Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Jane Austen, The Rice Portrait and the National Portrait Gallery

“A mistake repeated more than once is a decision” Paulo Coelho

Is the Rice Portrait truly a portrait of a young Jane Austen?

It is a question which has been the subject of intense debate and disagreement between its supporters and detractors, a debate which has raged on for decades.

In recent years a steady flow of evidence has emerged supporting the long held belief of the portrait’s owners that the Rice Portrait is genuine. And yet the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) continues to deny that the portrait is either of Jane Austen or by Ozias Humphry, insisting that it dates from the early nineteenth century. They justify this on the grounds of the dating of the costume and the stamp on the back of the canvas, notwithstanding the evidence that has been produced demonstrating that both dress and stamp could potentially date to before 1800. Why is there such reluctance on the part of the NPG to accept any of this new evidence? 

Why does the NPG remain so implacably opposed to this portrait being a picture of the young Jane Austen?

Robert Chapman and the National Portrait Gallery

In the 1930s Austen studies were dominated by Oxford scholar Robert (RW) Chapman. The Director of the National Portrait Gallery was Sir Henry Hake and it is clear from reading the archives at the NPG that the two were working together on the subject of the Rice Portrait or the Zoffany as it was then known.

RW Chapman
In 1931/32 Henry Hake tried to acquire the portrait for the NPG. Following the failed attempt to purchase the portrait, Robert Chapman wrote in a letter to Henry Hake dated 26 October 1932: ‘I never feel happy about this picture, and I know that R.A. Austen-Leigh is very sceptical.’ He continues: ‘But it is possible that it may have been commissioned, e.g. by James Leigh Perrot, Jane Austen’s mother’s brother who was a man of wealth living, for the most part, in Bath’. But as Chapman said himself, he was no iconographer.

In 1939 Chapman wrote to Hake: ‘I have finished a small book on Jane Austen, which collects the facts. But I am not competent to write on the Portraits, being (as Jane says) that I never saw either, and for other reasons.’

Henry Hake
Director of the NPG
Chapman was also no fashion expert. He relied on the opinion of Charles Kingsley Adams of the NPG (later the Director) who reported in 1941 that the dress the girl in the portrait was wearing must date to after 1805 on the basis of the puffed sleeves and high waistline. The assessment gave Robert Chapman the ammunition he needed to justify his antipathy towards the portrait.

In 1948, immediately after the NPG purchased the ‘Cassandra scribble of her sister’ as Hake called it, Chapman unequivocally declared in his Jane Austen Facts and Problems that the Rice portrait ‘had a pedigree that any layman might think watertight; but it cannot be Jane Austen. It is a portrait of a young girl which can be dated by the costume to about 1805 (when J.A. was thirty) or later.’

The timing, immediately after the NPG had acquired the small portrait of Austen, cannot have been coincidence. The Rice family had refused to sell their portrait to the Gallery and all the latter had managed to purchase was a small, inferior amateur drawing.

From this point on, the NPG had a motive for downplaying any claim by the Rice family that their portrait was genuine and to talk up their own picture which they had swiftly claimed was the only authentic portrait of the novelist. Meanwhile Chapman’s assessment, based solely on the flawed judgement of CK Adams, continued to be relied upon and given a weight far greater than it deserved.

Chapman’s 1948 assessment that ‘it cannot be Jane Austen’ was cited by the Jane Austen Society in 1973 when they announced they believed the portrait was not of the novelist.  

Jane Austen Society Report 1973

But in March 1998 the Chairman of the Jane Austen Society, Brian Southam, wrote to the Director of the NPG about the portrait. He said:

The Jane Austen Society has itself considered the question of the authenticity of the Rice/Zoffany portrait on several occasions in the past, each time coming to a negative verdict. It has to be said, however, that the Society possessed no expertise in the history of portraiture, fashion and other relevant factors, and I do not think that anyone would nowadays attach much weight to these past pronouncements.

Yet Robert Chapman’s assessment continued to influence the debate about the portrait. Even as late as 2007 when the portrait failed to sell at auction (of which more later) press reports at the time repeatedly cited the declaration made by Chapman way back in 1948, that the style of the dress did not match the date of the portrait.

That the opinion of one man who was not even in possession of the correct facts at the time – Chapman thought that the portrait was by Zoffany, and that it may have been commissioned by James Leigh-Perrot and painted in Bath – was still being quoted as evidence over sixty years later is quite incredible.  

