B ehind a quiet painting of a Victorian seamstress, to be offered at Sotheby’s this December, lies a Dickensian mystery – literally. In 1842 the great Victorian novelist wrote to the celebrated painter William Powell Frith with a strange request: “My dear sir, I shall be very glad if you will do me the favour to paint me two little companion paintings.” The author commissioned pictures of two of his characters, both beautiful – but fictional – women.
The first was Dolly Varden, the locksmith’s daughter from Barnaby Rudge. The second was Kate Nickleby, virtuous dressmaker and sister of the eponymous hero of Nicholas Nickleby. Frith was ecstatic, he idolised Dickens. He recalled that he trembled with excitement when the author arrived – “with frank cordiality and a friendly clasp” – to collect the paintings.
19th-century authors often had complicated relationships with the visual representation of their characters. Painters and illustrators were the casting agents of their day. Our image of Sherlock Holmes’ was shaped by The Strand illustrator Sidney Paget as much as his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. And Dickens could be touchy (one of his illustrators shot himself after an argument with the writer).
Dickens loved Frith’s paintings, however. He hung them at home in Gad’s Hill Place in Kent, where they remained until his death in 1870. Following the sale of his estate, the Kate Nickleby painting vanished, its whereabouts remaining a mystery – until now.
“His characters were almost celebrities in their own right and Kate Nickleby’s name was used for a racehorse and a ship,” explains Mark Bills, who organised a Frith exhibition at the Watts Gallery in 2012 and is now curator at Gainsborough House. Bills would prove pivotal the work’s rediscovery. He had been searching for the missing Nickleby portrait for decades and the exhibition provided an opportunity to smoke it out. The Guardian published an article under the headline: “Where is Kate Nickleby, missing since Charles Dickens died?”
Simon Toll, head of Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite & British Art at Sotheby’s London, picks up the story: “The Guardian article was seen by the owners of the painting in Ireland who contacted us through an art agent. Unfortunately, the owners do not know when or how it came into their family and although we were able to piece together provenance from 1842 to 1885 through art records, we could find nothing after 1885.”
But during its years in obscurity, its owners could have been in no doubt to its literary significance. They could judge it by its cover. Still in its original frame, on the front is an old picture plaque which reads: ‘From the Charles Dickens Collection’.