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After I had written yesterday’s post on the new discoveries regarding the “portrait ” of below, I discovered a dissenting voice about these new findings. I thought you might like to read these thoughts, written by Dr. Bendor Grosvenor of Philip Mould and Company. This is a renowned art company which specialises in British art and Old Masters. They have become famous for discovering sleepers, that is, previously unattributed or misattributed portraits. Dr.Grosvenor is the author of the erudite and entertaining Art History News website.
In an article on his site he discusses The Rice Portrait. You can read the article in full here. He doubts that the new-found inscriptions will alter the position regarding the painting’s questioned authenticity:
I applaud the owner’s attempts to prove their painting is Jane. But I’m afraid these apparent inscriptions in old photos of the painting, which I have been shown, are (to me at least) not compelling. Nor is this the first time apparently conclusive ‘writing’ on the painting, seen in questionably interpreted and magnified old photographs, has been claimed. For the best critique of the painting’s identity, read former NPG chief curator Jacob Simon’s brief note here. In particular, he deals with the question of the apparent inscriptions written on the painting:
“The [Rice Portrait] website claims that the portrait is signed several times in monogram, inscribed JANE and dated 1788 but, from my lengthy experience of examining British portraits, these apppear to be purely incidental and meaningless markings. They were not noted by Thomas Harding Newman, owner of the portrait in 1880, who attributed it to Zoffany. They do not appear in photographs taken by Emery Walker in about 1910, despite claims to the contrary on the website. They were not apparent to the professional painting conservator who examined the portrait with others at Henry Rice’s request before cleaning it in 1985. They were not apparent to Christie’s experienced cataloguing staff in 2007 when the portrait was put up for sale in New York, despite an earlier report of initials on the portrait”.
All this will, I fear, run and run….No doubt, I’ll be reporting back to you;)
The Rice Portrait, below, which purports to be of a young Jane Austen, has been making quite a stir this week.
The painting,which is now owned by the Rice family, has been the subject of much debate since it came to public attention in the late 19th century. The Rice family claim that the painting was made during a visit that Jane Austen’s family made to the home of Jane’s great-uncle Francis Austen, in Sevenoaks in Kent during 1789. Jane was 13 when the visit took place. Their story of the origins of the portrait is that Francis Austen was very taken with young Jane and, while she was staying with him in Kent, commissioned Ozias Humphrey, an artist he had previously commissioned, to capture her on that visit.
The portrait remained with the Kent Austens until 1817 when it was then given by Francis Austen’s grandson, Colonel Thomas Austen, to a close friend, Thomas Harding-Newman as a wedding present. The present was apparently made to him because his bride, Elizabeth Hall, was reported to be a keen admirer of Jane Austen’s books. Thomas Harding-Newman is apparently the person who decided this portrait was by Johan Zoffany, and this misattribution caused problems for the Rice family when they were trying to authenticate it, and since the 1940s its authenticity has been disputed.
Many art, fashion and Austen experts, including those at the National Portrait Gallery, who have the only authenticated image of Jane Austen taken in her lifetime in their collection, have raised objections to this painting, mainly on the grounds that the style of the girl’s dress, hair and the general composition would appear to date the painting to after 1800, when Jane would have been in her 20s, and therefore would have been much older than the girl depicted.
However, the latest news about the portrait is that recent digital analysis of photographs of the painting which date from 1910, and which were part of the Heinz Collection in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection from the 1950s, have been examined. They appear to show that the portrait has some writing on its surface. Note, as I understand the situation, the painting has been cleaned extensively over the years, and it is virtually impossible to see this new-found writing on the portrait as it stands.The photographs, taken by Emery Walker in 1910 are the best indication we have of the paintings original state. The digital analysis has interestingly revealed the following, as reported by The Guardian journalist, Ed Butler:
In the top-right corner of a reproduction of a photograph of the portrait taken before the painting was restored, the name “Jane Austen” is visible. Next to it is revealed in two places the name “Ozias Humphry” – an established portrait painter of the period. He was a member of the Royal Academy, and a friend of other better-known artists of the day, such as Gainsborough and Romney. The words have been digitally enhanced using photographic tools and methods that have been independently validated by photographic expert Stephen Cole of Acume Forensics in Leeds, who has spent more than 20 years analysing photographic evidence in criminal cases. Art critic Angus Stewart, a former curator of an exhibition dedicated to Jane Austen, has seen the evidence and is impressed. “To have all these words revealed on the canvas is very, very strong. I think you’d be flying in the face of reason to deny this,” he said ( See: The Guardian, 8th June, 2012)
If you go here to the Rice family’s own website about the painting you can see the photographs of the writing on the surface of the painting. They were initially discovered by a reader of their website, which prompted the Rice family to investigate further. They are also currently investigating some more writings, as their website reveals.
