Watching this programme, aired on Boxing Day on BBC2, was an odd experience for me. I’ve very deliberately not rushed to judgement on it and have, in fact, viewed it thrice now, in an effort to try to understand my reaction to it and to be fair to it.
I have to say, from the outset, that I do feel rather uncomfortable with the grand claims made during the programme, which I think can be fairly summarised, thus: if it can be proved that the drawing Dr. Paula Byrne bought in the summer at Bonhams, (which is set in a frame marked “Jane Austen 1775-1817” and is inscribed “Miss Jane Austin” on the reverse), is a portrait of Jane Austen made from life, then it will “revolutionise ” the way in which we consider her. We will no longer be influenced by the James Andrew portrait of her, which was commissioned by her family to be inserted into The Memoir written by James Edward Austen-Leigh, published in 1870. In the words of Dr Paula Byrne this portrait makes Jane Austen appear “pretty, prim and dim”.
My problem with this argument is that I think the “Dear Aunt Jane” view of Austen hasn’t prevailed for a long time (expect perhaps, from the evidence presented at the beginning of the programme,with its presenter, Martha Kearney). And surely anyone who reads any of Austen’s works cannot seriously think the author was not a critical observer, an intelligent woman of the world, astute and enough of a genius to be able to take on her society and its ills and wrap her critique of it up in some of the most enduing novels in the English language? Do we still look at the Andrews portrait and its derivatives and think that it compels us to think, as a matter of course, that the woman portrayed was a domesticated booby? Or do we recognise the Victorian pretence behind it? Do we have to have a portrait of her at all? Not as far as I am concerned…but, apparently, I am in a minority here, for the evidence from the programme is that many of us want and need a portrait of Jane Austen, but just not the Andrews’ version.
Though the programme did show the only authenticated portrait of Austen taken during her lifetime by her sister, Cassandra and which is now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, it seemed to gloss over this image and concentrated instead on the Andrews image, which, of course, was not taken during Jane Austen’s lifetime, and its derivatives, all of which were held collectively responsible for our “current perception” of Jane Austen as a saintly, domesticated aunt with not a professional thought in her head.
My opinion, for what it is worth, is that the NPG portrait, with all its faults, cannot be described as portraying someone who is dim, pretty or prim. Someone who is angry, annoyed and strong-willed might be more a reasonable description, though I admit that assessment of art is rather subjective. For, in my very humble opinion, the drawing under current discussion merely portrays a pleasant-looking, nicely-dressed woman of the 1810s in the action of writing something – not necessarily a novel- on a sheaf of paper. With a cat. In front of Westminster Abbey and St. Margaret’s. If it is of her,taken during her lifetime, then what is on display doesn’t add much to our knowledge of Austen and it is still, clearly, an amateur drawing with all its attendant limitations. I am a little suspicious of the grand claims being made for it, which, I suspect, could possibly say more about those who make them and their perceptions of Austen than they ever will for the drawing under discussion
Others certainly think differently. And that is obviously why this programme was made. Paula Byrne’s back story for the portrait -or so it appears to me- is that Jane Austen would have liked to have been portrayed in a portrait as a professional writer. Therefore, she may have sat for this portrait in London between the years of 1813-15, and may have done so secretly, not letting her family know of her desire to be thus portrayed. Hence its failure to be mentioned by the Austen family at all, and this especially explains why they didn’t refer to it in their search for a suitable image to be used in the Bentley editions and in the Memoir. One main candidate for authorship of the drawing is Eliza Chute, of the family who owned The Vyne, and who were friends and patrons of the Austens, in particular of Jane’s oldest brother, James. At one time Eliza Chute lived in George Street Westminster, within sight of Westminster Abbey and St Margaret’s Church, where, indeed, she was married. The view in the drawing appears to have been the view she had from her home. She was also known to have been a gifted artist and consistently spelt Jane Austen’s surname name as “Austin”. Go here to see some very interesting information about her on Kelly McDonald’s excellent site.
The investigation into the picture as reported in the programme, revealed some points in favour of Dr Byrne’s contention, and some which, to me, do not appear to help at all. I will attempt to summarise them for you.
