happy – this great heiress, and the young American man married her. Maybe he was after her money, but they seem to have had a happy marriage. Anyway, if you go to Westminster Abbey, when you go through the front door of the Abbey, you will see the first grave mark – have a look for it the next time you go, because it says “Baroness Burdett-Coutts” and that’s her grave marker.

Her secretary, commenting on the Drummond portrait, when he found out that a lot of people were disputing it, said: “There can be no doubt whatever in my mind that the Baroness Burdett-Coutts, who knew Dickens as a young man, considered it a genuine and interesting portrait of the author.” I don’t think that really if she was such a close friend to Dickens that she would have purchased a portrait - we know she had other Drummond portraits in her collection – purchased a portrait which was disputed. Also, it was displayed in the late 1890s and members of Dickens’ family, his children, were still alive then, and I’m sure – because they were involved in the exhibition obviously – they wouldn’t have allowed a portrait of their father to be shown in public if there was some question over its authenticity. Anyway, I wanted to just talk about that portrait because it’s interesting in the way that it has caused quite a lot of trouble in the Dickens Museum over the years.

Another friend of Dickens was Marguerite, Countess of Blessington, and although society didn’t really see her as a lady, she was, and there is a remarkable painting by Thomas Laurence. You can see it today in the Wallace Collection over in Manchester Square. Just as a quick aside on her, my favourite biography in the Museum’s collection is the biography of Lady Blessington, and it’s called “The Most Gorgeous Lady Blessington”, and I think you’ll agree she is pretty gorgeous if you see that picture.

She presided over a glittering salon at Gore House, which is on the site where the Albert Hall is now built. There many young intellects and dandies, including Dickens, people like Disraeli, would go - they gravitated to this salon - but she was shunned by a large proportion of society because she had scandalised them by living openly not only with her husband but also with another man, Alfred, Count d’Orsay. I tried to find a nice picture of him, but there are only a very few images and some of them are pretty ropey. As the people in the salon they got to know Dickens, d’Orsay, who was an artist, drew Dickens in 1841.

Dickens didn’t like the first one and he asked d’Orsay to re-model the face. Why didn’t Dickens like it? Well, something that we find during his lifetime is he doesn’t like to be portrayed in profile. Why’s that? Because he has got a rather weak chin. Although he eventually passed the portrait and actually signed it, he really wanted d’Orsay to produce a better one.

There is some confusion over the date of the second one, and this is actually dated 1842. I rather suspect it was 1841 and d’Orsay made a mistake; he did them both at the same time. One is dated December 1841 and the next is dated December 1842, but the similarity is so remarkable, I don’t think there’s a year between them. Actually, d’Orsay has written at the bottom: “Dickens, the best of the two.” Why is that? Well, if you look at the chin, you will see that it is much more chiselled out, you don’t have the weak chin that is on the other one.

During 1842, Dickens travelled to the United States with Catherine for the first time, and his fame was already such that many American artists, sculptors, had approached Dickens. Indeed one, Francis Alexander, had actually got in touch with Dickens before he left for the States asking if he could procure a sitting.

It becomes quite a penchant for artists, and indeed photographers, later to show Dickens writing at a desk or holding a quill or with a book, something to associate him with his career. It’s quite funny, because when the Cunard De Britannia arrived at Boston, Francis Alexander was waiting on the quay and actually jumped on the boat, so eager was he to meet and greet Dickens and get him over to his hotel so he could do a picture of him. We are told that Dickens was quite annoyed when he went to Francis Alexander’s house because there were so many girls and women who called themselves ladies gawping at him! They were crammed into the room where Francis Alexander was working, but Francis Alexander and Dickens had a very cordial relationship and they corresponded after Dickens left the States. I think it’s rather strange that Dickens didn’t complain to him, have the room cleared, and I think secretly probably he liked having all these so-called ladies gawping and staring at him. In the picture the face is rather lacking in character and I think is rather smooth as well; it’s not really considered one of the better portraits of the author, but if you are ever in Boston in the States, you can go and see it in the Museum of Fine Arts there.

Bearing in mind that this was done in early 1842, it is worth looking at a drawing by an artist called Pierre Morand, who did a number of sketches of Dickens while he was on board the Britannia – very, very different. Dickens looks much fuller in the face, so certainly not as chiselled as the second d’Orsay drawing, and there is much more of a masculine face than the rather effeminate depiction by Francis Alexander. It’s interesting for me because when you get into the photographs of the early 1850s, you can really see in the image how Dickens really looked. I think Pierre Morand did a very good job capturing him.

