Thursday, 29 December 2011

Jane Austen's Unseen Portrait 3

Once again I am thinking about that darned Austen portrait when I should be doing other things.

I found the evidence in the BBC Programme of various art and costume experts that the drawing was consistent with Dr Byrne's contention that it was drawn in 1815 fairly compelling. Both the materials and the costume tally with this date. There is the issue of the use of plumbago - lead on vellum - which as one expert points out, had gone out of fashion 100 years earlier. More on that later.

I've previously posted speculations on how the picture may have travelled from Eliza Chute to John Foster. So what, I'm wondering, is the evidence that it was painted by Eliza Chute as Dr Byrne suggests? As the programme pointed out, Eliza Chute knew the Austens, indeed the two families knew each other pretty well. James Austen, Jane's elder brother was clergyman to the Chutes and visited them practically every week. There are some excellent posts on Kelly McDonald's blog Two Teens in the Time of Austen about Eliza Chute and the Austens. Most interesting, I learned from her site that Eliza Chute was known to have used the medium of graphite on vellum. On this page is a portrait of Maria Smith, Lady Compton as she became. According to McDonald this was drawn by Eliza Chute in graphite on vellum. So although the medium was not popular, it does seem to have been the one favoured by Eliza Chute.

What else? Well the programme suggests the painting was drawn by an amateur but one whom had taken lessons in drawing. Eliza Chute's governess or possibly tutor was a Miss Meen. If this was Margaret Meen, she was a talented artist, specialising in botanical illustrations, and could well have taught Eliza how to draw.

Both Dr Byrne in the programme and Kelly McDonald in her blog answer the arguments about the spelling of Austen's name as 'Austin', which Eliza Chute consistently does in her journals when referring to the Austen family. I would think this makes it more likely that the picture is contemporary and not drawn after her life by a 'fan', who would surely have spelt her name Austen not Austin, as was the name on the frame, which was probably added at a later date.

The Austen portrait is clearly the work of a talented amateur and I think Eliza Chute fits the bill pretty well.

The more I look at the picture, the more it looks to me like a bit of fun, a bit tongue in cheek. And wouldn't that be so characteristic of Jane Austen? Here she is all got up in finery, wearing plenty of jewellery and with Westminster Abbey in the background. She's holding her pen and papers very deliberately, and, what's this? She seems to be writing backwards? (Noted by Claire Harman here)
Jane did enjoy mirror writing to entertain her neices - here's an extract from a letter dated 8 January 1817 to Cassandra Esten-Austen:

Ym raed Yssac
 I hsiw uoy a yppah wen raey. Ruoy xis snisuoc emac ereh yadretsey, dna dah hcae a eceip fo ekac.
And so on.

Maybe the picture was a piece of fun, and a chance for Eliza to practice her portraiture, but the drawing was never intended to be a formal sitting or to be seen by anyone else? 

Jane Austen's work had started to become recognised, in November 1815 James Stanier Clarke, librarian to the Prince Regent wrote to Jane:

Your late Works, Madam, and in particular Mansfield Park reflect the highest honour on your genius and your Principles; in every new work your mind seems to increase it's energy and powers of discrimination. The Regent has read & admired all your publications.

A month later, Jane writes back:

I must make use of this opportunity to thank you dear Sir, for the very high praise you bestow on my other Novels - I am too vain to wish to convince you that you have praised them beyond their Merit. 

Typically tongue-in-cheek!

So, she is being recognised in the highest circles as a fine novelist. Why not dress up as one for a portrait, a piece of private amusement? 

As it is not a picture to be taken too seriously, Eliza adds in some details of more interest to her than to Jane - a view from the window of the church where she was married, a cat on the table. The National Trust have produced an educational film about the Vyne, Eliza's home, in it they refer to Eliza by her full name Elizabeth. They also talk a lot about the cat. I've not read Eliza Chute's journals, but maybe she had a fondness for cats? 

