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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 possessedEven 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.

She concludes:

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.

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.

While I was on my recent Sabbatical a book with which we are slightly familiar came up for auction  again, and I thought you might like to hear about it. The Friendship Book of the Reverend James Stanier Clarke, seen below, who was the Librarian to The Prince Regent, later George IV, went on sale at auction two weeks ago at Christie’s auction house in London.

This book is an amazing document. Correctly titled the Liber Amicorum–  the Friendship Book-  it is a record of Stanier Clarke’s contacts amongst some of the most influential and famous people in Regency England. As a courtier he was continually meeting interesting people at Court, and he took the opportunity his portion afforded him to have them record some souvenirs within its pages. These friendship books were quite common in the 19th century, and I have one which contains drawings, autographs and poems collected by a great-great uncle of mine. Sadly, he didn’t meet as many famous people as did The Reverend Clarke …

The book is bound in gold toothed green morocco and contains more than 100 contemporary paintings, drawings, verses and autographs by notable artists, authors, poets, sculptors and naval characters of the late 18th/early 19th centuries, including George Romney, William Hodges, William Hayley, Anna Seward, Nicholas Pocock, Nelson’s Captain Thomas Masterman Hardy.

The book was found in the 1950s by Richard Wheeler in a secondhand bookshop in Canterbury in Kent. He made a detective study of the book and its contents, studying the watermarks of the paper to build up a comprehensive history of the book, its contents and its original owner. His son recently put the book up for sale after he had inherited it.

Here are an idea of some of the contents:

A verse written by Charlotte Smith, the novelist

“A telescopic appearance of the southern limb of the Moon on 7th August 1787 at 3 0’clock in the morning” by John Russell, the noted astronomer.

A drawing by John Flaxman, the sculptor.

James Stanier Clarke also included portraits he had executed of people in his circle in his Friendship Book.


Here, above, is one of Princess Caroline of Brunswick, dating from 1795.

And this next portrait, shown below,  is the one that has caused all the interest in this tiny book…for it purports to be of Jane Austen, taken when she met James Stanier Clarke on her visit to Carlton House, the London home of the Prince Regent. The negotiations regarding the dedication of Emma to the Prince regent had resulted in her being invited to view the Library there, and her visit took place on the 13th November, 1815.

James Stanier Clarke appears to have been quite smitten with Miss Austen and a correspondence between them lasted for a little while. Till frankly, Jane Austen could endure his suggestions for literary composition no longer. Her frustration with her correspondent took its revenge in her Plan of a Novel According to Hints from Various Quarters(1816).Their correspondence subsequently drew to a halt….

The portrait is not dated or named,but speculation has arisen that it might be Jane Austen, as she appeared on that visit.

Sadly, the National Portrait Gallery- which owns Cassandra Austen’s slight watercolour of Jane Austen, the only authenticated portrait showing her face- have steadfastly refused to authenticate the watercolour as being an image of Jane Austen. But others have been convinced by it. Go here to read a detailed discussion of the similarities between this portrait and the authenticated version. I would love to think that this stylishly dressed woman was Jane Austen, in her glad rags visiting the palace….

But , it seems that the current market is still not wholly convinced and the book failed to sell. It was given a pre-auction estimate of £20,000 -£50,000, and the highest bid received was for £28,000. Obviously, it failed to reach its fixed reserve. Frankly I would love to own this book for all its contents, not just the supposed picture of Jane Austen. And I am slighty puzzled as to why it hasn’t been bought by one of the great London museums bearing in mind it contains so many other interesting and less controversial items.

So, yet again we will have to wait and see what eventually happens to this intriguing book. I wonder if a facsimile edition has ever been considered. An annotated facsimile would be something to behold, don’t you think? I’d buy that in an instant!

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