Forensic tests were made on the vellum and ink used and it was dated as being drawn between 1811 and 1869, the year before the publication of James Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir, which contained the infamous engraving derived from the Andrews portrait. The white highlights on the drawing were shown not to be of Zinc White paint, which would have dated it into the late 19th century and onwards, but, instead, showed them to have been made with barium sulphite. This was known commercially as “Constant White” and was superseded by Zinc White in the mid to late 19th century. The ink used in the inscription on the rear of the drawing was thought to be consistent with the composition of inks used in the first part of the 19th century.
The clothes worn by the figure in the drawing were thought to be consistent with fashionable clothing from 1813-15. The woman depicted in the picture was also thought to be tall, and this would tally with Anna Austen Lefroy’s description of Jane Austen. Anna, Jane’s niece, described her as ” tall slender and not drooping”. Anna’s description was relied upon very much throughout the course of the programme. The programme also referenced the Silk Pelisse held in the Hampshire Museum Service’s collection to support the contention that the woman depicted was tall. It was considered that the owner of this item of clothing would have been above the average woman’s height for the era. That was quoted as being 5 feet 5 inches. The woman who wore this pelisse could have been 5 feet 8 inches tall, much taller than average. However, I ought to point out in the interests of fairness that the Hampshire Museums services, who have the pelisse in their collection, are scrupulously fair when describing the provenance of the article. Go here to see. The doubts expressed by them was not as far as I could hear or see, recorded in the programme.
The provenance is problematical, for its existence only became known in the early 1980s. Roy Davids, the dealer who sold the manuscript at Bonham’s in the summer, bought it from the executrix of Sir John Forster M.P and Q.C, a man whose amazing reputation I knew of in the 1980s when I practised law in London. The drawing apparently formed part of his estate. Unfortunately, it would appear that his executrix, who sold the drawing to Mr Davids, destroyed some of Sir John’s private papers (go here to see an account of his fascinating career and this fact) and so the trail to discover the whereabouts of the portrait prior to the early 1980s has now gone cold and may be further hampered by this fact. An appeal was made during the programme for anyone with any information to come forward, which I repeat here.
The style of the portrait was also called into question. According to the art historians and experts consulted, the plumbago technique- applying graphite on vellum- went out of favour circa 1720. This was not explored any further in this programme.
The family resemblance- the Austen nose and Jane Austen’s asymmetrically placed eyes- was subject to modern techniques used to identity criminals from CCTV footage and photographs. I was a little uneasy about this technique, for surely the success or not of using it depends on the skill to the artists involved? A portrait is not as accurate a depiction of a person as a photograph, surely? Can an amateur drawing really be considered a scientific and accurate representation of someone’s feature?
However, the Austen nose was called into question, as Anna Austen, upon whose description the programme relied upon, clearly states her aunt to have had a “small nose”. The silhouette of “L’aimable Jane” also in the NPG’s collection shows this to be the case. Sadly, it was not referenced in the programme. Paula Byrne also debated whether the use of the word ”small” meant the same in the18th century as it does now. However, I noted that the programme did not dispute the terms “tall” and “slender”, though perhaps that was edited out. These words were also used by Anna Austen in her description of her aunt.
The misspelling of Austen as Austin was discussed. The Chute family and Eliza Chute in particular were shown to have always used this spelling. As did the Countess of Morely and others. And so, it would appear, did Jane Austen herself , at least once, given the evidence from the endorsement on the reverse of a royalties cheque made out by her publisher, John Murray’s office to “Miss Jane Austin” and which is now in the John Murray archive.
Would Jane Austen have wanted to be portrayed as a writer? Both her biographer, Claire Tomlain and Professor Judith Hawley of Royal Holloway doubted she would have wanted this. The anonymous default position of writers of novels was discussed, for writing novels, as opposed to writing religious tracts, poetry and plays carried with it a slightly disreputable association. Being depicted in a portrait as a writer of novels might not have been quite the thing.
The execution of the portrait was thought to have been made by an amateur who had received instruction from a master. Apparently the arm of the figure is drawn too long and the head does not sit well enough on the body to have been executed by an expert artist. However, the inclusion of the swag of drapery and the columnar depiction of Westminster Abbey and St. Margaret’s suggested grandeur, a grandeur beyond the social milieu in which Jane Austen found herself as the relatively poor spinster daughter of a gentry family. The column/swag devise is an artistic concept used by artist from Van Dyke onwards in aristocratic and royal portraits. Thus it might be seen to have been included in this drawing as some sort of tribute. Or could its inclusion have been ironic- an in-joke? Interestingly, one of the art historians remarked that the inclusion of such grand buildings as St Margaret’s and Westminster Abbey would have been included in the portrait as some symbolic reference with significance only to the sitter. The woman who may have been the artist, Eliza Chute, had many associations with that part of London (see above). However the commentary by Martha Kearney, slightly later in the programme, suggested that the symbolism could apply to both sitter AND the artist. This discrepancy annoyed me though, to be scrupulously fair, it may have been accidental.
