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.