Now, of course, the writing could have been put on the canvas by someone other that Ozias Humphry or even by a later owner, but as the painting was believed, from around 1818, to have been by the more prestigious artist, Johann Zoffany, it is argued, and quite persuasively it seems to me, that the writing must have been put there during or shortly after Jane’s lifetime but before the unfortunate misattribution was made by Harding-Newman. If the writing was added to the painting after 1817, the name which would appear would surely have been of the artist who was then thought to have painted it ; that is, Zoffany. The fact that the painting is inscribed with Humphry’s name points to it having been inscribed in the late 18th century and not after. An additional reason for the attribution to Humphry being correct is that Humphry went blind in 1797 and , naturally, stopped painting. It seems now, despite the evidence of the hair, the costume and the composition, very unlikely that the painting was created in the early 19th century. The dates revealed by the digital analysis do support the Rice family arguments regarding the origins and descent of the painting, which they have been making for a very long time.
In an effort to try to establish exactly what has gone on regarding this and the other disputed “portrait ” of Jane Austen, now owned by Paula Byrne, and which is currently on show at the Jane Austen House Museum, see below,
a letter was published in The Guardian yesterday, which was signed by Louise West,Curator of the Museum, Professor Kathryn Sutherland, Henrietta Forster and Paula Byrne. It proposed that a debate about both this and the Rice portrait ought to take place at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Here is the text of their letter:
We note with interest the latest findings of the champions of the so-called Rice portrait, putatively of a young Jane Austen (A portrait of the artist as a young girl?, 9 June). In view of their renewed confidence in the attribution as to painter and sitter, we very much hope that the owners will support us in calling for an open discussion and exhibition of all the contenders for “portrait of Jane Austen”. We are planning a debate, to be hosted by the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and extend an invitation to all interested parties.
Good idea. I do hope that some art historians appear to give their thoughts. And let’s hope that, as a result, we will finally have some clarity about the person(s) portrayed in these portraits( though I confess I am still very unconvinced by the portrait said to be of Jane Austen as an older woman!)
Since I read this article last Saturday, I’ve been reading the archive of the Times Literary Supplement on this topic. For years the Rice portrait has been the subject of much debate within its pages, and, again, I confess I have been really quite shocked by the tone of the arguments made regarding the authenticity of the portrait. Bad tempered and somewhat personal in nature, I really don’t think this has been the experts finest hour. What is it about these portraits that makes everyone so passionate? A desire to have a professional image of Jane Austen? A fortune? A desire to be correct? A combination of all three? *shakes head sadly*
It would seem to me that the Rice portrait now has many claims to authenticity, particularly now that these previously undiscovered markings have been found, which confirm the original story given by the Rice family. I send them my congratulations, which I hope are not premature. My friend, Jane Odiwe is to be congratulated too, for she has been certain of the portrait’s authenticity for some time.
Yet again, this is just part of a continuing saga, and I hope to be able to report back to you about it in due course. Positively, I hope.
I thought you all might appreciate a post on the latest developments regarding the disputed portrait of Jane Austen now owned by Dr. Paula Byrne.
Recently there has been flurry of activity surrounding it, mostly published in the Times Literary Supplement.
