Q&A with Cindy Sughrue

Miles Rowland, 12.12.2018
The Charles Dickens Museum is hoping to acquire an exciting new find
The discovery of a lost portrait of Charles Dickens in South Africa has been called one of British art's most exciting finds in recent memory.

London's Charles Dickens Museum recently launched a campaign to acquire the depiction of the young novelist, painted when he was 31 by an early campaigner for woman's suffrage.

Museums Journal spoke to the museum's director, Cindy Sughrue, to find out more about the significance of this painting.

Can you tell us how the portrait of Dickens was found and how it came to be transported to South Africa?

The portrait was found in a cardboard box of trinkets, which included a brass dish, a plastic recorder, and a metal lobster – purchased as a job lot in a house clearance sale in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal.

The person who purchased it, a keen auction treasure hunter and fan of BBC One's Fake or Fortune?, sent a photograph to one of the programme's presenters, the fine art expert Philip Mould, with an idea that it could be an eminent Victorian.

Still in its original frame, although covered in yellow mould, Mould and his team spotted a likeness to an engraving of Dickens and contacted the museum. We worked together to establish authenticity, authorship and the rather extraordinary backstory to the painting and its reappearance in South Africa, which is connected to the sons of George Henry Lewes (partner to the novelist George Eliot), two of whom emigrated to South Africa in the 1860s.

Both Gillies and Dickens were close to the Lewes family. The portrait was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1844, but by 1886 it was known to have been missing for many years.
Who was the artist and what was their connection to Dickens?

Margaret Gillies (1803-1887) was a professional artist (highly unusual for a woman at the time), a campaigner for social reform, and one of the earliest supporters of the suffrage movement.

She was unmarried by choice but cohabited with the leading physician and sanitary reformer, Thomas Southwood Smith. Smith was a member of several royal commissions investigating living and working conditions of the poor, including children working in mines and factories, and it was through this work that he met Dickens, taking him on tours of industrial sites and urban slums.

In 1842, following three years of investigations across the country, the royal commission published a report on child labour in mines and collieries. This paper contained shocking illustrations now known to be by Gillies. After reading the report, Dickens wrote to Smith that he was "perfectly stricken down" by it and resolved that he should act and that his response would be felt with "sledge hammer" force. This "sledge hammer" would eventually become his famous novel, A Christmas Carol.
Where does the painting fit into the narrative of Dickens' life?

Letters in the museum's archive reveal that Dickens was sitting for Gillies during the autumn of 1843. The portrait was commissioned in order for an engraving to be made for A New Spirit of the Age, a book profiling a new generation of writers and thinkers. Dickens was the first entry. 
Dickens is 31 years old in the portrait – he has written a number of novels and has become a household name in Britain and abroad. You can see this early success in his face. But you can also see something troubling, something haunting him, a glimpse of what Dickens himself has seen in what is to become known as the hungry '40s.
And while Gillies is painting this portrait, Dickens is writing A Christmas Carol.

The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, when she sees the portrait shortly after it is completed, writes that Dickens has "the dust and mud of humanity about him, notwithstanding those eagle eyes".
The discovery of the portrait would have been remarkable in any event, but it is even more so because the portrait itself is exquisite. The skill of the artist is evident in the fineness of every brushstroke, in each strand of hair and in the penetrating eyes, which look right into yours. And in those eyes you see the complexity of the man - the confidence of success, the urgency, warmth and compassion, but also a hint of vulnerability.  
Looking into those "eagle eyes", we are reminded of the key themes of that much-loved and enduring tale: that everyone has the capacity for kindness and compassion; that no one is beyond redemption; that each of us can do something to make a difference in this world to help those less fortunate.
That is why this portrait matters.

We want to give it a permanent home at the Charles Dickens Museum where it can continue to inspire people now and for generations to come.  
How does the Charles Dickens Museum intend to raise the necessary funds to acquire it?

With the incredible support of Philip Mould & Company, we have launched a fundraising campaign with a special exhibition at the Mould galleries, 18-19 Pall Mall, London SW1Y 5LU, running until 25 January 2019. We are appealing to Dickens fans worldwide to help us reach our target of £180,000.  
How would the piece complement the museum's existing collection?

The Charles Dickens Museum holds the earliest portrait of Dickens, as a young man of 18, and the very last – a drawing of Dickens on his death bed by John Everett Millais. This piece fills an important gap in the portraiture of Dickens at a pivotal moment in his career – but it is also by far the most dynamic and engaging portrait of Dickens; it truly captures his spirit as if he is there in the room with you.