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Revisiting Kate Perugini

An appreciation of an overlooked Victorian painter

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

In 2006, I published a biography about a little-remembered artist, Kate Perugini. Had she worked under her maiden name, it is likely she would still be remembered, and talked about, today — because Katey (as she was known in her family) was the daughter of Charles and Catherine Dickens.

As ‘Kate Perugini’, her art has been largely ignored or forgotten about, a typical fate of Victorian female artists. Her male peers, many of whom were considered less accomplished than she during their lifetimes, are still talked about today, including her friends Marcus Stone and Valentine Prinsep. Stone has a commemorative blue plaque on his former home in Holland Park, and both men have their works displayed in big public galleries. I often ponder about whether a painting signed by Katey Dickens would be snapped up at auction by a gallery today, while a painting signed with Kate Perugini’s simple ‘KP’ monogram is overlooked by all except the most ardent aficionados of Dickensian history or Victorian portraiture.

Unfortunately, a mix up with ISBNs made finding the book something of a challenge for booksellers and readers alike, but those avid readers, galleries and bookshop owners who searched for Katey and managed to get hold of the book (for which I was very grateful to the internet) began to ask me to do talks and events. Then letters and emails began to arrive from people who had read the book, sometimes sending me new information about Katey’s work. Several people who contacted me wanted to tell me that, having read the book, they now realised they owned one of her paintings. Many of these had remained in the families who had originally commissioned the portraits all those years earlier. Katey signed the majority of her paintings simply with her initials, which can often make it difficult to discover the identity of the artist.

Katey’s first husband was the Pre-Raphaelite artist Charles (‘Charlie’) Allston Collins, whose most famous painting is Convent Thoughts in the Ashmolean in Oxford. Charlie was the younger brother of the novelist Wilkie Collins. I mentioned in the first edition of my book that none of Katey’s artwork was known to have survived from the time of their marriage. I have never been so pleased to be proved wrong. Out of the blue I was contacted by a couple who had read the book and wondered if a small watercolour they had found at a second-hand shop in Bath could be by Katey. It was signed ‘Kate Collins’. When I saw the painting, I knew immediately that this was the right Kate Collins. The couple who had bought the painting had asked if the shop owner knew anything about the artist; he had suggested she was probably a local artist. The painting’s journey to a shop in Bath remains a mystery, but it is definitely a painting by Katey, of an unknown model, named and signed in Katey’s very distinctive handwriting. She also wrote her address on the back. This was the same address which the 1871 census shows as Charlie and Kate Collins’s home. The little watercolour was proof that, although she spent much of her first marriage nursing a husband who was dying of stomach cancer (undiagnosed for many years), Katey was continuing to study painting.

As a young art student, Katey modelled for John Everett Millais, a family friend and a close friend of her then-fiancé Charlie. The painting Millais asked her to model for became one of his most famous works, The Black Brunswicker (1860). When it was exhibited, there was such excitement from the public at the prospect of seeing what one of Charles Dickens’s children looked like, that a barrier had to be erected to keep people from getting too close and damaging the painting. The Black Brunswicker was used as the jacket for the first edition of my biography, a beautiful design, focusing on Katey’s face.

Millais painted Katey a second time as a recently widowed woman in her thirties. Her strong personality is apparent in the expression on her face and the provocatively unusual stance she assumed, with her back towards the viewer (which, in his biography of his father, Millais’s son, John Guille Millais, explained was her idea). Millais gave the portrait as a wedding present to Katey’s second husband, Carlo Perugini. Carlo was an Italian-born artist who moved to England as a child, with his family, and later became a well-known figure in the London art world. On art gallery labels, and in most books, his name is usually anglicised to Charles Edward Perugini, but this seems to be because of the Victorian xenophobic desire to make him appear as a ‘respectable’ Englishman; he was known to his friends and family as Carlo.

During her second marriage, Katey became renowned as a portrait painter, usually – although not exclusively – producing portraits of children. Her paintings were exhibited at art galleries around the country and overseas, including at the Royal Academy in London and as part of the British pavilion in Chicago, at the 1893 ‘Colombian Exposition’ (also known as the World’s Fair).

Katey was someone I have been intrigued by from a young age. A few years ago I found a journal I had kept at the age of thirteen. The first item in a list headed ‘Life Goals’ was to write her biography. I knew about Katey because I had seen paintings of her and by her — because Katey is my great-great-great aunt. Writing her biography, and then having the privilege of recently updating it to include the wealth of information I’ve been sent by strangers since 2006 was a much more intimate experience than writing either of my other biographies. When you write biography, your subject becomes all important in your life, you find yourself feeling their pain, feeling anger when someone hurts them and feeling protective if anyone criticises them. I felt all these things for the Pre-Raphaelite Lizzie Siddal and for the sculptor Princess Louise, just as I felt them for Katey. There is, however, a strange, even closer connection that forms when writing about a family member. I had taken back my rights from my previous publisher, so when Pen and Sword books asked me to update Katey’s biography, it felt like returning to an old friend.

Stepping back into her world was both fascinating and surprising. I was reminded of moments I had forgotten, and was struck anew by my subject’s indomitable personality and the way in which she had refused to let the constrictions of Victorian society hold her back. Katey was criticised by many in her own time: surviving letters and diaries show that her acquaintances in polite society often considered her too outspoken, or castigated her as ‘a flirt’, and she was often criticised for exhibiting behaviour that was considered too emancipated. I was updating her biography when the #MeToo campaign was in full force, and I couldn’t help wondering whether Katey would have taken part. She refused to let gender expectations hold her back, and she fought for the right to have a liberated sexual life and for the right to be in a marriage that made her happy. I became convinced that her first husband was homosexual (something he would have been unable to admit to in the nineteenth century) and that their marriage was unconsummated. Throughout their years together, Katey grew to love her husband as a friend, but she also took lovers, in a search to find fulfilment. After she was widowed, she turned down several other proposals in order to marry Carlo Perugini. Their marriage was very happy, and they lived as equals, at a time when very few women were able to enjoy such a luxury.

Millais’ Portrait of Mrs Perugini – painted when she was still in mourning for Charlie Collins but in anticipation of her marriage to Carlo – has been used for the cover of my updated biography. I was so pleased that the jacket designer went with my idea to use this portrait, because it was through this image that I first came to know Katey. It also seems fitting because Katey’s story – like the woman in the portrait – has grown up since I first wrote about her. Her personality has become stronger in my mind and, after my six years of research into her contemporary, Princess Louise, I have been able to include even more about the world in which Katey lived and worked. Trying to research the life of someone who lived until her ninetieth year can, at times, feel like an impossible task to fit into a five-year book contract, and it has been such a pleasure to be able to add to her life story. Returning to an earlier book has been an absolute joy and I would recommend it to any author who feels that their subject still has plenty to say.

Lucinda Hawksley has written three biographies of female artists as well as books on art history, social history and several books about Charles Dickens and the world in which he lived. She is currently researching a book on Dickens and travel and writing her first novel.

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