Some more unusual images were by the caricaturist Richard Doyle. These were done in the early 1840s. Poor Forster, Dickens’ friend, looks like he’s been bashed in the face or something, or he looks a bit of a bruiser himself. I think you wouldn’t want to meet him down a dark alley, would you?! And the way Dickens has been shown, when he must have been be in his early thirties, but he looks so much older, and he has really made him look quite jowly as well - rather an unpleasant caricature.

I don’t know if Doyle heard something from d’Orsay – I don’t even know if they knew one another, but it is funny the way he has portrayed Dickens’ chin. He has even done a close-up, a profile of Dickens in the corner.

The final portrait I want to talk about from the early 1840s is a miniature by Margaret Gillies, and the original was painted on ivory but it is now lost unfortunately It was engraved for an 1844 work entitled “A New Spirit of the Age”. Gillies later recollected what a delight it was to have Dickens with her and said he was “always full of the most agreeable and pleasant talk”. However, when he saw the portrait – and this is one of my favourite quotes – he said, “Heaven knows, my portrait looks in my eyes a little like the iron mask without the man in it”! Elizabeth Barrett-Browning didn’t really agree, she said, “It has the dust and mud of humanity about him, not withstanding those eagle eyes.” The eyes are certainly very large and luminous. I’m not sure what the dust and mud of humanity were, unless it means he looks slightly irritable I think on that picture.

There is a painting in the Museum showing Dickens in his amateur dramatic mode. It shows him as Captain Coldstream in the Matthews play “Used Up”. You may know that Dickens was very, very keen on amateur dramatics and participated in them throughout his life. What you may not know is in the 1830s he secured an audition at a Covent Garden theatre because he was set on becoming an actor. He was so ill with a cold that day that he couldn’t attend the audition, and he did not succeed in getting another audition. If he had done, then he would be probably largely forgotten as a Victorian actor and I would not be standing here showing you all the pictures of him today because he presumably would not have gone on to write his many famous works.

Another painting that I like to – and I really wish I could show it to you because I love what Dickens says about it – was done by an artist called William Boxall in 1850. Dickens kept writing to his other great artist friend William Howell-Frith about this painting. He said, “At every sitting, this picture grew progressively worse.” First it showed him as a really ugly boxer who was popular at the time, and finally,Dickens was equating it to a convicted murderer, and so the painting was actually abandoned. Obviously I haven’t seen it, but I’d love to know what it looked like!

Finally, we get on to photography. If you compare with the Morand picture you will see what I mean about the face of Dickens. There’s a tendency in some of the early artists to show him with a very, very slim face. I think he has quite a bit of a rounder face than you would have thought from the earlier portraits. For example, there is one by the American early photographer John Edwin-Mayall in the early 1950s. We are not sure of the exact date. We knew that it was very early in 1850 he was writing again to Angela Burdett-Coutts about sitting for Mayal, and he was actually very excited about the photographs – they were daguerreotypes originally and then created into photographs – but I think that this excitement was to wane very quickly after the other photographers that were around him in the next 20 years, constantly badgering him for sittings. He said to Angela Burdett-Coutts in his letter that although he was pleased with one photograph, “it has a slight rigidity and a desperate grimness

Two images only came to light in the last five years, and were hitherto unknown.

One is a remarkable daguerreotype of Dickens that was done 1855, again by Mayall, and it shows him in profile, although he’s been very cunning because he is wearing a very high-collared shirt, so you can only see the hint of his chin, he’s hiding his chin. I think this is probably the first time it has been shown in public. It is now in private hands. It was sold at auction for tens of thousands of pounds, so it wasn’t something that we could afford to buy. But what I think is quite interesting is that something has started to grow on his face which is going to be characteristic of Dickens for the rest of his life, and gets steadily more wild and longer - and worse, actually!

But another daguerreotype from that same sitting is of his wife Catherine, and I think is a really, really fabulous picture of her. I don’t know if you know her story, but Dickens controversially separated from her. In 1857, through his amateur dramatics, he had met an 18 year old actress called Ellen Turnin, and the following year, he began a highly secretive relationship with her. Publicly at the time, to separate from Catherine, he denounced her and cut her out of his life completely. Now, Angela Burdett-Coutts tried valiantly to mediate, but Dickens was to respond – and this shows you the depth of his feeling – “It is simply impossible that such a thing can be. That figure is out of my life for ever more except to darken it, and my desire is never to see it again.” Horrible, referring to Catherine as “it”… Most of her children were denied access to her, and she was looked after by her eldest son Charlie, although Dickens’ daughter Katie did defy her father and go and visit her, and later in life she was to regret that she didn’t actually visit her mother more.