Deirdre Le Faye and the National Portrait Gallery
Deirdre Le Faye, an administrator at the British Museum, joined the Jane Austen Society in the 1960s and began researching Jane Austen in earnest in the 1970s.

In many ways Le Faye assumed the mantle of RW Chapman. Like him, she dominated debate about Austen for decades and assumed a proprietary interest in the novelist. Like Chapman, she is also dogmatic in her opinions and she is fiercely critical of anyone who disagrees with her.

In April 1983 Le Faye was researching the Rice Portrait and wrote to John Kerslake at the NPG. She  described herself as a ‘devoted member of the Jane Austen Society’ and explained that she was ‘trying to find another little girl in the prolific Austen family to whom the picture can be correctly related.’ Her opinion of the Rice Portrait was clearly already fixed: ‘I don’t for a moment believe it is a portrait of JA the authoress,’ she said.

By now, however, John Kerslake had retired and Richard Walker, archivist at the NPG, replied instead. He  reiterated the opinion of Madeleine Ginsberg of the V&A that the puffed sleeves and high waist on the dress dated the portrait to around 1805 – 1810. Le Faye replied that this suited her line of research very well. Of Henry Rice she said condescendingly: 

He is now prepared to accept that the picture can't be Zoffany, but still clings to the idea that it is of the genuine Jane Austen; he now considers it might be by Ozias Humphry, because Humphry had Kentish connections and undoubtedly did paint the portrait of Jane's great-uncle Francis Austen which is presently in the Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield. This, however, seems to me an equally unlikely attribution. 

In October 1993, Richard Walker, now retired, wrote to Le Faye again. He had been reading her revised edition of Jane Austen A Family Record and was interested to note that she had not mentioned the Rice Portrait. ‘I imagine, like me, you do not wholeheartedly believe in it,’ he wrote. But he concluded his letter: ‘I think the costume experts have been over-confident and the dress she wears could be of the 1790s – but I am still not convinced she is Jane.’

In 1996 Deirdre Le Faye published the results of her research. In her article, published in The Book Collector, Le Faye misled her readers by labelling four miniature portraits as specific female members of the Austen family when in fact only one of the portraits, that of Mrs Jane Campion, was identified - by a piece of paper in the back of the miniature on which was written ‘Jane Austen who married William Campion’ and the name WS Lethbridge together with an address in the Strand. Two years later Richard Walker wrote to Le Faye: ‘I am interested in the Lethbridge idea. He usually signed and dated on the back of the ivory and I imagine the Kippington miniatures are so inscribed.’ None of the miniatures were so inscribed. If Le Faye wrote to tell him so, there is no record of this letter in the NPG archives. Her thesis was that the portrait is of a distant relative of Jane Austen's, Mary Anne Campion, and was painted by Matthew William Peters. Le Faye presented no documentary evidence to support her theory. 

Nevertheless, Deirdre Le Faye’s article in The Book Collector received the enthusiastic approval of the 18th Century Curator at the National Portrait Gallery. Jacob Simon had joined the NPG in 1983 and by the 1990s it is clear from the documents in the Heinz Archive at the NPG that Jacob Simon and Deirdre Le Faye had joined forces in their opposition to the picture.

Simon wrote to Le Faye in September 1996: ‘Your article is brilliant - just what is wanted – and must be published. Do keep me informed.’ A few months later in January 1997 he wrote, ‘Delighted to see your article on Jane Austen in published form. Congratulations. I shall make sure that my colleagues are aware of your excellent work. And it will be available to future enquirers, of course.’

Deirdre Le Faye's postcard to the NPG
In October 1997 Deirdre Le Faye wrote a postcard to Jacob Simon enclosing correspondence from Richard Wheeler who had been campaigning in favour of the picture. On the front of the postcard were cartoon images from Wind in the Willows showing Toad, Badger, Ratty and Mole. On the back she wrote: ‘I find the Toad family portraits more convincing!’

In 2001 Deirdre Le Faye, having retired from the British Museum, wrote to Jacob Simon telling him that ‘research flourishes’. She was, she said, 
‘determined to bring your correct dating to the attention of the literary world upon every possible occasion!’

On 18 October 2003 an article appeared in The Times newspaper by Jack Malvern reporting that the portrait was indeed of Jane Austen. The article reported that this was supported by the opinions of Conall Macfarlane of Christie’s who believed the portrait was by Ozias Humphry; Regency costume collectors Lillian and Ted Williams who believed the costume dated to the eighteenth century; and Austen expert Dr Marilyn Butler, who pointed out that there were several possible references to the portrait in Austen’s writing.