Of  course Eliza was not to know that Jane would soon become ill and die only eighteen months later. And if this was the case, would Eliza Chute have volunteered such a picture to Jane's family after her death? If it were me I would not have done so, I'd have kept very quiet about it! This would explain why brother Henry and the rest of the family knew nothing about it. 

I don't think we have any evidence that Jane Austen knew Eliza Chute particularly well or that Eliza knew of her fame as a writer, but then again, there is so much that we don't know. (And of the little that we collectively know, I know even less!) Maybe it's possible. And maybe when Jane Austen was in London for those three months in 1815 she and Eliza Chute became friendly. Maybe...

These are just my thoughts, thanks for reading. If I've got anything wrong please put me right, I am far from being an expert on this subject.

There is an interesting discussion here about the portrait.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Jane Austen's Unseen Portrait 2

My theory that John Barnard Byles brought the Austen portrait into the Foster family needs further examination, I feel. After all, Frances Mary and John Nathaniel had a fairly large family and countless grandchildren. Hubert John was the youngest child. So, if my suppositions are correct, how come the picture ended up being passed down to him and then to John Foster? I've decided to look at the Wedd and Foster family at the time in a bit more detail.

In 1842, the time I think most likely that John Barnard Byles obtained the portrait from Wiggett Chute, he had been married to Emma Foster for five years. He had known Emma's sister, Frances Mary for at least nine years, as he had been married to her husband's sister, Hannah. He and Hannah had married in 1828 but Hannah had died the following year, aged 23, presumably in childbirth. Byles had been appointed Recorder of Buckingham in 1840 and was living in St Pancras, London according to the 1841 census with Emma and their baby son Walter. So he may have given the picture to Emma or to Frances as a gift. Or maybe Frances obtained the drawing from her sister after Emma's death in 1872.

John Nathaniel Foster and Frances Mary Wedd had, to my knowledge, eight children: Frances Emily, Mary Ellen, Francis John, Edward John, Harriette Jane, Albert John, Edith Ellen and Hubert John. By the time the Fosters purchase Sandy Place in 1867, Mary, Francis and Harriette have died. John and Frances live at Sandy Place until John's death in 1891. In John's will he leaves to his wife Sandy Park Estate for her life, and Frances Mary therefore continues to live there until her death four years later in 1895. After her death the property reverted to John's eldest son Edward, but unfortunately he died three weeks after his mother, on 1st April 1895. Edward's widow Mary Poole Foster and Hubert John Foster are joint Trustees of Edward's estate, incuding Sandy Place. Hubert at this time is working for the War Office in military intelligence and has been based in London for the past five years. It is planned to sell Sandy Place and so presumably the two of them arrange for their mother's house to be cleared of personal effects before the sale. This, I believe, is how the drawing then ends up in the possessions of Hubert John Foster.

In the event, not long after this, Hubert is posted to Canada where he remains for some time. Mary Poole Foster therefore undertakes the sale of Sandy Place, which is sold in 1897. This site has some useful information about Sandy Place although the facts are incorrect, as they have John Nathaniel as dying in 1895 not 1891 and Mary Poole as his widow, whereas she was in fact his daughter-in-law.

So the picture has now passed into the possession of Hubert John Foster. Foster had barely spent six of the past twenty years in England, he had been deployed to Cyprus and and taken part in the Egyptian war and occupation of Cairo in the early 1880's. Following this he was posted to Ireland from 1886 to 1890. He doesn't strike me as the sort of person who would be much bothered by a drawing his mother had possessed of Jane Austen, and in any event he spent the majority of the rest of his life abroad, becoming the Australian chief of staff, so no doubt had more pressing things on his mind. He died in Australia in 1919 and his property passed to his wife Mary Agatha Foster, and on her death twenty years later in 1941, to their only son, John.

