The Rice Portrait,  below, which purports to be of a young Jane Austen, has been making quite a stir this week.

The “Rice Portrait”, which purports to show Jane Austen as a child.

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,

The disputed portrait which may be Jane Austen, now owned by Paula Byrne, and currently on show at the Jane Austen House Museum

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.