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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?
While I was on my recent Sabbatical a book with which we are slightly familiar came up for auction again, and I thought you might like to hear about it. The Friendship Book of the Reverend James Stanier Clarke, seen below, who was the Librarian to The Prince Regent, later George IV, went on sale at auction two weeks ago at Christie’s auction house in London.
This book is an amazing document. Correctly titled the Liber Amicorum- the Friendship Book- it is a record of Stanier Clarke’s contacts amongst some of the most influential and famous people in Regency England. As a courtier he was continually meeting interesting people at Court, and he took the opportunity his portion afforded him to have them record some souvenirs within its pages. These friendship books were quite common in the 19th century, and I have one which contains drawings, autographs and poems collected by a great-great uncle of mine. Sadly, he didn’t meet as many famous people as did The Reverend Clarke …
The book is bound in gold toothed green morocco and contains more than 100 contemporary paintings, drawings, verses and autographs by notable artists, authors, poets, sculptors and naval characters of the late 18th/early 19th centuries, including George Romney, William Hodges, William Hayley, Anna Seward, Nicholas Pocock, Nelson’s Captain Thomas Masterman Hardy.
The book was found in the 1950s by Richard Wheeler in a secondhand bookshop in Canterbury in Kent. He made a detective study of the book and its contents, studying the watermarks of the paper to build up a comprehensive history of the book, its contents and its original owner. His son recently put the book up for sale after he had inherited it.
Here are an idea of some of the contents:
A verse written by Charlotte Smith, the novelist
“A telescopic appearance of the southern limb of the Moon on 7th August 1787 at 3 0’clock in the morning” by John Russell, the noted astronomer.
A drawing by John Flaxman, the sculptor.
James Stanier Clarke also included portraits he had executed of people in his circle in his Friendship Book.
And this next portrait, shown below, is the one that has caused all the interest in this tiny book…for it purports to be of Jane Austen, taken when she met James Stanier Clarke on her visit to Carlton House, the London home of the Prince Regent. The negotiations regarding the dedication of Emma to the Prince regent had resulted in her being invited to view the Library there, and her visit took place on the 13th November, 1815.
James Stanier Clarke appears to have been quite smitten with Miss Austen and a correspondence between them lasted for a little while. Till frankly, Jane Austen could endure his suggestions for literary composition no longer. Her frustration with her correspondent took its revenge in her Plan of a Novel According to Hints from Various Quarters(1816).Their correspondence subsequently drew to a halt….
The portrait is not dated or named,but speculation has arisen that it might be Jane Austen, as she appeared on that visit.
Sadly, the National Portrait Gallery- which owns Cassandra Austen’s slight watercolour of Jane Austen, the only authenticated portrait showing her face- have steadfastly refused to authenticate the watercolour as being an image of Jane Austen. But others have been convinced by it. Go here to read a detailed discussion of the similarities between this portrait and the authenticated version. I would love to think that this stylishly dressed woman was Jane Austen, in her glad rags visiting the palace….
But , it seems that the current market is still not wholly convinced and the book failed to sell. It was given a pre-auction estimate of £20,000 -£50,000, and the highest bid received was for £28,000. Obviously, it failed to reach its fixed reserve. Frankly I would love to own this book for all its contents, not just the supposed picture of Jane Austen. And I am slighty puzzled as to why it hasn’t been bought by one of the great London museums bearing in mind it contains so many other interesting and less controversial items.
So, yet again we will have to wait and see what eventually happens to this intriguing book. I wonder if a facsimile edition has ever been considered. An annotated facsimile would be something to behold, don’t you think? I’d buy that in an instant!