The first article was by Paul Byrne, and this reiterated, in the main, the arguments she made for positively identifying the portrait as Jane Austen, and having been taken from life, in her BBC 2 programme, Jane Austen: The Unseen Portrait. However, there are a few new points and you might like to hear them. Dr Byrne has been investigating the view shown on the portrait and seems to have positively identified it as the view of Westminster Abbey, St Margaret’s Church and Westminster Bridge, which could be seen from one specific place: No.3 The Sanctuary. This house was occupied, in the early 19th century, by Edward Smedley, an Anglican priest who was also senior usher at Westminster School. Dr.Byrne writes:
He was a man with literary interests, whose published poems included Transmigration (1778) and Erin: A geographical and descriptive poem (1810). He was married to Hannah (1754-1825), the daughter of George Bellas, a gentleman who worked as public notary in the High Court of Admiralty, which dealt with all shipping disputes, and who owned estates in the parish of Farnham on the border of Hampshire and Surrey. Their eldest son, also called Edward Smedley (1788-1836), had serious literary aspirations. He won the Seatonian Prize for English Verse at Cambridge in 1813 and from 1814 onwards he published with John Murray of Albemarle Street. His works with Jane Austen’s publisher ranged from The Death of Saul and Jonathan, a Poem (1814) and The Parson’s Choice, or, Town and Country: An Epistle (1821) to Sketches from Venetian History (1831).
Edward Smedley Junior therefore had the same publisher as Jane Austen, John Murray, and a slight family connection (see below). However, he also appears to have been a fan of Jane Austen’s works from the evidence of his published correspondence:
Pious, antiquarian and serious-minded, the Smedleys seem a far cry from Jane Austen. So it comes as something of a surprise to discover in “Poems by the late Rev. Edward Smedley, A.M.: with a selection from his correspondence and a memoir of his life “(1837) that Smedley Junior was an avid reader of her novels
In addition Dr Byrne notes that a daughter of Anna Austen, Louisa, married the Reverend Septimus Bellas of Monk Sherborne in Hampshire, who was “a collateral relative of George Bellas”
Dr Byrne poses the question: do we know exactly what Jane Austen did when she was in London negotiating the terms for the publication of Emma? She poses the theory that Jane Austen may have known the Smedleys and may have visited them at No 3 ,The Sanctuary,where the portrait was made , and where it probably stayed in the Smedley family for some time, most probably in an album of drawings as there appears to be evidence of old glue on the reverse of the portrait. Smedley Junior had two daughters, who grew up to be novelists and Dr Byrne considers they were even influenced by Jane Austen:
They both grew up to become novelists strongly influenced by Jane Austen. Menella’s The Maiden Aunt (1849) begins in a very familiar-sounding style – “Emma, the youngest sister of Margaret Forde, married James Ferrars, a captain in the navy, and was left a widow, with two children” – while Elizabeth Anna’s The Runaway (1872) is manifestly a rewriting of Emma (with a mildly lesbian twist). Its publication was welcomed by the Sun newspaper with the announcement that “The future before her as a novelist is that of becoming the Miss Austin of her generation”.
One lead might be interesting, regarding the provenance of the portrait. It was sold to Mr Davids by the executrix of Sir John Forster, Barrister. The executrix, on his instructions, burnt all his papers when she had finished administering his estate. However, Paula Byrne has discovered that it was given to him by his nanny, Miss Helen Carruthers and she is investigating if there are any links between Miss Carruthers and the Smedley daughters. If anyone reading this can help her, please contact me and I’ll gladly send on any information.
She concluded thus:
Until we find another writer who was middle-aged in about 1815, who had a taste for long sleeves and a cap, who was tall and spare, straightbacked, with dark curly hair and facial features bearing an uncanny resemblance to Jane Austen’s brothers, we must keep open the possibility that this truly is a lifetime portrait of the woman who signed her own name on the back of John Murray’s royalty cheque for Emma as “Miss Jane Austin”.
