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Patrick McCarthy <[log in to unmask]>
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Charles Dickens Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Sun, 6 Nov 2016 11:54:24 -0800
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Friends of the Dickens Forum,

     Scholarship of Dickens spreads wide.  Here, thanks to Herb 
Moskowitz, is an interesting example

of its breadth:         (pjm)

  Relief for Dickens museum as experts say portrait of writer's wife is

Tests show that painting by Irish artist Daniel Maclise is almost 
entirely hidden under later overpainting


*X-ray and UV analysis has revealed the painting is genuine but almost 
hidden under disastrous layers of later overpainting.*

The good news for the Charles Dickens museum in London 
<http://dickensmuseum.com/> is that it does own an original portrait of 
the writer’s unfortunate wife, Catherine, by an important Victorian 
artist. The bad news is that it is almost entirely hidden under later 

Doubts about the authenticity of the portrait emerged in the past year. 
It was considered the better of only two paintings of Catherine in the 
collection, and believed to be the work of the Irish artist Daniel 
Maclise, a friend of the author’s.

Maclise was a highly regarded artist, and his prestigious commissions 
included two gigantic paintings of scenes from the Napoleonic wars in 
the House of Lords. In contrast the portrait of Catherine seemed crude 
to the museum’s curator Louisa Price, and worrying gaps in its 
provenance also emerged when a catalogue of all the museum’s paintings 
was being compiled this year.

Closer study revealed heavy overpainting across most of the surface, 
covering up to 70% of the original including most of the face. The 
painting is believed to be an attempt to mask the damage caused by an 
equally disastrous attempt to clean the picture, long before it came to 
the museum.

Price suspects that it happened during the period it spent in the United 
States, when it was also taken off its original stretcher and glued on 
to a sheet of plywood, a process which probably caused further damage.

The entire picture has been subjected to extensive tests at the Hamilton 
Kerr Institute, the conservation department of the Fitzwilliam Museum in 
Cambridge. The x-ray, and infrared scan, revealed that a genuine 
portrait by Maclise – recoded in a contemporary drawing – lies 
underneath. His original sketch in charcoal also showed up under the 
paint layer, along with details that vanished in the overpainting 
including a hair clip.

Cindy Sughrue, director of the museum, hopes to raise the money for full 
restoration of the painting. “This has been an interesting process to 
say the least, and one that has seen us swinging from despair to elation.”

The painting probably dates from 1847, when a £55 payment from Dickens 
to Maclise was recorded, and shows Catherine as the lovely young woman 
the author first met.

They had married in 1836, and the museum is in the first house they 
rented together in London. However 10 children later, after he had 
fallen in love with the young actress Ellen Ternan, he moved out of 
their bedroom and had the connecting door boarded up, and then formally 
separated from her, announcing in a newspaper advertisement – to the 
horror of many of their friends – that “some domestic trouble of mine of 
longstanding” had been resolved. After he denounced her as an uncaring 
mother, her own sister and most of her children stayed with him.

The portrait shows Catherine in happier times wearing her engagement 
ring, and working on an embroidered decoration for a mantelpiece: it is 
exhibited in the museum near the real ring, and an almost identical 
piece of embroidery made by her.

The painting stayed with Catherine after they separated, and was given 
to their mutual friend, the philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts. It was 
then owned by a relative of hers, and spent a time in the United States 
after it was bought in 1946 in a bookshop in Hastings, before it was 
given to the museum in 1996.

“Anyone could see looking at it that it wasn’t quite right – one 
conservator commented that she looks more like a southern belle – but 
until we got the scans back it was hard to say exactly what had happened 
to it,” Price said. “It’s a great relief to know that most of the 
original painting is still there and we should be able to recover it.”