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Charles Dickens: Life and Legacy in new display at the National Portrait Gallery in London
Charles Dickens by Herbert Watkins 29 April 1858. ©National Portrait Gallery, London.

LONDON.- The bicentenary of the birth of the legendary nineteenth-century writer, Charles Dickens is celebrated in a new display at the National Portrait Gallery. Portraits of the author, his family and influential contemporaries chart the progress of his life and examine the enduring legacy of the characters he created.

The fifteen works in this case display include photographs, drawings and engravings ranging from the early period of the writer’s career to posthumous images of his characters showing the longevity of his literary creations. The earliest portrait on display is a romantic portrait in oils of Dickens, aged 26, by Daniel Maclise, showing the writer enjoying his first taste of fame. Two photographs by Herbert Watkins in 1858 mark the celebrity Dickens had obtained by the mid-nineteenth century as both a writer and as a public reader of his works. The writer’s wife of twenty-two years, Catherine, is represented in an engraving as a young woman with a contrasting inset depicting her stout appearance in later life. Dickens is also shown alongside a network of friends, including the artists Clarkson Stanfield and Augustus Leopald Egg, the novelist Wilkie Collins and Mark Lemon, Punch’s first editor. In this group photograph the writer, known for his charismatic personality, is shown as the focal character sitting centre stage.

Dickens’ visits to America are marked in the display by portraits of the poets Edgar Allan Poe, with whom he had a cursory encounter, and Henry Longfellow, who became a lasting friend. A photograph by Jeremiah Gurney & Son records a reading tour undertaken by Dickens on his second visit to America, in 1867. Dickens’ characters are represented in the display by a carte-de-visite photograph of the actor John Lawrence Toole depicted as Serjeant Buzfuz from The Pickwick Papers and Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham in Great Expectations as captured by Cecil Beaton in 1945. The final three portraits show Dickens towards the end of his life, including a pen and ink drawing of the Punch caricaturist Harry Furniss showing the exhaustion of the writer, reflecting a common belief that his creative exertions hastened his own death.

Born in Portsmouth in 1812, Charles Dickens rose to prominence as a journalist in spite of receiving erratic schooling. Originally published as serials in monthly installments, his novel-writing career launched with the publication of The Pickwick Papers in 1836 and spanned thirty-four successful years. His best-known works include Oliver Twist (1838), David Copperfield (1850), A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Great Expectations (1860). Drawing on memories from his youth, including his father’s stint in a debtor’s jail, his social narratives influenced his contemporaries and he was responsible for creating some of the best-loved characters in British fiction. In June 1870 Dickens suffered a stroke and died the next day. Since his death his fame has intensified and his works continue to define our perception of the Victorian age.

Charles Dickens: Life & Legacy runs from 24 October 2011 until 22 April 2012 and is part of Dickens 2012, the international campaign to mark the 200th anniversary of the writer’s birth:

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