When Charles Dickens died of a stroke on June 9, 1870, an entire nation mourned the loss of one England’s greatest, and most popular, literary geniuses. People openly wept on the streets, just as they had wept when they read that Little Nell died in novel The Old Curiosity Shop. He had been working on his latest novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, at his beloved writing desk in his study at Gad’s Hill Place in Kent. Dickens was eulogized thoughout the world, but two British artists expressed the loss of this great author through their art. Samuel Luke Fildes, who was working on the engravings for The Mystery of Edwin Drood, created the engraving, titled “The Empty Chair,” that captures the tremendous sense of loss: an empty chair facing the author’s writing desk that looks out through at the garden through several large rectangular windows. To the right is a wall lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves containing the work of Dickens’s favorite authors and bound versions of his novels. Several feet behind the desk is an elegant table with stacks of books and a reading light.
Inspired by Fildes’s moving, detailed engraving, another illustrator who collaborated with Dickens, Robert William Buss began a large watercolor, titled “Dickens’ Dream,” that shows the author in deep thought sitting in his chair, a few feet away from his desk. Surrounding Dickens are all the major characters from his novels. Buss finished the pencil work and began painting in the color beginning on the bottom right corner. Like Dickens working on his last novel, Buss died prematurely (February 26, 1875), leaving the painting unfinished. Despite the fact that it is unfinished it remains the quintessential portrait of Dickens, summarizing in one magnificent scene the author’s great literary legacy — a world of immortal Dickensian characters. Biographer Claire Tomalin (Charles Dickens: A Life, 2011) ranks Dickens right after Shakespeare as the author who created the greatest characters in English literature.
Although the Charles Dickens Museum in London, England owns and exhibits the famous paintings of Dickens’s study, the subject of those paintings, the desk and chair, has been out of reach — until now. The Dickens family owned the famous desk and chair since the author’s death, but sold at auction to a private individual in 2004 to raise funds for the Great Ormond Street Charitable Trust (Dickens was one of the hospital’s earliest benefactors). Thanks to a $1.2 million grant from the government-backed National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Charles Dickens Museum was able to purchase the writing desk and chair in late March of 2015. “We are delighted to have been able to acquire Charles Dickens’ iconic writing desk and chair for permanent display in his study at 48 Doughty Street,” exclaimed Robert Moye, director of the Charles Dickens Museum. “They hold a unique place in our literary heritage and, as we embark on our exhibition exploring The Mystery of Edwin Drood, it is timely that the desk he used when writing his final novel has been secured for the benefit of all our visitors.” Dickens wrote four of his novels on this writing desk: A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. At last, the writing desk of Charles Dickens, like one of the beloved characters in one of his memorable novels, returns home.
For further reading: Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin (2011)