Deirdre Le Faye immediately wrote to Conall Macfarlane, disputing his assessment. He replied on 23 October 2003:

Thank you for your letter of 20th October with the enclosures. I knew of Dr Jacob Simon’s theories about the dress depicted in the Rice portrait.

I am afraid I am not entering the lists regarding the sitter in the picture which I will leave to others better placed than I. My only contribution was to propose the attribution to Ozias Humphrey [sic], which seems to have gained general approval subsequently.

Le Faye wrote back to him:

Dr Simon as befits an impartial curator at one of the national galleries, is concerned only with the facts regarding the dating of the canvas; it is Mr Rice and his family, with a financial interest in the portrait, who invent theories regarding the dress of the sitter and like to claim the picture is by Ozias Humphrey [sic]. My years of likewise impartial research into the Austen family background have convinced me that the sitter is Mary Anne Campion.

On the enclosed copy of her letter to Conall Macfarlane which she sent to the NPG she wrote ‘Jacob: I thought CMacf’s muddle-headed letter deserved a clarifying response. Le Faye also sent a postcard to Jacob Simon on which she wrote: ‘Enclosed copy for your interest/amusement  - do you know this Conal MacF? I assume he must be a new recruit to Christie’s, unaware of the background controversy.’  

In fact Conall Macfarlane, who studied at the V&A, had been at Christie’s since the 1970s and had been a Director since 1991. But Le Faye’s comment is instructive – she clearly assumed that anyone who knew about the portrait’s history would not have the temerity to disagree with her or with Jacob Simon of the NPG.

Le Faye also launched a scathing criticism of Dr Butler, and claimed that she had ‘allowed her friendship with the owner of this picture to outweigh considerations of scholarly impartiality when assessing evidence.’ A remarkable statement, in the light of Le Faye’s longstanding and ongoing campaign against this portrait, which has been anything but impartial.

Deirdre Le Faye continues to maintain that the portrait is of Mary Anne Campion and that it was painted by Matthew William Peters. In her latest edition of her Chronology of Jane Austen and her Family, published in 2013, she presents her theory as if it were fact, and yet he only citation is her own article in The Book Collector. Her theory, supported by Jacob Simon, managed to gain some traction over the years, yet my own research has shown that the theory does not stand up to scrutiny.

It seems that, just as with Dr Robert Chapman, Deirdre Le Faye’s opinions were given more credit than was warranted, simply due to her stature in Austen circles.

Henry Rice and the National Portrait Gallery

Meanwhile, the owners of the portrait were initially oblivious, or at least inattentive, to criticism of their portrait.
Henry Rice

Edward Rice inherited the portrait from his father Henry Edward Harcourt Rice in 1943 and the painting hung at his home Dane Court until his death thirty years later. In 1973 Henry Rice inherited Dane Court on the death of his father, Edward. The entire contents of the house had been removed by Henry’s step-mother but she was unable to take the portrait which was entailed to him. Two years later Henry Rice sold Dane Court and he and his wife Anne moved to Guernsey, taking the portrait with them.

In 1983 Henry and Anne Rice returned to England. By now it was apparent that the portrait faced serious opposition and Henry began a campaign to prove that the portrait was indeed of Jane Austen the novelist. It was a fight which would continue for the rest of his life.

Henry Rice proposed that the portrait was not by Zoffany but by the lesser known artist Ozias Humphry which, as noted above, had also been suggested by Conall Macfarlane of Christie’s.

In 1985 the National Portrait Gallery published their directory, Regency Portraits, compiled by Richard Walker. In his book, Walker tried to keep a foot in both camps by stating that the portrait was by Ozias Humphry but that the dress dated it to around 1805. (This was not possible as Humphry was functionally blind by 1797.)

Richard Walker had been curator at the Palace of Westminster for 26 years and was also official art adviser to the Government from 1949 until 1976. For the following nine years he was employed at the National Portrait Gallery as cataloguer in the NPG archive. An unassuming man, Walker had a passion for cataloguing and research. He wrote to Henry Rice that he would try to be as impartial as possible and he seems to have been true to his word.  

