One of Margaret Gillies’s illustrations for the 1842 Report of the Children’s Employment Commission

The Dickens Museum is looking to raise £180,000 to buy a rare early portrait of the novelist, rediscovered two years ago in South Africa. While much has been made of the scarcity of youthful images of Charles Dickens, the artist, Margaret Gillies, has been left largely in the background.

The Report of the Children’s Employment Commission, published in 1842, was compiled by Dickens’s friend Richard Henry Horne. The result of a three-year investigation, it was unprecedented, not merely for the level of shocking detail and first-hand evidence, but because it was illustrated. And most of the 26 images were by Gillies.

All the persuasive words in the world could not have achieved as much as Gillies’s drawings of doubled-up small children, often girls, crawling along the narrow tunnels, dragging trucks of coal or clambering up and down steep ladders with sacks of coal on their backs. Some were inscribed: ‘Drawn from life.’ The shocking nature of this evidence, a Victorian version of the hidden camera in the care home or prison, meant the necessary legislation was on the statute book within months. No children under ten would ever again work underground.

Four commissioners had gathered the evidence. Leicestershire and West Yorkshire were covered by Dr Thomas Southwood Smith. Estranged from his second wife, he lived with Gillies and her sister Mary, a writer, in a permissive, enlightened circle in Highgate. He was the maternal grandfather of Octavia Hill and her sisters, and brought up Gertrude as his own daughter (she later became George Eliot’s de facto daughter-in-law when she married G.H. Lewes’s son Charles).

To the Hill girls, Margaret was known as ‘Dawie’ and a much-loved figure, perhaps more approachable than their own formidable mother. It may have been through Margaret’s encouragement of Octavia’s skills that she became a copyist for Ruskin. He used her drawing of a willow tree after Turner in the fifth volume of Modern Painters. That paid work was invaluable in the years before her housing reform work became all-embracing.

Dickens, meanwhile, commissioned Octavia’s mother, Caroline Southwood Hill, to contribute to Household Words. Though unsigned, one article is easily identified as hers, describing a wet summer outing in which she and the 17-year-old Octavia shepherded a wagonload of 25 desperately poor children from Holborn out into the Essex countryside, to a friend’s house in Romford. Their mothers were toymakers who worked in a co-operative venture run by Caroline Hill; the children were taught by Octavia.

The delicate, youthful, portrait of Dickens is rooted, through its artist, in one of the most socially engaged milieux in the Victorian capital. And when Dr Southwood Smith fell into financial difficulties in the 1850s – he lost his job at the Board of Health and was refused a pension – it was the strong sales of Margaret Gillies’s paintings that supported the household, even allowing them to keep their house.