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Suspicions about authenticity of portrait leads to x-ray discovery at Charles Dickens Museum
Daniel Maclise, Portrait of Catherine. © Charles Dickens Museum.

LONDON.- The Charles Dickens Museum at 48 Doughty Street, the London townhouse where Dickens completed The Pickwick Papers and wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, has discovered an important original portrait of Charles’s wife, Catherine Dickens, hidden within and beneath what had been believed to be the original painting.

The Charles Dickens Museum holds the world’s most comprehensive collection of Dickens-related material. In 1996, it was given a Daniel Maclise portrait of Catherine Dickens. The portrait is extremely significant to the Museum, being the superior of only two paintings of Catherine in the collection. It shows Catherine embroidering an overmantel whilst wearing her engagement ring; the Museum displays this exact ring and a very similar overmantel made by Catherine beside the painting.

The painting has been treasured by the Museum for the past twenty years. However, in May this year, during cataloguing of the whole of the Museum’s art collections, some gaps in its provenance were revealed and concerns raised about its authenticity, as the handling of paint appears surprisingly amateurish in places for an accomplished artist such as Maclise.

The earliest image of the Maclise painting appeared in Frederick Kitton’s publication, Charles Dickens by Pen and Pencil’ in 1890, where an engraving of it was reproduced. There are subtle differences between the engraving and the present work, which led to the belief that the Museum may have been given a later copy.

Further investigation by the Museum has revealed that the work has been heavily overpainted, with up to 70% of the surface not original. This amount of overpainting raised serious questions over the work, in spite of the fact that there are clear areas of the surface where the skilful application of paint can be seen.

Inspection under U-V light led the Museum to look closer still and investigate exactly what was happening beneath the surface. In September, the whole of the painting was given an infrared scan and a single xray at the Hamilton Kerr Institute at the Fitzwilliam Museum in order to determine whether the original Maclise portrait lies beneath.

And it does.

Infrared examination confirmed the extensive overpainting, perhaps following an unsuccessful attempt to clean the painting. Discoloured varnish can be seen wedged between the weaves of the canvas and areas of faded paint are the evidence of harsh, abrasive cleaning.

Most of Catherine’s face is not original. Her left eye is mostly intact, while her right is entirely overpainted. Retouching around her hairline and forehead is also clearly visible, her hairclip has gone altogether and her neck is different. It is highly likely that the original work bore a stronger resemblance to the engraving published in ‘Charles Dickens by Pen and Pencil’.

Among the evidence to suggest that the painting is the original 1847 work by Daniel Maclise are a number of pentimenti, or alterations; for example, Catherine was originally painted larger - there are ghost-like lines and cracks that provide evidence for this. Original charcoal drawing lines produced by the artist can also be seen running along the edges of the lower arm.

The painting has an intriguing history; it is likely to have been painted in 1847, as there is a record of a payment of £55 to Maclise leaving Dickens’s bank account on July 24, 1847. It remained in the possession of Catherine after she separated from Dickens in 1858 and was then given to Angela Burdett-Coutts, a mutual friend of the couple. It is presumed that this happened while Catherine was still alive; the auction catalogue (1922 Christie’s) in which Miss Coutts listed the painting for sale stated that it had been ‘presented to the Baroness by Mrs Charles Dickens’. However, it is also possible that the painting was the Maclise work mentioned in Catherine’s will to be sold in case of any unforeseen debts.

The painting stayed with Miss Coutts until a sale of her possessions on 5 May 1922, when it was bought by her relative, Major Seabury Burdett-Coutts. Then it resurfaced in Howes Bookshop in Hastings, where it was bought by a Mr and Mrs Wreden in 1946 and likely exported to the USA.

Cindy Sughrue, Director of the Charles Dickens Museum, said, “This has been an interesting process to say the least and one that has seen us swinging from dismay to elation. It is also a reminder of the fascination involved with being responsible for such extensive collections and the importance of ongoing research into those collections. Our next move will be to raise the necessary funds to enable a complete renovation of the painting, to reveal the original Maclise work of Catherine for display in her home.’

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