Ozias Humphry
Despite having written to Deirdre Le Faye in 1983 that the costume experts dated the portrait to after 1805, Richard Walker wrote to Madeleine Marsh in March 1985 that he thought she was ‘on the right track with the attribution to Ozias Humphry. It fits very well with his style of painting and your research shows that he would have been a likely artist to have been employed by the family.’

Walker was apparently convinced by BOTH the costume experts’ opinion AND Henry Rice's research which explains his contradictory entry in Regency Portraits that year.

In December 1985 Richard Walker visited Henry Rice at his home to examine the portrait. Afterwards he wrote to thank Henry for the visit. He went on to say:

I must say I do think your research team has done admirable work and clearly we must all be less adamant in our opposition to her identification as Jane.  It looks as though there is a distinct possibility of the ‘experts’ being mistaken in rigorously brushing aside any suggestion that it should be earlier than 1800.

And as recorded above, in 1993 he told Deirdre Le Faye that he thought the costume could date to the 1790s. In a report, written in October 1993, Richard Walker wrote: ‘I myself, inexcusably dazzled by all these formidable authorities, accepted the costume objection and upheld it in my Regency Portraits of 1984.’  

He went on to note that a great deal of research had been carried out by Henry Rice with ‘the disconcerting result that the costume experts may well have been over-confident in their judgement.’

At some point in the 1980s, Henry Rice attended a meeting with Jacob Simon at the National Portrait Gallery to discuss the portrait. I have been unable to find any record of this in the Heinz Archive but according to the recollection of Henry’s widow, Anne Rice, the meeting did not go well. Henry Rice apparently took great offence at Jacob Simon’s opinion that the portrait was not of Jane Austen. From that point on it seems that the dispute became entrenched on both sides. This would perhaps explain why Jacob Simon went to such great lengths to oppose the portrait. 

In February 1994, art critic and curator Angus Stewart organised an exhibition at Olympia, London, under the title 'Jane Austen and her Family'. The exhibition gathered together a large array of artefacts, paintings and documents relating to Jane Austen's life and included the Rice Portrait, which also featured on the promotional leaflet for the exhibition. Angus Stewart invited Jacob Simon to examine the portrait prior to it going on display. According to Angus Stewart, his invitation to examine the portrait was not taken up and although Jacob Simon did visit the exhibition, he failed to scrutinise the portrait in any detail and gave it only cursory attention. 

In April 1998 Jacob Simon published a letter in the Times Literary Supplement (TLS) arguing that the costume dated the portrait to 1800-1810. He wrote that ‘the Gallery has no axe to grind when it comes to the Rice portrait – only a search for truth based on sound evidence’. Yet he encouraged Aileen Ribeiro at the Courtauld Institute to write in opposition to the portrait, he supported Deirdre Le Faye in her opposition to the picture and he began researching any evidence which would disprove it was Jane Austen. These letters can all be viewed in the Heinz Archive at the NPG.

Then, on 18 December 1998, another letter from Jacob Simon was published in the TLS which seemed, on face value, to finish the argument.

In 1986 the backing of the portrait had been removed and had revealed a stamp on the linen which read Wm Legg, High Holbourn 1 Linen. Jacob Simon announced that there was indeed a William Legg trading as an artists colourman at 163 High Holborn – but that he was only trading there from 1801 until 1806  -  therefore the canvas must date to after 1801.

Letters immediately followed in the TLS from supporters of the portrait, pointing out that the paucity of records for the eighteenth century meant Jacob Simon could not be certain that there was no William Legg trading in High Holborn prior to this date. Nevertheless the stamp convinced Richard Walker.

On 15 January 1999 he wrote to Jacob Simon:

I have only just got round to reading your letter to the TLS about the Rice Portrait and hasten to congratulate you on finally scotching this sorry tale. As evidence the Wm. Legg stamp seems conclusive and, as you say, the identification with Jane can now be eliminated.

I do hope this is the last we shall hear about her but I am afraid the opposition is pretty obstinate and I have no doubt she will surface again in the millennium.

Into the Millennium - the 2007 Auction

In 1995, Henry Rice wanted to send the portrait to the USA for an Austen exhibition. In order to leave the country, the portrait required an export licence. A temporary export licence was granted, on the advice of the NPG. 

In 2001, Henry again wanted to send the portrait to the USA and approached the NPG. An unsigned draft of a letter to Henry Rice from the NPG, dated 3 August 2001, referred to the Gallery's position 'should you wish to apply for an export licence for your putative portrait of Jane Austen'. The NPG wrote that they were still of the opinion that there was insufficient evidence that the portrait was of Jane Austen, and concluded on the grounds of ‘stylistic features’ and the William Legg stamp on the reverse that 'the evidence is still not sufficiently conclusive and thus the identity of the sitter remains unresolved.' 

