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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.


I thought you all would appreciate knowing that this is accessible, free of charge for a short time only, according to a new blog post at the Oxford University Press’s blog. If you access the blog post here, you will find an interesting taster of the essay written by  Professor Sutherland

Her essay is entitled Jane Austen’s Dealing with John Murray and his Firm and this is published in the latest edition of the journal, The Review of English Studies. It was originally delivered by Professor Sutherland as the John Murray Lecture on the 27th October 2011 at the National Library of Scotland. I’ve only had time to skim it this afternoon, but it looks fascinating.  I’m sure it is going to provoke some discussion. Go to it!

Today I’d like to give you advance notice of a talk to be given by Professor Kathryn Sutherland of St Anne’s College, Oxford University, at Chawton House Library on the 8th May entitled  ‘The Watsons’: Jane Austen Practising.

The Watsons is one of the few remaining manuscripts written in Jane Austen’s hand to survive, and you may recall that it was bought by the Bodleian Library last year, to ensure that it remains in the UK for scholars and Austen enthusiasts to continue to have access to it. You can see it here on the Jane Austen Fiction Manuscripts website.  The only other manuscripts of Jane Austen’s  adult works that survive are the other unfinished fragment, Sanditon, together with the cancelled chapters of Persuasion. Professor Sutherland, below, has made an especial study of Jane Austen’s existing  manuscripts, partly in an attempt to try to decipher her working methods and so her talk promises to be fascinating.

In her book, Jane Austen’s Textual Lives: From Aeschylus to Bollywood,  Professor Sutherland deals with many fascinating subjects, looking anew and in great detail  on aspects of Jane Austen’s life and works we take for granted as having “always been there”, particularly with regard to the censorship of the Austen and Knight families surrounding the release of biographical information. The part of her book I particularly admired  were the chapters where she goes into amazing detail to try to determine how exactly  Jane Austen wrote: how she revised, amended and fiddled with her manuscripts and what processes her works were subjected to before and after they left her care and control. The Professor has been criticised on the internet and in the press for some of her comments regarding Jane Austen’s grammar. In the book, in layman’s terms if you will allow me, Professor Sutherland details how Austen’s later works  were corrected by a series of editors. Some journalists clearly decided that Professor Sutherland was on the side of the editors, and that she  was agreeing with their “attacks” on Austen’s original and idiosyncratic texts. It is my understanding, on reading the book, that nothing could be further from the truth. This brouhaha has sadly detracted from her main argument, which is that Jane Austen’s genius should not and ought not to  have been constrained by the workings of and the unasked for (and in many cases unwarranted) imposition of  a Victorian ( or Edwardian or even modern) man’s idea of correct grammar. And that, in fact, by imposing their own standardised version of correct, written English upon her texts, quite a lot of Jane Austen’s original intent has been diminished as a result.  She conducts a minute forensic  examination of the novels, their publishing history  and the changes various editors have imposed upon Austen( and us). The results will surprise you (and often discomfort). This part of the book is a fascinating and illuminating read. Some of the language used is undoubtedly academic and  it is challenging…but then, why should reading always be a totally effortless pastime?

Reading her book opened my eyes to the terrible power an editor has, especially when the author is not  available to defend her choices. These choices- her use of words, punctuation and grammar- which make perfect sense  in the context of her novel, may be seen as sloppy or careless mistakes to a reader not exactly in tune with the author’s original intent. I had really not considered just how crucial the editorial approach to a text truly is until I had considered the effects on these texts. ( Forgive me, I am not always so dense). This book opened my eyes and made me think critically about the whole process of publishing a book, in detail, for the first time. As a dyslexic with some paralysed fingers, it has taken me years to try to attune myself to grammatical rules, punctuation and spelling: I once had the luxury of secretaries to point me in the right direction but I always had to ensure that their well-meaning additions did not detract from my correct legal turn of phrase. Now spell and grammar checks irritate me in a similar way ;)

I confess I waited to read the paperback edition of her book to be available because the original price for the hardback was prohibitive, and I think much of the outrage written about regarding Professor Sutherland’s comments reveals that  not many of her critics seem to be familiar with the arguments in her book either. On reading her book- which though academic in tone is not inaccessible to the amateur reader of Jane Austen- I promise– it becomes clear that she is firmly on the side of Austen and her creative genius.

