Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Jane Austen, The Unseen Portrait

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 ) 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 Austin (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.)

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 London – 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.

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: 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.


Susie Vereker said...

Interesting. In previous BBC programmes of this nature, experts consulted were all art historians, and they were keen to study the provenance of the picture in question. Therefore relations/connections of whoever owned it before should have been sought. It wasn't that long ago that he died, if I remember correctly.
Amazed that JA was so tall, btw. Her frocks in the JA house don't look that long, but then they probably were not hers.

Jo Beverley said...

Great overview, Mandy.

The "small nose" description by the brother is a bit of a hurdle though, and no one managed to explain that away.

Susie, good point about the provenance. That was left hanging.

About why the portrait, if real, seemed to be unknown to the family, I wonder if they would have disapproved. I have a low opinion of Jane's mother and sister, who I judge to have been likely to depress any pretensions.

If Eliza Chute wanted to do the portrait and keep it for herself, Jane may have been content with that. I liked the mention that she wrote of possibly one day having a portrait on display. I agree that she thoroughly enjoyed publication and money of her own and would have enjoyed going onto fame and glory, given the chance.

I vote for her being delighted to have the portrait done, but sadly deciding not to let Cassandra know, because she'd never hear the end of it.


Ellie said...

On the question of provenance, I've posted some speculation here as to how it may have landed up in the possession of John Foster. It could be rubbish of course...
I wonder whether any work is being done on provenance?

Jane Odiwe said...

It was a very interesting programme which threw up many questions.
The portrait is certainly a mystery, and although on first viewing I would agree there are Austen characteristics, it doesn't quite fit the description left to us by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh: In complexion she was a clear brunette with a rich colour; she had full round cheeks, with mouth and nose small and well formed, bright hazel eyes, and brown hair forming natural curls close round her face.
Her full round cheeks can also be glimpsed in Cassandra's back view portrait. (You can see this image on google.)
The painting seems more symbolic to me than one drawn from life-the cat on the table doesn't look as if it's drawn from life, and the curtain seems to suggest a composition device.
I shall look forward to further developments-an intriguing drawing!

Amanda said...

Susie, I think her height is an educated guess rather than actual fact, and although clothes are suggestive they're not an absolute fact. But I certainly found it suggestive.

Jo, I know what you mean about the "small nose" although the opinion offered in the programme was that "small" is relative and that her mother had a larger nose.

Ellie, those are interesting thoughts on the provenance. I hope more work is being done and that it leads somewhere conclusive, either to show that this was drawn from life or it wasn't.

Jane, it occurred to me that the portrait might have been drawn when Jane was ill and that her illness might account for the lack of rounded cheeks, also her nose would appear more prominent if she was losing weight. As for the cat, I agree it's symbolic, but symbols were added to portraits drawn from life. I think the curtain suggests the stage as it was often used as a backdrop for actors, and of course Jane wrote family plays. I'm not trying to argue for it being drawn from life, by the way, just exploring possibilities. Unluckily, possibilities seem to be all we have to go on.

But I'd be interested to know what you, as an artist, think of the proportions of the face. Are they the same as those in Cassandra's portrait?

Jane Odiwe said...

I think Cassandra's face is probably broader and shorter, but then we don't really know how accurate her drawing is really. One thing seems clear-as much as we'd love to have 'the' picture of Jane Austen, that image is as elusive as ever.
Another description by her niece Caroline proclaimed her to be pretty: As to my aunt's personal appearance, hers was the first face I can remember thinking pretty. Her face was rather round than long, she had a bright, but not a pink colour a clear brown complexion, and very good hazel eyes. Her hair, a darkish brown, curled naturally, it was in short curls around her face. She always wore a cap.

I understand completely the quest for an image of a strong woman, or for a more substantial portrait of Jane, but I think the portrait discussed in the new documentary is not what could be described as pretty even giving illness and age its explanation, and the nose and face are rather long. It's just my opinion, of course, and we all have our image of what she looked like in our heads. A fascinating debate!

Jane Odiwe said...

It's true that no two artists would depict the same sitter alike-I'm not saying it isn't Jane Austen, it could well be-it's just that it doesn't seem to fit the descriptions or bear too much resemblance to Cassandra's portrait. I read somewhere that Paula Byrne had suggested a lot was edited out of the programme-perhaps she will answer more questions in her book, which I know isn't just about this portrait-I will certainly be intrigued to read it, and would love to know more. Unfortunately, whilst the television episode was compelling, it threw up lots more questions, and I hope more research will be done.
As for portraits of Jane Austen-I personally enjoy them all!

Anonymous said...

About the 'small' nose. As you know, the precise meanings of words can shift over time. Just read Henry Tilney's fulminations on the word 'nice'! And if you check the online 1828 Webster Dictionary of the English Language, you'll see something interesting. The very first, primary definition given for the world 'small' has nothing to do with being 'little in size', but rather 'narrow', 'slender', or 'fine'! The word 'smal' still has that meaning (and no other) in a number of Germanic languages.

I find that the fact that Eliza Chute used the same long-out-of-fashion graphite on vellum technique for her sister's portrait, and its great similarity in the style and composition to Byrne's, radically increases the chance Chute was indeed responsible for the Byrne portrait. But this in no way implies that Jane Austen "sat" for it, that it was done with her knowledge - or even in her lifetime! Eliza Chute knew Austen quite well to have drawn her from memory - perhaps as a tribute soon after her death, when her authorship of the popular novels was finally made public.


Amanda said...

Good point about the meaning of small

Arnie Perlstein said...

My latest blog post on this hot topic:

Cheers, ARNIE
Weston, Florida

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