The excellent Alison Flood of the Guardian wrote this very good summation of the situation in The Guardian online yesterday. She has some additional informative quotes from Paula Byrne and I thought you might like to read some of them:
“When my husband bought it he thought it was a reasonable portrait of a nice lady writer, but I instantly had a visceral reaction to it. I thought it looks like her family. I recognised the Austen nose, to be honest, I thought it was so striking, so familiar,” Byrne told the Guardian. “The idea that it was an imaginary portrait – that seemed to me to be a crazy theory. That genre doesn’t exist, and this looks too specific, too like the rest of her family, to have been drawn from imagination.”
Here are some of the silhouettes and portraits of Jane Austen’s family for you to compare the “Austen nose“
George Austen, Jane’s father, above, and below, and this is him in silhouette:
Jane’s mother, Cassandra Austen nee Leigh, in silhouette:
And now her siblings: first James Austen, Jane’s eldest brother:
and a silhouette of Cassandra Austen, Jane’s sister:
And here is a silhouette thought to be of Jane Austen- L’aimiable Jane”- found in a second edition of Mansfield Park
Paula Byrne is also quoted regarding her forthcoming documentary about the portrait:
She approached the BBC, and together they put together a documentary on the portrait, working with various experts including art historians, fashion experts and forensic analysts on the picture’s background. “We approached it with an open mind,” said Byrne. “We tried to cover all leads, and in the end we put our findings to three top Jane Austen scholars, and two out of three thought it was her.”
The Jane Austen experts were Professor Kathryn Sutherland of Oxford University, Professor Claudia Johnson of Princeton and Deirdre Le Faye. Kathryn Sutherland and Claudia Johnson both agreed the picture was of Jane Austen. As we suspected, Deirdre Le Faye thought otherwise. As Paula Byrne comments:
“She thinks it is an imaginary portrait. I did try so hard to find one single example of an imaginary portrait, but nobody could find one – they just don’t exist,” said Byrne. “But it’s great to have the debate – it opens up a very interesting question about who Jane Austen was and who we want her to be.”
Hmm. I’m not quite sure that is correct, and while no imaginary portrait might be extant from the period, we read yesterday that such things were being created by enthusiastic fans. Go here to see Deirdre Le Faye’s comments .
Paula Byrne also thinks the the portrait shows Jane Austen to be in London:
“This new picture first roots her in a London setting – by Westminster Abbey. And second, it presents her as a professional woman writer; there are pens on the table, a sheaf of paper. She seems to be a woman very confident in her own skin, very happy to be presented as a professional woman writer and a novelist, which does fly in the face of the cutesy, heritage spinster view.“
This is how Westminster Abbey appeared in the 1780s, depicted by Paul Sandby. You can enlarge these pictures for a closer look by clicking on them, remember.
The towers of the Abbey, below, have similarities…
I think you will agree, to the tower depicted in the portrait.
Here’s a photograph I took last year for you to compare:
But why would Jane Austen be shown in London? Could one of Henry Austen’s circle of friends have drawn her? If so, why include an image of Westminster Abbey? I think we have to await the broadcast of the documentary to discover exactly what the evidence is, aside from the presence of what would appear to be the Austen nose ;)
Personally, I’d like to see a report on the dating evidence for the vellum and the ink used to inscribe the reverse of the portrait ( with an interesting misspelling of Jane Austen’s surname: “Miss Jane Austin”.) Other questions I’d like answered include why that name was misspelt? Why is she depicted as a writer, when no one in her immediate family ever depicted her so and she clearly did not want to be known in the wider world as a woman who earned money as a professional writer? Who could have created a portrait? If it was taken from life it must surely have been made by someone intimate with her and her family? In that case when was the misspelt inscription put on it, and why was it misspelt if it was drawn by an intimate? Why has it not come to light before the 1980s and what research has been made into its life before that date? Too many questions to list here to be frank.
And another thought: if this is of Jane Austen does it really affect the way you think of her?How you perceive her and her genius? I have to say that , personally, it doesn’t affect my opinion of her at all. Her works- the juvenilia, the novels (completed and unfinished) and her letters- are more important to me in informing how I think about her than any of these images. I really don’t need another sadly amateur portrait to influence this. If a fashionable less frumpy image is required of her, and I may quickly insert that for me it is not, let us not forget that there may be one in existence already- but it’s attribution is hotly contested by the National Portrait Gallery and other experts. This is James Stanier Clarke’s little water colour of a fashionably dressed woman and it is thought by some to be Jane Austen visiting him at Carlton House, the Prince of Wales’ London residence:
Stanier Clarke was, of course, the Prince of Wales’ librarian who so infuriated Jane Austen with his hints to her as to how a novel should be written.
However, I will own that I do wish a great professional artist could have depicted her in adult hood. Someone like Zoffany, Hoppner or even Thomas Lawrence, whom we know to have been an admirer of her talent. Now, that really would be something to shout about. For these artists would have given us not only a good representation of her features, but would also have captured, surely, something of her vivacity, her intelligence, which sadly to my eye, these amateur portraits do not. That really would be a fantastic discovery don’t you think?