This article prompted two letters to the Editor. The first was from Roy Davids, the dealer who sold the portrait at auction to Dr Byrne , and was published in the TLS on the 20th April, 2012. In his letter he defended his catalogue description of the portrait,thus:
Dr Byrne not entirely accurately had me cowering before the formidable Deirdre Le Faye (given the correspondence with that doyenne of the Austen industry which I shared with her). Vendors, it should be said, have an obligation towards a sobriety of tone, balance and judgement that need not constrain an enthusiastic new owner in quite the same way. But, of more consequence, Byrne tends to minimize what was said in the catalogue, which at least hinted at some of her more significant discoveries, when she writes: “Deterred by Le Faye, Davids did no further work on the portrait and it was accordingly given a low estimate in a sale of his literary manuscripts and portraits at Bonham’s in March 2011, where I bought it. The sale catalogue reproduced Le Faye’s opinion, but also noted that Henry Austen’s ‘Biographical Notice’ (1818) of his late sister did not include any specific details of her appearance, so it would have seemed an unlikely source for a portrait”.
A week later another letter was published from Professor Richard Jenkyns ,who is, in fact, a descendant of Jane Austen’s eldest brother, James. He doubts that the portrait is of Jane Austen. His first objection is the setting:
Dr Byrne treats the picture like a photograph – as though Jane Austen had visited an unattested friend who chanced to live due west of the Abbey and someone snapped her there. But of course portraits were not like that; the backgrounds signify. The sitter is a Londoner: she is at home with her cat beside her. No one would take a likeness of a person with somebody else’s cat. She may have been wife, daughter or sister of a Rector of St Margaret’s or a Dean or Canon of Westminster, or perhaps a literary lady who wrote about Westminster. It seems improbable that this is a view from the window of someone who happened to live at just this spot, because the setting is not naturalistic: note the theatrical column and curtain. The artist could have sketched the churches on site but more likely used an engraving.
He also pointed out that the lady portrayed in the portrait is shown as having light-coloured eyes:
Jane Austen’s eyes were shown as brown in Cassandra Austen’s sketch-the only authenticated image of Jane Austen’s face- that is now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery:
She was described as having had hazel eyes by people who know her in life, particularly Caroline Austen, her niece. He also disputes that the nose depicted in the “Austin” portrait is an example of The Austen Nose.
The same point about the colour of the “Austin’s ” lady’s eyes is made in the Spring 2012 JASNA newsletter. Dr Andrew Norman who has written a biography of Jane Austen (Jane Austen, An Unrequited Love) wrote to the editor to make the same point about the colour of the sitters eyes: that these are pale and Jane Austen had dark coloured eyes.
On the 4th May, Dierdre Le Faye published her thoughts on the drawing. Amongst other points, she doubts that Jane Austen would have wanted to be depicted as a writer, a point that has also been made by Claire Tomalin. She points to the lack of books in the portrait: if Jane Austen and wanted to be shown as a proudly, published author, where are her books? She also dismissed the face depicted as being of the real Jane Austen: it is too thin and long , and the eyes are of the wrong hue.
As to the dating of the portrait by the fashionable clothes on show, Le Faye points out that Jane and Cassandra Austen were constantly altering and updating their clothes due to their limited income:
The sitter’s high neck and long sleeves, with copious lace trimmings, suggest rich respectability. is clear from Jane’s letters that as she and Cassandra were far from wealthy, they were constantly altering their dresses by unpicking and dyeing them and adding different trimmings, until finally demoting them to be used as petticoats or linings. No dresses of theirs could ever be precisely dated.
She also comments on the profusion of jewellery on show:
The amount of jewellery worn by the sitter is far more than Jane Austen is known to have possessed…Even if Jane had possessed all these items – and surely her brother Charles’s present of a topaz cross would have been shown? – it would be thoroughly uncomfortable to wear four rings while writing. This strongly suggests that the portrait was only meant to be symbolic, emphasizing the wealth of the sitter.