Another export licence was granted, and this time the licence that was granted was permanent. This export licence remains valid to this day.

'L'amiable Jane silhouette
On 9 November 2004, Sandy Nairne, Director of the NPG, reaffirmed their position in a letter to Brian Southam, chairman of the Jane Austen Society, stating that ‘It is not a portrait that at this time we would wish to pursue for acquisition.’ He added ‘You may have noted that in addition to the sketch by Cassandra, we currently have on view a silhouette believed to be of Jane Austin [sic] and to have been cut from the life.’ This, despite the fact that the evidence for the silhouette being of Jane Austen is thinner than the paper from which it is cut. (The silhouette is no longer on display.)

So that, it seemed, was that. The National Portrait Gallery, despite apparently never having closely examined the picture, had decided that the Rice Portrait was not of Jane Austen and had washed their hands of the picture for good. Henry Rice was now free to sell the portrait wherever he chose and to whomever he liked. 

Which makes what happened three years later quite extraordinary.

In 2007, Henry Rice put the portrait up for sale at auction with Christie’s of New York. Christie’s published a press release on 23 March 2007 describing the portrait as of Jane Austen by Ozias Humphry. They cited  the support of Austen scholar Claudia Johnson and of Brian Southam, chairman of the Jane Austen Society. Christie’s concluded:

Christie’s supports the Rice portrait as a true depiction of Jane Austen and is honored to have been chosen by the family to organize a public auction – and to publicly exhibit the painting in New York City.

Christie's, New York

Christie's auction was due to take place on 19 April 2007. 

The announcement generated another flurry of interest from the media. It also generated a flurry of internal emails at the National Portrait Gallery, where there was some discussion as to how to handle the publicity. On 23 March 2007 the press officer, Neil Evans, emailed Dr. Lucy Peltz, (Jacob Simon’s colleague and Curator of 18th Century Collections) and Jacob Simon, asking whether Christie’s had sought authentication of the portrait since 1994 (when the portrait was first granted an export licence and was sent to New York). Both confirmed that they had not been contacted by Christie’s during that time.

Jacob Simon also commented: ‘The message should be that we are quite open about the past history but that we do not comment on portraits while on the market.’

Lucy Peltz wrote on 24 March 2007 -  any reiterations of our past position could influence the value of the painting and the credibility of the auctioneers. She went on to say ‘we feel we cannot say anything further at this point as our institutional comments could prejudice the outcome of the sale.’

On 29 March 2007, Neil Evans sent another internal email explaining that BBC Radio Four’s PM Programme wanted to do an item on the Jane Austen portrait and wanted the views of the NPG. Evans reported that he had explained to BBC Radio Four that: ‘it was not our policy to speak about a portrait coming up for sale where we do not have a current interest.’Jacob Simon replied:‘I would not answer questions relating to the sale of the portrait which is not our business.’So, everyone seems clear – the NPG should not and would not comment on a portrait which was on the market as any such comment could affect the sale. As Lucy Peltz had asserted, a reiteration of the NPG’s past position could ‘influence the value of the painting and the credibility of the auctioneers’.  

And yet just one week before the sale was due to take place, Jacob Simon, apparently without invitation from the auctioneers, did exactly that.

On Thursday 12 April 2007, Jacob Simon emailed Christie’s Auction House in New York at 16.47 in the afternoon. His email read:

            Subject: Jane Austen

Dear Mr. Hall

William Legg is mentioned in the catalogue entry of your forthcoming Old Master Paintings sale on 19 April of the portrait described as the Rice portrait of Jane Austen, lot 120. I would like to draw your attention to new research on William Legg, which is now publicly available as part of the Directory of artists’ suppliers and colourmen, 1650 -1939 on the Gallery website at National Portrait Gallery/Research/Artists’ Suppliers/ Directory. The text of this entry is given below. I propose to communicate this research to the Times Literary Supplement where previous discussion has taken place on the dating of the portrait and its impact on the putative claims of the portrait to represent Jane Austen.

I am copying this e-mail to Piers Davies

Yours sincerely

Jacob Simon
Chief Curator
National Portrait Gallery

The research to which Jacob Simon was referring concerned William Legg of Reading and the birth records for his children which proved conclusively that Legg was definitely living in Reading until 1801.

