Allan sketched Dickens at a grand dinner that was the highlight of the author's visit to Edinburgh in June-July 1841. Dickens wrote that Allan had been "squiring me about" (letter to John Forster, 23 June 1841) during his first days in Edinburgh. He described the dinner in another letter to Forster written three days later:
"...The great event is over; and being gone, I am a man again. It was the most brilliant affair you can conceive; the completest success possible, from first to last. The room was crammed, and more than seventy applicants for tickets were of necessity refused yesterday. [John] Wilson was ill, but plucked up like a lion, and spoke famously ... I think (ahem!) that I spoke rather well. It was an excellent room, and both the subjects (Wilson and Scottish Literature, and the Memory of Wilkie) were good to go upon. There were nearly two hundred ladies present. The place is so contrived that the cross table is raised enormously: much above the heads of people sitting below: and the effect on first coming in (on me, I mean) was rather tremendous. I was quite self-possessed however, and, notwithstanding the enthoosemoosy, which was very startling, as cool as a cucumber. I wish to God you had been there, as it is impossible for the "distinguished guest" to describe the scene. It beat all nature'..."
Allan used the opportunity to sketch the visiting writer. According to Grant, who owned the item at the time of his 1961 article, Allan drew his sketch on the reverse of a place-card labelled for "The Steward's Friend", but the sketch is now laid down on a mount so this label is no longer visible. Allan's distinctive and informal portrait matches comments made by James Hedderwick, who attended the dinner and described Dickens with "cheeks shaven like those of a comedian, black stock surmounted by no collar" (quoted in Grant, p.51)
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