Here you can see the necklaces, numbering three in my counting:
And here you can see the profusion of rings:
She also dismisses the view of Westminster as having any connection with Jane Austen, and thinks the links with the Smedley family are only circumstantial. She also notes the lack of any documentary evidence connecting Sir John Forster’s nanny with the portrait. The inscription “Miss Jane Austin” on the reverse of the portrait is commented upon:
The title on the verso, “Miss Jane Austin”, also turns out to be a red herring. As it is in ink, it was added at a later date – otherwise, the artist would have written the name in plumbago as s/he finished the drawing. Secondly, the word “Miss” is written in modern style; had it been written in Regency times the ligature of “MiFs” would have been used. Austen’s eldest nephew and nieces, who were taught to write between about 1795 and 1815, all used this ligature for a double “s” till their dying days in the 1870s and 80s. Anyone writing “Miss” was obviously born much later in the nineteenth century.
Here is an example in Jane Austen’s own handwriting, which demonstrates how the word “Miss “would have been written by any contemporary of her:
This is a copy of the later she wrote to her sister Cassandra on the 20th February 1807. You can clearly see that she addressed Cassandra as “MiFs” Austen. The use of the word “Miss” in this form is clear evidence that this inscription was added much later in the 19th century than in 1816.
As Byrne has not provided any incontrovertible documentary evidence to support her claims, the portrait, even if it does date from the early nineteenth century, cannot be accepted as a genuine representation of Jane Austen.
So..there you are. The controversy continues.
What do I make of it all?
I went to see the portrait recently, for it is currently on show at Jane Austen’s House Museum. What struck me on viewing it was indeed the large amount of jewellery that adorned the sitter. If this really is Jane Austen, where is that jewellery now? And why wasn’t Charles Austen’s quite magnificent topaz cross included, for this must have been Jane Austen’s most grand piece of personal jewellery, and if she was “showing herself to her best advantage” would she not have included that piece ? I do think on close examination that there is some form of pendant hanging from the first, shortest necklace. It is not clear, however, what form that pendant takes, and it may be another brooch, not attached to the chain at all.
The provenance of the portrait is still very uncertain, and seems to end in the 1980s with the death of Sir John Forster. I am still not convinced that the view,which is very carefully delineated, has any connection with Jane Austen.
The presence of the cat still make no sense to me at all in relation to Jane Austen.
I still feel that this is, at the very best, a portrait of a real life Miss Austin, who had links with Westminster Abbey and St Margaret’s, which was made in the early years of the 19th century, but that it is not our Jane Austen. The attribution on the frame, which was made much later, seems to me to have been a case of wishful thinking by a later owner and, until there is any other strong documentary evidence to prove otherwise, I remain unconvinced ( not that my opinion really matters!)
If you would like to see it yourself, then do go to the Museum to see it: I do urge you to go if you can for it is interesting to see it “in the flesh”. I hadn’t realised how prominent the cat was. It certainly cannot be glossed over as it is an important part of the composition. But what does a cat have to do with Jane Austen? And will we ever find the answer? Fascinating.
On Saturday I was lucky enough to visit this tiny but fascinating display at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Queen Victoria owed her whole existence to the fact that George IV’s only legitimate child, Princess Charlotte, died in childbirth in November 1817,and this display is full of the images of both princesses. The display in Room 16, next to the Regency Galleries, gave a chronological view of the short life and premature death of Princess Charlotte, her marriage, pregnancy and funeral, to be followed by the birth, early life and accession to the throne of Queen Victoria.
The small display is described on the NPG’s website as follows:
Featuring a range of portraits in wax, watercolour, and print, as well as commemorative images, it includes an engraving of Princess Charlotte’s last portrait from life by Sir Thomas Lawrence, completed posthumously. By bringing together these images, the display traces the idealised nature of the imagery used to represent a young woman in direct line to the throne at a time when the nation tired of the debauched Prince Regent’s rule.
Two of the items on show we are familiar with as I have my own copies, which I can reproduce here. The engraving of Princess Charlotte and her new husband, Prince Leopold in their box at the theatre:
and their marriage image from the magazine La Belle Assemblee:
The other image that fascinated me were a 3-D representation of Princess Charlotte in wax, which was I found quite bizarre, and a fabulously detailed colour representation of her torch lit funeral procession, which was of course, held at night.
