Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Jane Austen 200 and the Mystery of the Missing Portrait

In January 1817 Jane Austen began work on her latest novel, Sanditon. On 18 March she laid down her pen. She would not return to her novel again. Four months later, exactly 200 years ago today, at the age of 41, Jane Austen died at a house in Winchester.

House in Winchester where Jane Austen died

In her lifetime Austen completed six full-length novels. The four already published had been moderately successful, while Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were not yet published at all. ‘Short and easy will be the task of the mere biographer. A life of usefulness, literature, and religion, was not by any means a life of event,’ wrote Jane’s brother Henry condescendingly in his Biographical Notice which accompanied the publication of her final two novels six months after she died.

How different it is now. Jane Austen is very big business indeed. Her novels have spawned a lucrative global industry of films, books and merchandise worth billions. While her fame grew incrementally for the first hundred and fifty years or so, after the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice hit the small screen in 1995 and had a large percentage of the female viewing audience entranced by the image of Colin Firth in a wet shirt, the income generated by Brand Austen hit the stratosphere and its been rising ever since.

In this, the 200 year bicentenary of her death, the whole world has gone utterly Austen mad.

For Brand Austen, the lack of certainty about Jane’s appearance is an advantage. If we don’t have a reliable portrait of her then Austen can be shaped into whatever image we like. And what Brand Austen would like her to be, above all, is attractive. Image is everything.

Ideally for the Brand, Jane Austen would look like Jennifer Ehle’s Elizabeth Bennet, perhaps with a dash of Gwyneth Paltrow and a sprinkling of Anne Hathaway, or a soupçon of Anna Chancellor (who happens to be descended from Jane’s brother, Edward Austen) added to the mix. She would definitely be pretty. Without a definitive image, Jane Austen can be moulded to fit the Brand.

L'Amiable Jane
Take the ubiquitous silhouette of Jane Austen which adorns everything from the sign outside the Jane Austen House Museum to the £2.00 coin issued by the Royal Mint to commemorate the bicentenary. Yes, its a lovely image of a Regency woman. No, its not Jane Austen. There is nothing about the figure of the woman in this silhouette which accords with what we know about Austen, who was tall and very thin. There is no provenance for the picture at all, it just turned up in a second edition of Mansfield Park with the words L'Amiable Jane written above it.

The National Portrait Gallery bought the silhouette in the 1940s from Arthur Rogers, a dealer in rare books based in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. Rogers had bought it from another dealer, Archie Miles of Leeds who had picked up the book a few years before, possibly from a house in Bath, although Miles was not entirely sure about this.

But it’s easy to see why the silhouette of L’Amiable Jane remains in popular use. Aside from the fact that it is out of copyright and therefore can be freely used, it depicts an elegant and attractive Regency woman. The image fits Brand Austen like a silk glove.

For the bicentenary year, a series of events was launched to commemorate Austen's life and her work. In Hampshire the celebration of Austen's life and talent was launched under the aegis of Jane Austen 200 an impressive partnership of organisations including Hampshire County Council, Jane Austen House Museum, Chawton House Library, the Jane Austen Society among others. You can find the complete list of Partners on the Jane Austen 200 website HERE.

Winchester Discovery Centre

Last month I visited the exhibition which forms the centrepiece of the commemorations - The Mysterious Miss Austen, which opened on 13 May at Winchester Discovery Centre and runs for a few more days until 24 July 2017. At the centre of the exhibition are six portraits claimed to be of Jane Austen, 'together under one roof for the very first time'.

The six portraits are the watercolour of Jane Austen sitting with her back to us, the sketch said to have been drawn by Cassandra Austen owned by the NPG, the silhouette of L'Amiable Jane mentioned above and also owned by the NPG, the James Andrews portrait taken from the Cassandra sketch, the Byrne Portrait and the portrait contained in James Stanier Clarke's Friendship Book. (You can read a summary of all these pictures on my blogpage Portraits of Jane Austen HERE).

Byrne Portrait

Stanier Clarke Portrait

The James  -Andrews Portrait

And yet the Rice Portrait was conspicuous by its absence. There was no image of the portrait, no reference to it. It is not mentioned. For the purposes of this exhibition, the Rice Portrait does not exist.

The Rice Portrait

Towards the end of the exhibition is a display cabinet containing the Royal Mint commemorative coins. The booklet which accompanies the coins is not displayed. Why might this be I wonder? Could it be because the image of Jane Austen which is used by the Royal Mint is a reproduction of the Rice Portrait?

Royal Mint Booklet

For eighty years debate has raged about whether the Rice Portrait portrays a young Jane Austen. Books have been written about it, newspaper articles and journals have discussed it. It has been used on book covers, in magazines and elsewhere.

I checked with the owner, Mrs Rice, whether she had been asked for her picture to be included and she confirmed that no-one had contacted her about it and that, had she been asked, she would have been delighted to have her portrait of Austen included in the exhibition. The impression which has been given over the years is that the owners of the Rice Portrait are keeping their picture out of sight. In fact nothing could be further from the truth.

The Mysterious Miss Austen exhibition is jointly curated by Louise West, former curator of Jane Austen's House Museum and by Austen academic Professor Kathryn Sutherland. It is no secret that Professor Sutherland is opposed to the Rice Portrait.

In July 2014 Kathryn Sutherland, in conjunction with another vociferous opponent of the Rice Portrait, journalist and producer Henrietta Foster, wrote a piece for the Times Literary Supplement suggesting that the Rice Portrait was a nineteenth century fake. I wrote a rebuttal to their claim which you can read HERE and HERE. Of course Professor Sutherland is perfectly entitled to argue against the Rice Portrait just as I am entitled to disagree with her.

However to omit any reference to the Rice Portrait at all in an exhibition which purports to bring together the known portraits of Jane Austen, is something else entirely. This picture, irrespective of one's personal opinion, has at least as much claim to be in the exhibition as any of the others. It is disingenuous to claim that the exhibition collects all the known portraits claiming to be Austen and leave this one out, to not even reference it.

That Professor Sutherland has chosen to do so does a great disservice to interested members of the public who should be given the opportunity to draw their own conclusions. For her to act as gate-keeper and not even acknowledge this picture's existence, let alone the controversy which surrounds it, is not acceptable in my view. It reveals a partisan approach and suggests she has allowed her personal animosity to this picture to outweigh scholarly considerations of balanced arguments and debate.

At the end of the exhibition it was clear to me that the only mystery at The Mysterious Miss Austen was why the Rice Portrait, one of the most important portraits relating to Jane Austen, had not only not been included, it had been airbrushed out entirely.

Jane Austen's house at Chawton
Jane Austen has been mediated through two hundred years of misinformation and image manipulation. How sad that in this 200 year anniversary of her death, when Jane Austen is celebrated, discussed and debated more than ever before, that this beautiful portrait has been excluded from exhibitions and denied even a place in the story of Jane Austen's image.

I have no doubt very soon this picture will be acknowledged as being a portrait of Jane Austen in her youth, and that those who sought to distort the truth will find themselves on the wrong side of history.

The only thing I feel I can do to honour the memory of Jane Austen is to continue to fight for the truth to be told. I hope others will do the same, for 'we have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be' (Mansfield Park).

RIP Jane Austen 16/12/1775 - 18/07/1817