As The Charles Dickens Museum puts its vast collection of Dickens-related treasures online we take a closer look at his writing desk, chair and the personal objects he kept on it
Charles Dickens’ hall clock, his wallet, razors, free theatre pass and a hot gin punch lemon squeez-er are just a few of the 100,000-plus personal items now available for scrutiny in the new Charles Dickens Museum online collection.
There is even the opportunity to take a closer look at the earliest surviving letter by Dickens (the great author destroyed many of his personal letters) among the online collection’s impressive haul of manuscripts and library books.
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But perhaps the most powerful object of all is the place where Dickens created many of his later works, the famous Gads Hill writing desk.
“People say they see it as the most important thing in the museum,” says Dickens Museum curator Louisa Price. “We get lots of comments in the visitor book of people feeling very emotional when they come into the study and see the desk.”
In his lifetime the desk, with its in-built writing slope, was depicted in several different artworks, most famously Sir Samuel Luke Fields’ Empty Chair, which was actually done in Dickens’ study the day after he had died. And even though he’s not in it, it’s considered by many to be a portrait of the novelist, but unlike the man himself the desk and the chair are very much still with us.
“The desk itself is mahogany,” adds Price, who has been overseeing the mammoth digitisation project. “Dickens loved a bit of mahogany, and we’ve got other pieces that he owned both from Doughty Street and Gads Hill Place.
“When you look closely at it you can see the oil marks from various hands opening the drawers and the oil on the veneer is from when it was used as a desk by Dickens, and possibly from when it may have been used by his family, because it stayed in the family.”
The Dickens Museum didn’t actually acquire the desk until 2015 but it has been loaned to them several times over the years by the Dickens family. It was at the Museum from the 1960s to the 1980s.
Today it has the appearance of a much loved and used object, but says Price, the wear on the surface and the condition of the leather inlay is “more to do with it being loved by the general public without the barriers and conditions we would now place on it as a professional organisation.”
“I have this awful yet awesome picture of the desk being used as part of a photo shoot in 1970 for a Marks and Spencer catalogue,” she adds. “It’s got women in tiny mini skirts sitting on the top of it and they’ve put a little boy dressed as a street urchin in the picture as well!”
These days, as befits the desk upon which Dickens last put pen to paper at his Gads Hill home, it is better cared for.
Gads Hill Place was Dickens’ final home – the only home he ever purchased – and the desk was there from the beginning in his study at the front of the property looking out onto the road. He also had a writing chalet, but most experts concur that Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend, Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities and the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood were all penned on it – together with his work as editor of the literary periodical, All the Year Round.
As if any more provenance were needed, a small label has been placed in the interior at some point in its history stating that this was indeed Charles Dickens’s desk, but Price and her colleagues are yet to find any other ciphers or secret messages written in a drawer or on the surface. Yet there are many clues that tell us about its life.
“Dickens felt very strongly about always having cane-bottom chairs to aerate his bottom”
“The little clues on the desk as to its use are that Dickens was right handed,” she adds, “which we know from pictures of him, but the wear on the desk confirms that from where the indents are on the slope – and also the most highly worn drawer knobs on the right.”
As to the chair that seated Dickens before this great relic of British literary history, it is a similarly well-loved and used object. Made from fruit wood, there is a period repair to its back rest and the cane seating has been replaced, with the remnants of the original broken seat now safely kept in the museum store.
“Dickens had a problem with a fistula and he felt very strongly about always having cane bottom chairs to aerate his bottom – because as an author he had to sit for a long time,” says Price. “There’s a letter (not in our collection) where he writes to another writer extolling the virtues of sitting on a cane-bottomed chair.”
Comfortably seated, Dickens would often gaze upon a collection of mementos, which ranged from a taxidermy fighting fox to souvenirs picked up on his travels. At the museum a range of these objects adorn the top shelf of the desk.
The ceramic jug is quite a recent acquisition, which came with some Catherine Dickens jewellery that curators were alerted to when they popped up on the Antiques Roadshow.
“It’s a souvenir that Dickens picked up when he was travelling in France in the 1840s” explains Price. “It’s an ornamental jug and anecdotally there is a letter from the family where they describe seeing it on Dickens’ desk. Subsequently one of his grandchildren used it as a vase and she would put geraniums in it, which were Dickens’ favourite flower.”
A small ceramic match holder has an equally interesting back story. When it came to the museum a note was found stuck to its bottom stating that it was given to Dickens as a thank you for his “handling of a situation” in Brighton when he was staying there with John Leach.
“The incident itself is well documented although rather bizarre,” says Price. “Dickens was staying in rented accommodation in Brighton and there was an incident where his landlord became hysterical, as did his daughter.
“They all had to flee the accommodation and Dickens had to provide support for the family. And in classic Dickens style he wrote a very flamboyant letter describing the situation. Somebody involved apparently gave him this small match holder as a thank you.”
Dickens enjoyed an occasional cigar and it’s very tempting to imagine him leaning back in his chair and lighting a Cuban after dashing off a chapter or two of Hard Times.
Another Dickensian desk souvenir was the taper, which is an early example of artificial light for the home. Dickens was an early user of artificial gas light in his homes – from the 1840s – so its unlikely he would have used it at his desk, but he may have used the taper in his earlier years.
“This rush light was always on his desk and there are records of it being there,” says Price. “We wonder if this very modest from of lighting could have been there as a paperweight but he perhaps used it as a reminder of his early days.”
An extra aid to reading is the magnifying glass with the initials ‘CD’ engraved on the base of the mother of pearl handle.
“Dickens burnt all of the correspondence he received, but one thing I do know is his sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth, had absolutely terrible scrawly handwriting and I imagine something like a magnifying glass would have been used to read difficult letters.”
The silver cup is a further souvenir of his travels – gifted to Dickens when, on one of his famous North American tours, he organised one of his famous ‘theatrical productions’ for the British garrison at Montreal.
It’s another example of Dickens’ love of having personal objects around him when he was working, and there are stories and personal connections attached to all of them – as you will discover when you eventually get to visit his former home in Doughty Street.
In the meantime you can explore them – together with more furniture, other personal effects, letters, manuscripts, rare book editions, paintings, prints, and photographs amassed over the past century – along with all of their Dickensian details and stories, online.
Explore the Dickens Museum Collection at collections.dickensmuseum.com/home
Charles Dickens Museum
London, Greater London
Number 48 Doughty Street is the only remaining London home of eminent Victorian author Charles Dickens. Dickens described the terraced Georgian dwelling as 'my house in town' and resided here from 1837 until 1839 with his wife and young family. Two of his daughters were born here, his sister-in-law Mary…