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X-rays solve mystery surrounding portrait of Catherine Dickens

a painting of a woman with dark hair and a dark green dress

Catherine Dickens by Maclise. Courtesy Charles Dickens Museum

X-ray technology clears up the doubts and confirms the suspicions surrounding the Dickens Museum’s beloved portrait of Catherine Dickens

When in 1996 the Charles Dickens Museum was gifted a Daniel Maclise portrait of Catherine Dickens, they were overjoyed.

After all, the acquisition represented Dickens’ long suffering wife and was painted by one of the famed portraitists and draughtsmen of the era who, as well as being one of Dickens’ great friends, illustrated some of his books.

Being the superior of only two paintings of Catherine Dickens in what is the world’s most comprehensive collection of Dickens-related material, it shows Catherine embroidering an overmantel whilst wearing her engagement ring. The Museum displays the exact ring and a very similar overmantel made by Catherine beside the painting.

However, in May 2016, 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.

a greyed out portrait of a Victorian lady in side profile

The Hamilton Keer Institute x-ray of the portrait

a grey and white portrait of a woman in side profile

An enhanced visualisation of the orginal painting. © Hamilton Kerr Institute

Investigation uncovered the earliest image of the Maclise painting in Frederick Kitton’s publication, ‘Charles Dickens by Pen and Pencil’ in 1890, where an engraving of it was reproduced. Subtle differences between the engraving and the present work were immediately apparent leading to a belief that the Museum may have even been given a later copy.

Closer inspection revealed further worrying signs including heavy overpainting with up to 70% of the surface not original – so UV light was used to peer into the layers of paint and try and ascertain what lay beneath the surface.

Eventually in September 2016, the whole of the painting was given an infrared scan and a single x-ray at the Hamilton Kerr Institute at the Fitzwilliam Museum in order to determine what was going on.

Infrared examination confirmed the extensive overpainting, of the original Maclise portrait lying underneath – perhaps following an unsuccessful attempt to clean the painting.

Discoloured varnish was found to be wedged between the weaves of the canvas and areas of faded paint revealed 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’.

a photo of a womna using a kind of X-ray machine next to portrait of woman in a green dress

X-raying the painting at the Hamilton-Kerr Institute. © Hamilton Kerr Institute

a photo of three blokes looking at a scan of a painting

© Hamilton Kerr Institute

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 and the original charcoal drawing lines produced by the artist can also be seen running along the edges of the lower arm.

Describing the investigation as “interesting process to say the least and one that has seen us swinging from dismay to elation”, Cindy Sughrue, Director of the Charles Dickens Museum, said the work on the painting was “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.”

The painting has an intriguing history; it is likely to have originally 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 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.

The new scans and examinations were made possibly by an Arts Council-funded, London Museum Development and Regional Collection Care grant.

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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…

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