The display continues to be open to the public until 9th September 2012 so if you are in the vicinity , and you want to visit the Regency Portraits, which of course, includes the only authenticated image of Jane Austen’s face known to us, then do pop into this small but exquisite display, entrance to which is free to all visitors. I can highly recommend it.
The debate regarding the supposed new portrait of Jane Austen and the quest for its authentication continues. I am amazed at the sheer number of visitors this topic has attracted to the site. You have come in your tens of thousands to view this one post about the BBC documentary since I wrote it last week. Amazed. So…I thought you all might appreciate a post about very new developments.
Go here for a sight of this thoughtful article written by Bendor Grosvenor, art historian, of Philip Mould and Company . Philip Mould is, of course, famous as an art historian and for discovering “sleepers”, that is, unknown or misattributed portraits. So you can understand why his firm and its employees would have an interest in this authentication process. In his article Dr Grosvenor makes some interesting points as to why he doubts the portrait is of our Jane Austen. I find his comments regarding the style of handwriting of the inscription “Miss Jane Austin “ which can be found on the reverse of the drawing totally fascinating.
Both he and his colleague, Emma Rutherford, who was also in the documentary, Jane Austen : the Unseen Portrait, have recently been sent high-resolution images of the drawing for their further consideration. Emma Rutherford is an expert on miniatures and in the programme explained the use of the plumbago technique and how it fell out of fashion in the early 18th century. You may also recall reading my review of her superb book, Silhouette: the art of the Shadow, here.If you explore the miniatures on the Philip Mould website you will recognise that many of them were included in the Austen documentary.
If I interpret her tweets correctly, it would seem that Dr Byrne is now appearing to pursue the argument that the inclusion of Westminster Abbey in the drawing may be due to the fact that Jane Austen’s brother, Frank, was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath in 1815, something she thinks is missed by most Austen biographers. In Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers( 1905), which was of course written by Frank’s grandson, John Henry Hubback and his daughter, Edith Charlotte Hubback, the award is clearly mentioned:
During these years on shore several honours fell to his (Frank’s-jfw) share. He had been awarded his C.B. in 1815 on the institution of that distinction. In 1825 he was appointed Colonel of Marines and in 1830 Rear- Admiral
The Order of the Bath is an ancient order of chivalry, the fourth senior order of the British orders of chivalry. It was organised into its modern form by George I in 1725 and during the 18th and 19th centuries it was primarily a military order. (Now senior civil servants are eligible to be honoured by membership of the Civil Division as opposed to the Military Division) The connection with Westminster Abbey is that Henry VII’s exquisite chapel, at the extreme east of the building, is the Chapel of the Order. Sadly from 1812 until 1913 it would appear that the orders association with the Chapel was in name only, for as the Abbey’s website explains:
The Order was enlarged in 1815 and three classes of knights were formed: Knights Grand Cross, Knights Commander and Companions. A small number of distinguished civilians were also admitted at this time and in 1847 a civil division of Knights Commander and Companions was added. As a result of the increased numbers after 1812, due in part to the Napoleonic wars, no installations took place in the chapel until 1913 when George V revived the service and the erection of stall-plates, banners and crests was begun again.
So, if I interpret that correctly, there would not have been any ceremony for the family to attend at the Abbey,and the association with that particular place would surely be lessened?
I also think we do have to concede that the connection with Westminster Abbey is Frank’s and not his sisters. Would a reference to the Abbey really have been inserted into a portrait of Jane Austen? And why, if this was the connection, was only the corner of Westminster Abbey’s west front shown (together with the tower of St Margaret’s) in the drawing? In any event if Franks C.B. was the connection/allusion then would it not have been more appropriate to show the exterior of the chapel, which is at the eastern end of the building ( that is, on the opposite side of the Abbbey as recorded in this picture)? Here is a plan of the Abbey as it was in 1894, from Wikipedia, which I have marked to show the position of Henry VII’s Chapel and the approximate view-point from which view in the drawing was taken. Do note you can click on it to enlarge it.
