There’s been a lot of controversy recently about a portrait of Jane Austen which may, or may not, have been drawn from life. When I first heard about it I was sceptical for many reasons, the main ones being that the portrait is not mentioned in documents of the time, eg family letters, and that the inscription on the back reads Miss Jane Austin, not Austen. The consensus of opinion seemed to be that it was an imaginary portrait, ie one drawn by a fan who had never met Jane, and that it had probably been done many years after Jane’s death. But Dr Paula Byrne felt it could have been drawn in Jane’s lifetime, by someone who knew her, and a BBC programme, “Jane Austen, the Unseen Portrait”, set out to investigate the theory.
I tuned in with the expectation of being entertained and nothing more. However, against my expectations, I found myself being won over to some degree by the arguments in the documentary. Whilst there is no direct evidence that the portrait was indeed drawn from life – no handy letter discovered which said, Dear Cassandra, This afternoon I sat for my portrait – I found the theory put forward interesting, at the very least, and surprisingly compelling. So much so that I would like to see further investigation undertaken because I think it is actually possible that the portrait was drawn from life.
Much of the evidence was circumstantial and I’ll briefly summarise it for those who didn’t catch the programme (which can be seen again here http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b018nz2x/Jane_Austen_The_Unseen_Portrait/ ) My own observations are in brackets.
1) The costume in the portrait is right for the period. (This doesn’t mean very much, since it would be easy for the artist to copy a fashion plate from the era, but if the costume had been wrong then it would have disproved the theory very quickly.)
2) The type of white ink used for the highlights was used as a matter of course in 1811 but had fallen out of favour by 1869. (This again doesn’t mean a lot but it helps the theory that it was drawn in Austen's lifetime rather than working against it.)
3) There is a family resemblance to other Austens of whom we have verified portraits. (Again, an artist drawing Jane from their imagination could have looked at these and made their portrait a good match. It’s another piece of evidence which doesn’t prove anything but seems to help rather than hinder the theory. However, one thing I found very interesting was that the woman in the portrait is noticeably very tall and slim, much more so than in the authenticated portrait of Jane by her sister Cassandra, and I see no reason for an artist drawing from imagination to do this. Yet it is accurate, because judging from a pelisse worn by Jane Austen – which has been authenticated – she was very tall and slim, about 5’8” and thinner than Kate Moss. So this fact seemed very suggestive to me and started to make me think that maybe, just maybe, the artist had met Jane.)
4) The misspelling of Austen as
(a big stumbling block for me to begin with) was shown to be a common misspelling of her name at the time by various people who knew the Austens. But the thing that convinced me absolutely that the misspelling was not a sign of inauthenticity was that her name was spelt as Austin on one of her royalty cheques. The cheque had been endorsed with the name Jane Austin (with an i) in Jane’s own handwriting. (Perhaps I should say, in what appeared to be Jane’s writing, as there were no tests done on the handwriting.) Austin
5) The church in the background has been identified as St Margaret’s.
The St Margaret’s connection led to Eliza Chute, who knew the Austen family. She married at St Margaret’s, meaning the church had significance for her. She lived close to it in
– at one point in the programme it said that she had a view of St Margaret’s from her window, which means it is possible that Jane sat for her portrait in Eliza’s home – and she was a talented amateur artist. This led to the speculation that she could have painted the portrait. London
And this is where, for me, the programme started to get really interesting. The Austen portrait is graphite on vellum, a technique which had fallen out of favour at the start of the eighteenth century. It was therefore a curious technique to use at the time the portrait was executed because it was already about a hundred years out of date, but it is known that Eliza Chute used this technique in a portrait of her sister. There are more details of this here: http://smithandgosling.wordpress.com/ This link also has an image of the portrait – I didn’t post one myself because I know that some bloggers have been asked to remove the image for copyright reasons.
I was by this time so far persuaded that I thought it at least possible that the portrait was a genuine likeness of Jane, drawn from life, and to want to know more. Sadly, there were no conversations with art experts about the likelihood of it being by Eliza Chute, nor were there any definite datings of the vellum, ink and graphite. Both of these areas need further exploration.
There were / are some more problems, of course. Why would Jane sit for a portrait? And why is there no mention of the portrait in any family letters?
From a purely speculative point of view, the first question is not so difficult. Jane could have wanted to commemorate her success as an author. Or there could have been a more tragic reason. She could have suspected she was dying and wanted to give a portrait to Cassandra as a keepsake.
The second question is more difficult. Why, if it is a genuine portrait of Jane drawn from life, has there been no mention of it in family letters or other documents. What happened to it after it was drawn? How did it end up in the estate of an MP (my memory of the programme is a little hazy here, I need to rewatch it, but if memory serves it came from the estate of an MP).
Again from a purely speculative point of view I think it is at least possible that the portrait was mentioned in letters which Cassandra burned. In addition, if the portrait was drawn as a keepsake for Cassandra, then the sisters might never have told anyone else about it, and might have asked Eliza Chute not to mention it; or indeed Eliza might have mentioned it but this fact might never have been recorded, or been lost down the centuries.
So although I won’t go so far as to say that I’m convinced that this portrait was drawn from life, or that it was drawn by Eliza Chute, I’m no longer convinced that it wasn’t. Either way, it was an interesting programme and one which will not doubt keep Austen fans arguing for a long time to come.