On a happier note, Angela Burdett-Coutts, who was in fact the richest woman in Europe, sided firmly with Catherine, so she did have this nice friend there with money. It’s strange because obviously from this time onwards, Angela Burdett-Coutts’ correspondence with Dickens really wanes, becomes very irregular; there’s only a few letters really that survive after this period, but we know that Catherine saw much more of Angela Burdett-Coutts, and you remember back to that lovely painting of Catherine by Maclise at the beginning, the so-called companion portrait, that was given to Angela Burdett-Coutts in Catherine’s will, so I’m quite pleased that Catherine did come out with an ally.

I think the saddest thing, if you think back to those early portrayals of Catherine by Samuel Laurence and by Maclise, is the only thing that’s the same are the ringlets. The strain of having ten children and at least one miscarriage really is shown in one picture, and also I think it’s really sad if you see pictures of Ellen Turnin from this time as well

From that same sitting, there is one from our collection, a stereoscopic print. Stereoscopic prints were ones that you would hold up in a viewer so that you could then see them in 3D. It would be a three-dimensional portrayal, obviously long before film and television. This was about the most exciting it got! I looked on the internet about stereoscopic prints, and I found that people still make them I saw somebody’s really bad photos of Canada, I think their holiday snaps. Presumably you would have been able to buy an image and then look at it and see your favourite author in three-dimension.

Another portrayal of Dickens from this period, in 1854, is by E. M. Ward, Edward Matthew Ward. It shows Dickens in his study at Tavistock House – it was on Bloomsbury Square - I think the British Medical Association building is now on the site where Tavistock House once stood. Presumably in 1854 he had been maybe just finishing Hard Times, working on the beginning of Little Dorrit, and you he has given in and the beard has started to grow. I think that it is quite amusing because Dickens was quite opposed to this whole facial hair thing, but he certainly embraces it with gusto later in life!

While he was writing Little Dorrit in Paris there was a painting of Dickens by Eri Shaffer, which is now in the National Portrait Gallery. He had to keep going to sit to Shaffer over and over and over again, and it was a real annoyance to him because it was taking him away from his writings. He was actually to write to Forster when it was completed in 1856 – it took over a year to do – “The nightmare portrait is almost done.” It was displayed in the Royal Academy, but I don’t think it was that well received.

When Dickens was again to see a photographer, he went to the Watkins Brothers. The Watkins Brothers were working at Parliament Square. There were three of them – Herbert, John and Charles Watkins – and they did quite a number of sittings with Dickens. They did really nice poses of him: in one he is looking quite stern, standing by a desk on which are all his books.

One of this series is my favourite portrait of Dickens. I think the pose is very modern, and I it is quite reminiscent of those 1960s pictures of Joe Orton and Christine Keeler. Dickens is straddling the back of a chair. It was produced as a cabinet card, so you could buy it – it’s slightly blurred, his face doesn’t look as craggy as it does on some of the other pictures you see of him.

Now back to W. P. Frith, who had also got very alarming mutton chop type whiskers, so it wasn’t only Dickens that had fallen for this craze at this time. Because he was friends with Dickens, he knew how fed up Dickens was of sitting for artists and photographers, and he tried to work from photographs by the Watkins Brothers for his very, very famous painting – probably the last great painting of Dickens’ life. It is a wonderful picture of him, again at his desk and showing him in around 1858/1859. Unfortunately, he just couldn’t work from the photographs. e said he couldn’t get the expression of Dickens’ face. But if you look at those photographs, you will see he is very craggy looking, and I think that he’s done quite a nice cover-over job on Dickens’ face. You wouldn’t think he was as old looking as he appears in the photographs of the same period.One portrait is now in our collection. I think there were three of them done altogether. One of them, the original, is in the Victoria & Albert Museum; our one was done for the Dickens family in 1880 and, not that I want to brag, but the Dickens family said that they thought it was nicer than the original/ It’s another wonderful thing you can come and see at the Charles Dickens Museum!

Getting into the characteristic pictures of Dickens in the last part of his life, he was appearing much older. He died in 1870, although he looked a lot older than his 58 years when he died. I don’t really know what he said about some of these pictures but the I do have a nice quotation about the Frith one. Dickens said: “It’s a little bit too much to my thinking as if my next door neighbour were my deadly foe, uninsured, and I had just received tidings of his house being on fire.”! I don’t know exactly what he means, but that is probably one of the best quotes about his pictures.