However, Jacob Simon did not explain in his communication with Christie’s, nor in his article subsequently published in the TLS, that the stamp on the Rice Portrait differs from the other known stamps for William Legg of Reading. The Rice stamp reads Wm Legg whereas the other known stamps are for ‘W&J Legg’ and it also spells Holbourn differently, with a 'u'. It is by no means conclusive, therefore, that the stamps belong to the same person. 

The stamp on the Rice Portrait (right) is not the same
as the other known stamps for William Legg of Reading

The case for William Legg of Reading being responsible for the linen stamp on the Rice Portrait was thus not as strong as Jacob Simon had suggested. And even if it were, what was Jacob Simon’s motivation for interfering in a private sale which was nothing to do with the NPG and contrary to their stated policy of making no comment on a sale in which they had no current interest?

Jacob Simon must have known that this email put Christie’s in a very difficult position. If they ignored Simon’s email and the portrait was sold as a picture of Austen, if it later transpired that it was not as claimed then – as they had been put on notice of Jacob Simon’s latest research - any purchaser may well have had a legal case against the auctioneer. But if they informed Henry Rice of the email, which would inevitably have led to him cancelling the sale, then this would have resulted in some very awkward questions being asked as to why the sale had not gone ahead.

Is it not at least possible that Christie’s informed prospective buyers that to bid on the portrait would not be such a good idea in the light of this recent revelation?

As it was, Henry Rice knew nothing of the communication between Jacob Simon and Christie’s New York and the sale went ahead as scheduled on 19 April 2007. The portrait failed to meet the reserve and did not sell.

The failure of the 2007 auction was then subsequently used as evidence that the art world did not believe it to be a portrait of Jane Austen, not least by Jacob Simon himself. Less than a month after the failed auction, on 4 May 2007, Jacob Simon wrote to the TLS. His letter opened with: ‘The Rice portrait of Jane Austen as a girl which recently failed to sell at auction in New York…’ He did not mention his own involvement, in emailing Christie’s, yet he was willing, almost immediately, to take advantage of the failed auction to press his own point of view.

Not long after the failed New York sale Henry Rice had a heart attack. His wife Anne believes it was caused by the stress of the failure of the sale. He never fully recovered and died three years later. Reprehensibly, Deirdre Le Faye then used Henry Rice’s obituary in The Times to attack his belief that his portrait was genuinely a portrait of Jane Austen.

It was not until 2013, following a Freedom of Information request from the Rice family, that Mrs Anne Rice, now the legal owner of the portrait, became aware for the first time that Jacob Simon in his capacity as Chief Curator of the NPG, had written an unsolicited email to Christie’s prior to the 2007 auction. This email has never been made public until now, although it can be viewed in the Rice Portrait files at the Heinz Archive of the NPG.

In 2014 the Rice family complained to the NPG that Jacob Simon’s actions constituted an interference with a private sale which was nothing to do with the Gallery and none of its concern.

The Director of the NPG, Sandy Nairne, responded in an email dated 11 April that ‘the new research pasted into the e-mail to Christie’s did not in itself directly concern the Rice portrait, but was about William Legg’.

This is clearly nonsense – Jacob Simon’s email was headed ‘Jane Austen’ and specifically referred to the portrait of Jane Austen, even quoting the lot number.

Recent developments

Since Henry Rice’s death in 2010, the fight to prove the portrait is indeed a painting of the young Jane Austen has been taken up by his widow Anne Rice and members of their family.

But they have been opposed every step of the way by the NPG.

In 2011 respected art restorer Eva Schwan, who had spent two years restoring the portrait, sent a report to the NPG stating she believed the artist to be Ozias Humphry and showing a photograph of his monogram on the portrait. Sandy Nairne replied that it was ‘certainly of interest’ and that he would ask for it to be ‘added to the material in the Heinz Archive and Library.’ An invitation from the Rice family for the NPG to view the portrait while it was at Eva Schwan's studio in Paris had been turned down. 

The same year, in August 2011, the NPG issued a statement about the Rice Portrait in which Jacob Simon stated that the attribution to Ozias Humphry was ‘not tenable’ and that ‘he worked in a very different style to this portrait’. Yet Richard Walker, an acknowledged expert on Regency Paintings, had said that ‘It fits very well with his style of painting.’ Jacob Simon also again referred to the dating of the costume, citing ‘specialist curators and costume historians’ who ‘widely agree’ on an early 19th century dating ‘as set out by Deirdre Le Faye in her article on the portrait published in The Book Collector in 1996.’ Simon also cited the linen stamp, claiming that the existence of another William Legg was ‘unlikely’.