This morning,(and this something I have only just discovered, having written the last paragraph a few hours ago!) Bendor Grosvenor has slightly altered his original view of this, in light of the information regarding Frank’s honour, but still maintains that a puzzle remains. If the connection is to the Abbey then why is the view shown in the portrait primarily that of St Margaret’s? Go here to see.
More evidence of the interchangeable nature the spelling of Austen as opposed to Austin has been discovered, for Frank Austen was gazetteered as Francis Austin in the London Gazette when he was awarded his C.B.
Meanwhile, Paula Byrne has appeared to alter her opinion as to who is the possible artist of the drawing, and now seem to consider it can no longer be Eliza Chute. It is now thought that the artist is some “low-end professional” and not a friend of Jane Austen’s. He/she would appear to charge 3 guineas for the drawing. This is a reference to marking on the rear of the backing board to the frame, as described in Bonham’s catalogue for the sale of the portrait last year:
Lot No: 6
[AUSTEN, JANE (1775-1817, novelist)]
[PORTRAIT] BY AN UNKNOWN ARTIST, half-length, wash and pencil, highlighted with chalk, on vellum, inscribed on the verso in a small contemporary hand ‘Miss Jane Austin’ (sic) and with the location or inventory number ‘A76′, contemporary gilt frame with attached identification label ‘Jane Austen B. 1775 – D. 1817′, chalk numbers on verso of frame ’166 8234′ and inscribed on the old backing board in an early nineteenth-century hand ‘Price £3-3s 0d Frame £0 5s 0d.’ and with chalk mark ‘A68′, size of image 5¾ x c. 4½ inches (14. 5 x c. 12 cm), overall size 11¾ x 10½ inches (30 x 27 cm), no date [but ?1818]
Go here to see the full catalogue description and the catalogue’s footnote. It makes for interesting reading.
As you can see all this in unfolding before our eyes on Twitter and on the internet, on a daily and sometimes hourly basis . If you are on Twitter and want to watch the conversation, join in or even help Dr Byrne with any information you can- she was searching for a governess name Helen Carruthers who may be of importance to her theories yesterday - then go here to follow her.Dr Bendor Grosvenor’s Twitter account is here.
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.
Paula Byrne has just revealed that the church tower shown in the “new” portrait is not Westminster Abbey, as previously speculated, but is that of St Margaret’s Church, Westminster.
St Margaret’s was built as a church where the ordinarily people who lived near to Westminster Abbey could worship. The present building was begun in 1245 during the reign of Henry III but was rebuilt between 1486 and 1523. Since 1614 it has been the parish church of the Palace of Westminster, which is of course where the House of Commons and the House of Lords are situated.It is famous, among other things, for its grand society weddings.
This picture, above, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons, shows the tower very clearly. It was rebuilt by the Hampshire born architect, John James, who was an assistant of Sir Christopher Wren, between the years 17343 to 1738. His most famous commission was St. George’s Church, Hanover Square, in smart, rich and elegant Mayfair, shown below. This image is from my collection of prints from the early nineteenth century part work, The Beauties of England and Wales:
This was, of course, where poor Mary Crawford dreamt of marrying Edmund Bertram in Chapter 43 of Mansfield Park.
Back to St Margaret’s, and I think this, visually, makes more sense. The two towers look very similar. What do you think?
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?
In the 2007 Report of the Jane Austen Society, Deirdre Le Faye wrote an article entitled Imaginary portraits of Jane Austen. In it she commented on portraits of Jane Austen which were not taken from life, and she included in this category this image, below, which is now owned by Paula Byrne and the subject of so much interest today.
This might well be the creation of the Reverend William Jones (1777-1821) curate and vicar of Broxbourne and Hoddesdon- or if not him someone with very similar interests. On 17th April 1818 Mr Jones confided to his diary:
“Whenever I am very much “taken with” an author,I generally draw his or her likeness in my own fancy: but I am a flattering painter. I had done this of Laetitia-Matilda Hawkins; but Mrs Davis has told me that somebody has told her( I don’t know how many somebodies deep) that L.M.H. is “very plain”. I still long to see her and to become acquainted with her”.