There is a Leylan image from 1861/1862. If you want to see this drawing, it is in the Princeton Drawings Collection in the British Museum. It is quite a wan image. He was writing Great Expectations at the time, which is a book I was forced to read when I was at school and I strongly disliked it. If you told me when I was 13 years old that I would be standing here as Director of the Charles Dickens Museum, I would probably have laughed in your face at that time, but of course I do like the novel now!

By the mid-1860s, Dickens had a very fashionable photographer come to his house. He didn’t go to the studio any more, they came to him. This was at Gadshill Place, in Kent, his final home, which you can still visit I think by appointment; it’s now a girls’ school. There is a picture of Dickens and his two daughters seated on the porch: Dickens with Katie and Maime – and the picture also shows the husband of Katie, Charles Collins, who was an artist and sometime writer. I think that he’s more famous nowadays for being the brother of Wilkie Collins more than anything else. The picture also shows a friend of Dickens, Chorley, who was a writer, and his housekeeper, along with Catherine’s younger sister Georgina Hogarth, who caused a bit of a scandal by not siding with her sister in 1858 when they separated. It is a lovely picture.

There is another picture in private hands in the Dickens family, and it shows Dickens’ daughters, Katie and Maime, embracing. I’m not sure exactly who the artist is – it might be by Millain, might not. It might be in the Conservatory at Gadshill; it might be somewhere else. But it is really beautiful and I know that the owner’s daughter is in the audience tonight as well!

There is another picture of Dickens and his daughters from that sequence, from Nathan in 1865. It is a set piece of him obviously reading, presumably…I don’t know, 1865, he might have been working on Our Mutual Friend by that stage.

There is a portrait of Dickens at the very end of his life in 1867 taken by the American photographers Gurney & Son. Dickens was very fed up with being photographed. You have to remember, in this modern age of mobile phone cameras and digital cameras that give you an instant image, that then you had to sit for quite a while for each image to be set up, and you would be photographed for each of these individual images. When he went to the United States in late 1867, he agreed only to sit to Gurney, and they were able to advertise the following: “We guarantee your various likenesses of Mr Charles Dickens to be the only portraits for which he has sat or will sit in the United States, this with the knowledge and sanction of Mr Dickens.”

However, one image was advertised by their rivals, the Brady Gallery. Matthew Brady was a photographer at the Brady Gallery and he did some of the Civil War pictures. They were soon advertising one of the collection as their portrait. I think one of the funny things that’s said about it is that Mr Brady had produced it “with a rare degree of artistic skill”, and there’s the key, the artistic skill, because I think Matthew Brady had done a Victorian version of Photoshop on a much earlier portrait!

You can compare what Dickens looks like in one of the cabinet cards that were produced by Gurney & Son with the one from Brady. His hair is much darker, the beard is different, and he has a lot less hair as well. I think what happened was Brady managed to get hold of an earlier sitting that Dickens did for the Watkins Brothers. Now, the Gurneys were really, really angry about this, and they had to issue an indignant notice in all the New York papers. They said: “We beg to assert thus publicly that Mr Charles Dickens has not and will not sit to any other photographer, and any other one,” they went on to say, “would have been a fake that would have been produced in Europe.” I think that’s what happened; I think that when Dickens had this sitting with the Watkins Brothers in 1861, one of them, number 18 we’re told, was greeted by the family with a howl of horror, and he went on to report that, “It has a grim and wasted aspect, and perhaps might be made useful as a portrait of the Ancient Mariner.”

This is the one, presumably, that Dickens would have suppressed; that he didn’t like. This is something that a Dickens scholar has done some research on recently. I think Brady got hold of this image. How he managed to, I don’t know, and then I think he just hand painted the image, changed it to look as it does in the previous portrait.

Dickens wasn’t that popular the second time he went to the States with the press and some elements of society, because when he went in the 1840s, I think he was quite disappointed by what he found. He was looking for this great “land of the free” and he was actually rather disappointed with the Americans in general. He wrote one of his lesser known works, American notes, and he’s quite critical about them. He went to the States in the 1860s, 1867, principally to make a lot of money out of his readings, with his manager Dalby. There is cartoon with Dalby, his manager, saying: “Well Mr Dickens, on the eve of our departure, I present you with $300,000, the result of your lectures in America.” Dickens is replying: “What, only $300,000? I shall have made much more out of those penurious Yankees. After all my abuse of them too, let us go immediately, Dalby!” – or some words similar to that. There is another with Dickens carrying a bit swag bag of notes, with his hand to his nose to the American people – this is when he’s leaving America – so I think in contemporary publications, people were quite mindful of the fact that Dickens had made a great deal of money out of his readings there.