Signatures on the Emery Walker plate
In 2012, Stephen Cole of Acumé Forensics confirmed that he detected signatures of Ozias Humphry and words which he read as Jane Austen_7 written on a glass negative of a photograph of the portrait taken in 1910. Sandy Nairne wrote that ‘we are skeptical [sic] about the signatures that have allegedly been found on the 1910 photograph by Emery Walker.’ These photographic plates are owned by and in the possession of the National Portrait Gallery and yet, as far as I am aware,  they have made no attempt to verify Acumé’s findings.

In 2013 journalist Henrietta Foster wrote to Sandy Nairne stating that she was ‘sorry to bring up the misery that is the Rice portrait again’, and criticised the work of Claudia Johnson, a long time supporter of the portrait. Foster informed Nairne that she and Austen scholar Dr Kathryn Sutherland were planning to write a challenge to the Rice Portrait via the columns of the TLS. The result was the article Brimful of Tricks which dismissed the findings of Stephen Cole and claimed that the portrait was a nineteenth century amateur fake. Not one expert, either for or against the portrait, had ever suggested this before. The article was published in the TLS in July 2014.

Despite the lack of forensic analysis offered by the authors of the article, the Foster/Sutherland thesis that the portrait was a fake was endorsed on his blog by Dr Bendor Grosvenor in a post titled ‘Still, sadly not Jane Austen. Dr Grosvenor evidently takes some interest in the subject as there are a number of posts on his blog arguing that the Rice Portrait is not a portrait of Jane Austen. 

For ten years, from 2004 until 2014, Bendor Grosvenor worked for the art dealing firm of Philip Mould & Company. Philip Mould was a member of the National Portrait Gallery Development Board for five years from 2003 until 2007 and is a life patron of the NPG. The NPG has purchased a number of paintings from Philip Mould Ltd over the years. In the minutes for November 2006 the Trustees expressed some unease about purchasing a portrait at full price from a business owned by a member of the NPG Development Board but concluded that there was ‘no formal conflict of interest’ (although I am not sure how you can have an informal conflict of interest). Two years later, the minutes for May 2008  recorded that ‘Trustees were particularly concerned about the relationship between the Gallery and Philip Mould Ltd’. The minutes record that the Chief Curator (Jacob Simon) said that the Gallery's good working relationship with Philip Mould has been to its advantage. 

(Both Bendor Grosvenor and Philip Mould (who was given an OBE for services to art in 2005) are now familiar figures on British TV screens, featuring in programmes such as Antiques Roadshow, Fake or Fortune, The Culture Show and most recently Britain’s Lost Masterpieces.)

Since 2014, my own and others’ research has shown how closely connected Ozias Humphry was to the Austen family. We have shown that the costume evidence is flawed and provided examples of comparable dresses dating from before 1800 and have also demonstrated that the evidence of the Legg Stamp on the back of the portrait, so relied upon by Jacob Simon, is far from conclusive. My research has also shown that Eliza Hall, the recipient of the portrait when it temporarily left the family, was likely to have known Jane Austen personally.

The available evidence points towards Ozias Humphry being the artist and Jane Austen the sitter. No other credible candidate exists.

What is needed now from the NPG is courage  - courage to admit that mistakes have been made in the past, and that they acted beyond their remit in 2007. Whether they have this courage remains to be seen. But it should be remembered that the NPG is a public body, financially supported by the British taxpayer and as such it is governed by the seven principles of  public life -  selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. 

Will the NPG learn lessons from the past?

It is time for the National Portrait Gallery to draw a line under this whole sorry story and start afresh by looking at the evidence impartially and give the Rice Portrait a fair hearing.

Next year is the 200th anniversary of Jane’s death – wouldn’t it be great if we could celebrate her life with the conflict over this portrait resolved?

Ellie Bennett

18 October 2015


  1. Wow! Truly fascinating reading Ellie. I don't envy you condensing this to an after dinner talk, you may have to give us a taster then come back to a proper meeting for a longer main course! I wish Henry and Margaret could read this!

  2. Thank you Hazel. You are right, there is such a lot of material - and I haven't published all of it yet! I will give a streamlined version otherwise we'll be there all night! Very much looking forward to it.