The book is available now as a reasonably priced paperback and also as an even more attractively priced Kindle edition. I would urge you to seek it out, and while it is an academic study, its subject matter is so fascinating and revelatory, I am convinced you will find it worthwhile and that it might very well alter your thoughts on Austen’s works and how they are edited .

Back to the Chawton House Lecture. It is to take place on the 8th May and tickets are available from Chawton House Library. Go here to see all the details. I do hope many of you can go along. If you can’t, do try to have sight of Professor Sutherland’s book. I really don’t think you will regret it.

If anyone is in the vicinity of The Divinity School at Old Bodleian Library on 1st March, then may I respectfully suggest you might like to rush there to take part in the events for World Book Day which are centred around Jane Austen.

For one day only there will be a display of Jane Austen’s manuscripts from the Bodleian Library collections. This will include the newly acquired handwritten manuscript of her unfinished novel, The Watsons, which the Bodleian purchased last year. As their website tells us,

Extensively revised and corrected throughout, the manuscript is a testimony of Jane Austen’s efforts to give shape to the earliest ideas as they pour onto paper, as she reviews, revises, deletes and underscores. The Watsons is the very genesis of fiction from one of Britain’s greatest and best-loved writers.

Also on show will be Volume the First, a manuscript of Austen’s juvenilia.

And if that is not enough to tempt you, the much discussed  portrait ” of Jane Austen, now owned by Paula Byrne  will be on display there, for you to ponder and discuss. Below is a shot of Deirdre Le Faye, Professor Kathryn Suthrland and Professor Claudia Johnson examining the picture in the recent BBC 2 documenatry, “The Real Jane Austen”. As you know I’m not convinced by the evidence put forward to “authenticate” the portrait thus far, but I can imagine if you are in the vicinity of the Library that you might care to see it for yourself.

And…can it get any more interesting? Well, yes it can… At lunchtime there will be a thirty minute lecture given by Kathryn Sutherland  who is  the Professor of Bibliography and Textual Criticism, St. Anne’s College, Oxford, on the subject of the Watsons entitled: The Watsons:Jane Austen Practising.

The lecture will take place at 1 p.m at the Convocation House, Bodleian Library. If you can’t make that lecture, you can hear some of her thoughts on The Watsons via a new Bodleian Library app for phones and iPads. Go here to read all about it.

I would love to go as I love to hear Professor Sutherland speak. But my family have suffered enough  with all my Austen-related jaunts ;) If you do go, do let us know who it all goes; we’d be delighted to hear from you.

The Bodleian Library has recently released a new free application for iPads and android phones etc. Treasures of the Bodleian is a fabulous application and it will take me many hours to explore all of it, as it highlights the treasures to be found in the University of Oxford’s library ‘s collection:

It contains access to many, many wonderful treasures, not the least being Jane Austen’s manuscripts of  Volume the First, which contains some of her juvenilia:

and The Watsons, which along with the Cancelled Chapters of Persuasion, are her only surviving adult manuscripts, albeit this is unfinished.

There is also a wonderful five-minute long podcast type lecture by Professor Kathryn Sutherland, Professor of Bibliography and Textural Criticism at the University of Oxford, wherein she talks about the history, significance and literary importance of the manuscript of The Watsons to us, and indeed, how this manuscript is really Jane Austen’s literary DNA:

Amongst other fascinating points, she details Jane Austen’s manner of working which is fascinating and is revealed by these precious few pages. And all this is free, I write, wonderingly. I could listen to Professor Sutherland’s intelligent and sympathetic lecture on Jane Austen for hours on end. As I say, ALL THIS IS FREE…

The application accompanies a physical exhibition of the treasures which is also free and which closes on the 23rd December 2011. Go here to see the website for the exhibition, You can also down load pdf of a guide to  the exhibit here. And you can also take part in a very interesting debate on what constitutes a “treasure” and vote for one item that is not normally on show, to  be “The People’s Choice” and  be part of the Library’s new Weston Library opening exhibit, when it opens in 2015.

If you can, please do download this wonderful application. AND IT IS FREE!!!

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