When I first came to work at the museum, I saw a drawing in the collection, and it’s by the famous Pre-Raphaelite John Everitt Millais and it shows Dickens on his deathbed. Now, back in the 1850s, Dickens had been highly critical of Millais’ “Christ in the House of his Parents”, a painting you may know – it’s on display in Tate Britain if you want to have a look at it – and he called the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood “the great retrogressive principle”. Poking fun at them, he said that we should now have a pre-Galileo Brotherhood that would ensure that the Earth no longer revolved around the Sun. So I thought well, this is good, Millais’ had the last laugh because he got to portray Dickens on his deathbed, after all this criticism. It’s not actually true, because Dickens went on to revise his opinion about the Pre-Raphaelites and in the end, Millais and he became great friends. On the 10 th of June, the day after Dickens’ death, Millais journeyed down to Gadshill Place, and he produced this delicate pencil sketch of Dickens in death.

There is a bizarre portrait we’ve got in the collection. It is said to be by Dickens’ brother Fred – I don’t have any other evidence that Dickens’ brother Fred was an artist. It shows a remarkable resenblance to Jean Harlow – although of course she was about 50 years later.

There is another rather dodgy portrait by an artist called Fisher and it was meant to be Dickens around the time of the Laurence portraits, around 1840, the time of the Daniel Maclise portrait. I’m not convinced that it is Dickens. Although the eyes are quite similar to some of the portraits, the parting of his hair was always on the other side, so the parting is on the wrong side there.

There is a lovely little cartoon of Dickens. It shows him stepping over the Channel, going on one of his reading tours to Paris. He read extensively from 1858 onwards around Britain, but also on the Continent, and also, as I’ve said already, quite lucratively in the United States.

This is a really atmospheric photograph, showing Edwin Elgin, the sculptor, working in his studio in 1891, and it shows Little Nell, and Charles Dickens in his chair. There’s the models for Dickens and Little Nell, so that’s Elgin in his studio. He planned to sell it to Britain, but the stipulation of Dickens’ will was that he wasn’t to be memorialised in any way, so the Dickens family got up in arms about a statue of their father being erected somewhere in London. If you want to go and see it today, you have to go to Philadelphia in the States – it’s in Clark Park in Philadelphia. It’s now in bronze. It’s rather an arresting statue. I think there are only two statues in existence of Dickens in the world, and the other one is in Sydney, and the last time I saw it, he had no head, so that’s not really a very good one to look at!

But even today, Dickens is still being used. An American intern sent me an image being used by an American store, Barnes & Noble. Dickens is obviously so recognisable that they still feel happy to use his image.

The image of Dickens was also used on the cover of a programme to an exhibition that we mounted in Düsseldorf last year, a very successful collaboration, with the London scene behind. Charlie was in his bowler hat wandering down a model London street, because he has created so many memorable scenes of London in his writings.

Finally, there is a remarkable portrait in the museum, from1875. It was begun by an artist called R. W. Bus, who way back in the 1830s, was illustrating Pickwick Papers, and at the end of his life, he decided to use some of Watkins’ photographs, and portray Dickens in his study at Gadshill Place, dreaming of his characters. It includes little Tom Domby, and you will have to take my word for it when I say that Oliver Twist and Mr Pickwick and Sam Weller are in the picture too. Little Nell is actually sat on Dickens’ knee. Now, he actually died before he could complete the portrait, but I’m quite pleased in a way – not that he died, obviously, but that he didn’t complete it, because it’s rather ghostly, and I think it adds a bit of atmosphere to the portrait.

If you think of celebrity being a modern creation or a creation of tabloids or a 20th Century creation, and now horribly put forward by magazines like Heat and Hello and Okay to name but a few, it’s not a new thing. As you can see, it was going on with Dickens in the late 1830s, and it didn’t even stop with his death of course. Images were mass produced after his death. So much is the demand for a picture of him that some artists would even go to the lengths of forgery, like the photographer Brady So I think he was in a very real sense as celebrated then as, say, a modern music star would be, and I think that’s probably why we do, in the long run, have more images of him than most other Victorians.


© Andrew Xavier, Gresham College, 24 November 2005

This event was on Thu, 24 Nov 2005


Andrew Xavier

Andrew Xavier is Director of The Charles Dickens Museum.

Find out more

Support Gresham

Gresham College has offered an outstanding education to the public free of charge for over 400 years. Today, Gresham plays an important role in fostering a love of learning and a greater understanding of ourselves and the world around us. Your donation will help to widen our reach and to broaden our audience, allowing more people to benefit from a high-quality education from some of the brightest minds.