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Charles Dickens

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Charles Dickens

by Herbert Watkins
albumen print, arched top, 29 April 1858
8 in. x 6 in. (203 mm x 151 mm)
Purchased, 1985
Primary Collection
NPG P301(20)

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This pose shows Dickens at a specially-designed reading desk, reflecting a new stage of his high-profile career, that of a public reader of his works from 1858 onwards. The portrait was made at St Martin's Hall, London on 29 April 1858, the first of a series of public readings during the London season that year. He went on to tour cities including Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast and Dublin, where his selection included passages from The Pickwick Papers, Martin Chuzzelwit and The Story of Little Dombey. Other regional tours followed in the autumns of 1859 and 1861-2, before Dickens later embarked on a highly successful reading tour of America (1867-68).

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Rogers, Malcolm, Camera Portraits, 1989 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 20 October 1989 - 21 January 1990), p. 55 Read entry

    The year of this photograph, 1858, between the completion of Little Dorrit and the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities, was a momentous one for Dickens, for it was at this time he first became infatuated with a teenage actress, Ellen Ternan, and decided to separate from his wife. In the same period he began to give public readings from his works on a fully professional basis. Financial pressures made the readings a necessity, but the ageing Dickens soon found that he could not live without the excitement and public acclaim which they brought as well.

    Herbert Watkins worked from the Institute of Photography, 179 Regent Street, London, from 1856 and produced a series of photographs of distinguished contemporaries, which he published with printed biographies under the title of National Gallery of Photographic Portraits. His portrait of Dickens shows him at his reading desk, about to begin a recital. Watkins claimed in his advertisements that his photographs were 'as remarkable for their agreeable fidelity to nature as for their brilliancy of production and their economy of cost', and 'untouched'. There is no doubting the vivacity of this likeness, but it has in fact been heavily retouched, most obviously in Dickens' hands, his book and in the still-life of objects on the desk. The Gallery owns two albums of Watkins' finest work.

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 178

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Events of 1858back to top

Current affairs

After Palmerston's government collapses, the Earl of Derby becomes Prime Minister for second time, again heading a minority government.
The Property qualification for MPs is abolished; one of the demands made by the Chartists, this allowed men who did not own property to stand as parliamentary candidates. Lionel Nathan Rothschild becomes the first Jew to sit in Britain's House of Commons, taking his oath on the Old Testament.

Art and science

The pianist Charles Hallé founds a symphony orchestra in Manchester, the Halle; now Britain's oldest professional orchestra. The Hallé symphony rose to prominence in the mid-20th century, under the tenure of conductor John Barbirolli, during which time they made many recordings, including Ralph Vaughan Williams's Symphony No. 8.


The British Crown assumes control of India from the East India Company.
The Treaty of Tientsin, ending the Second Opium War, gives European powers new rights to intervene in Chinese affairs
The Fenian Brotherhood is founded by John O'Mahony, an Irish emigrant to the United States, to support Irish republican ambitions.

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