Le Faye remarks that the artist-whom so ever that may be!- seems to have read Henry Austen’s Biographical Notice of Jane Austen, published with the first editions of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey in 1817, and imagined this vision of her as a result. She also notes that elements of the portrait are symbolic: the cat asleep on the table to the right of the portrait indicates spinsterhood.The church tower she thinks is reminiscent of Canterbury Cathedral and is a nod to Jane Austen being, in Henry Austen’s word, ”throughly religious and devout”.
The plot thickens….
The British media is agog this morning with the possibility of there being a newly, previously unknown, recently discovered portrait of Jane Austen for us all to deliberate upon. Dr Paula Byrne whom you may know from of the book, Jane Austen and the Theatre fame, is currently writing a new biography of Jane Austen, The Real Jane Austen. This is destined to be published in 2013 to coincide with the celebrations for the 200th anniversary of the first publication of Pride and Prejudice. Dr Byrne claimes that this portrait, below, is of our favourite author. Do click on it to enlarge it to see the details
The portrait was brought to her attention by her husband Jonathan Bate, the renowned Shakespearian scholar. He saw it was going to be sold at auction and thought the resemblance to Jane Austen was strong. The pencil drawing on vellum was bought by Paula Byrne who discovered that “Miss Jane Austen” was inscribed on the reverse. Dr Byrne is today quoted in the press with her arguments supporting her contention that the portrait is of Jane.They are as follows:
The ‘memoir portrait’(below-jfw) has always rather annoyed me. It makes her look pretty and dim. It feeds this whole notion of ‘Aunt Jane’, the demure spinster who was very good at spillikins and enjoyed scribbling on the side, but was content with her life in the shadows.
Scholars know there was so much more to her. And for me this new picture encapsulates – almost too perfectly – that other side. She’s a professional woman presenting herself to the world with the tools of her trade. It’s the image of Jane Austen so many of us have been waiting for.
Paula Byrne was interviewed on the BBC Today Programme this morning, and cross-examined quite closely by Will Gompertz, and you might like to hear their exchange. Go here to listen to it. In the interview, Dr Byrne claims that 2 out of the 3 most important Jane Austen experts agree with her that the portrait is indeed of Jane.
I think we discerning readers have been well aware for some times that there is so much more to Jane Austen than being a genteel, domestically minded spinster sitting at the fireside, as portrayed in the original Memoir by her nephew. For example, through my readings of her novels, I have discovered that she appears to have been very political indeed and espoused some of the most famous political causes of the day ;) But its good to note that the new biography of her might take this idea and run with it because the sweet spinster interpretation of Jane Austen that still persists irritates me beyond measure. No one who reads her letters could ever, surely, come away with this twee view of her, and yet some readers still cling to the “Dear Aunt Jane ” interpretation of her life and works.
As to the portrait, Dr Byrne is certain it has the Austen nose and was convinced on first seeing it that it was Jane Austen. Dr Byrne will be presenting all her arguments in support of her theory to us in a BBC2 documentary to be broadcast on Boxing Day ( 26th December) entitled , Jane Austen : The Unseen Portrait. I am intrigued to see it.
She will have to do more than convince us and Austen scholars however, as to the authenticity of the portrait. The National Portrait Gallery in London holds the only authenticated full-face image of Jane, as painted by her sister, Cassandra. Go here to see it, but I’m sure you are all familiar with this tiny watercolour. It was from this sketch, which was not thought to be very like Jane by her contemporaries, that the engraving included in James Austen Leigh’s memoir was “adapted”. Recently the Rice Portrait of Jane Austen has been the subject of some controversy about its disputed authenticity, a controversy which still continues. Go here to read about the portrait, and its rather sad history
The newly discovered picture will no doubt be subject to the same doubts and deliberations. It will be very interesting to see the documentary and hear the arguments for and against. In the meantime, do you think this could possibly be a new portrait of Jane? When do you think the portrait was taken? And where? And by whom? Is it too accomplished to be Cassandra’s work? What church or cathedral tower does it show? Does it have the “Austen Nose” ? Many, many questions to be answered…. for the moment, I leave it to yourselves to determine.