I didn’t really like the way that the documentary presented the fact that Jane Austen lived with Henry Austen, her brother in London at Hans Place and Henrietta Street( note Upper Berkeley Street was not mentioned) almost as a revelation. Anyone who reads her novels must surely realise she had a fantastic working knowledge of London and its intimacies, and could only have written about that from her own knowledge, built up by visiting it frequently, over a number of years. Even the most basic biographies of her note she visited London often. The programme seemed to me to try hard to convince us that the world sees Jane Austen as the innocent, uninformed spinster, a constant inhabitant of the small, enclosed Hampshire village of Chawton, and of course we do know –many of us-that was not the case. This was another irritant to me.
No one explained away the presence of the cat on the table in the drawing or what it might represent.
A final set piece was shown partly to us where Paul Byrne presented her findings to a panel of Austen experts: Deirdre Le Faye, Claudia Johnson of Princeton University and Kathryn Sutherland of Oxford University. I’ll try to present what I think they thought of the drawing. Deirdre Le Faye was clearly unimpressed with the presentation and maintains her stance ( which has been reported since 2007) that this is an imaginary portrait of Jane Austen not taken from life. She also disputed that the Chute connection was as close as Dr Byrne was suggesting, in that she thought Jane Austen may have visited Eliza Chute when in London and had her portrait taken then. Kathryn Sutherland thought the image portrayed was similar to the authenticated image of Austen held in the NPG and that she would be happy to see this as an another image of Jane Austen if it could be authenticated, as, for her, it would refute the “Godmother of Chick Lit” status that she felt was currently applied to Jane Austen. Claudia Johnson agreed that she would like this to be an image of Jane Austen but interestingly made the point that Le Faye’s argument that the Chutes were not close friends of Jane Austen added weight to the argument that the drawing was made by someone who knew of Jane Austen, but who was not in her immediate social circle and that is why the portrait has been unknown, particularly to the Austen family, until the 1980s.
They all agreed that further research had to be undertaken. I do have to say, that for me, this part of the programme was most uncomfortable to watch.
I have the suspicion that this is not the last programme we shall see on this topic. There are, as you can see many, many more questions to be answered, many that have been raised during the course of this film. There is of course a lot at stake especially for Dr Byrne, and the financial implications are huge. If another film is to be made, perhaps Dr Byrne herself could be persuaded to be the presenter. I found Martha Kearney’s manner of presenting the programme rather arch and none too serious and I think it set the wrong tone, as it was at odds with some of the evidence being set before us. Ironically, for me, it rather reinforced the impression of Dear Aunt Jane Austen at the head of a cozy heritage industry, and didn’t help the argument that the drawing under discussion depicts her as a professional writer. But as I say this may be merely my reaction.
I have to admit the brouhaha about this new “portrait” has made me think rather deeply about my own responses to the images we have of Jane Austen. I suppose I was lucky in that I was half way though reading the novels in the early 1970s as a 12 year old, before I saw an image of her, and that was the sketch in the NPG. Truth be owned, I like Cassandra’s sketch, and I also like the fact that it sits amongst the massive bow-wow strain of Regency portraits ( mostly of men) in the museum’s Regency Galleries. For, to me, it makes a rather interesting point that, though these sitters were considered important enough to be immortalised in oils by great artists during their life times, Jane Austen, whose fame eclipses nearly everyone portrayed there, is only known to us by this slight, incomplete and amateur sketch. One which cannot, due to its execution, give us much idea as to her real image. The contrast between it and the other portraits is immeasurable. She is as ever, elusive. And I have a suspicion she might just have preferred our impression of her to remain that way.
I do however, sincerely wish Dr Bryne all the luck in the world with her quest for authenticity. I do hope she is not discouraged by the robust assessment of the drawing by Sir Roy Strong in the programme, for it would be rather pleasant to add another authenticated image of Jane Austen to the tiny collective, even if I’m not as convinced as others as to what more this drawing can tell us about Jane Austen, the professional writer, than can be divined by reading her works.