John Foster had been left in the care of a governess and various schools in his childhood. His friend and co-founder of the Rothschild Foster Human Rights Trust, Miriam Rothschild said that in order to deal with the trauma of this he had become a man 'only interested in the present and future.'  Is it possible therefore that he never even knew of the existence of this drawing, if he had inherited it from his mother? Perhaps the family effects were long stored up somewhere and he had never even looked at them. Or if he had, there's no particular reason why he should think it significant. Like his father, John Galway Foster was a busy man. Barrister and international law expert, during the war he was chief of the legal team under Eisenhower. After the war he took part in the Nuremburg Trials and worked tirelessley for victims of persecution. In addition to this he was an MP for thirty years and held Ministerial Office. He took silk (became a QC) in 1950. In all this activity it's hardly surprising if the little drawing wasn't given much thought.

Once again, large dollops of supposition. But one of the key questions has to be 'what was the drawing of Jane Austen doing in the possession of John Foster MP?' I hope that I have at least provided a plausible solution to this puzzle. What do you think?

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Jane Austen's Unseen Portrait 1

I was fascinated by the BBC2 documentary shown on Boxing Day concerning the portrait discovered by Dr Paula Byrne. Reading the press reports prior to the showing of the programme, many comments were, maybe not surprisingly, sceptical of the claims. After all Dr Byrne has a forthcoming biography of Austen coming out - how convenient, therefore, that her husband happened upon a hitherto unknown drawing of Austen in an auction. And how come no-one knew about it anyway? Serendipitous the find may be, but having watched the programme, I for one, was convinced that the drawing was an authentic one.

There are, of course, many questions that the discovery of the drawing raised:
Why had it not come to light before now?
Why were the Austen family not aware of the portrait?
Would Jane Austen have even sat for such a portrait?
Who would have drawn it?
Why did the artist get Austen's name wrong, spelling it 'Austin'?
Why did it turn up in the effects of John Galway Foster?

I am planning to write another post on why I think Dr Byrne's supposition that the portrait was drawn by Eliza Chute is persuasive. Not that I am in any way an expert (as my teenage daughter so ably points out!), it's just my opinion, for what it's worth. But here I want to concentrate on the provenance of the picture.

The portrait was bought by Dr Byrne's husband from a private seller, Roy Davids for £2000. He bought if for £50 in 1982. the seller was Anna de Goguel. Davids wrote to de Goguel to enquire about the provenance of the drawing but she wrote back and said she had no idea about the picture's history and did not think there were any papers relating to it. Unable to authenticate the portrait it was assumed to be imaginary. In the documentary Anna de Goguel's son reveals that the portrait was the property of one John Foster, for whom his mother was executrix. The letter to Mr Davids has as a letterhead John Foster's chamber's address (he was a barrister) so the evidence that the portrait belonged to John Foster seems pretty convincing. 

So what was a portrait of Jane Austen, real or imaginary, doing in the personal effects of John Foster, human rights lawyer and Conservative MP for Northwich in Cheshire? The programme says that from here the trail goes cold. Well that was it! The gauntlet had been thrown down. I was intrigued and decided to try and find out more. It seemed to me that the provenance was key to deciding whether the portrait was genuinely one of Jane Austen. I've spent a long time researching my family history on the internet and decided to use the same techniques to see if I could find out any more.

John Galway Foster lived from 1904 until 1982. I have not been able to discover as yet why Anna de Goguel was appointed executrix. John Foster was, as the programme mentions, an exceptional character. But his childhood was not a happy one, he was left in the care of a governess and at school, in France and Germany, and it seems he barely knew his parents. His father was Hubert John Foster (1855-1919) and his mother was a Canadian, Mary Agatha Tobin. John was the only child of the marriage.

Brigadier General Hubert Foster, had been born in 1855, the son of John Nathaniel Foster of Biggleswade and was educated at Harrow and the Military Academy, Woolwich. He seems to have spent his life abroad following his military career, rising to Brigadier General and serving as chief of the general Australian staff in World War 1. He had married Mary Gough nee Tobin in 1904 at the British Consulate in Venice. He died in 1919 in New South Wales.

John Nathaniel Foster, John Foster's granfather, lived from 1802 until 1891. He was a coal and wine merchant, but obviously was doing quite well at it, owning some property in Biggleswade and later buying Sandy Place in Bedfordshire. He was a director of the Great Northern Railway and in 1870 served as High Sheriff of Bedfordshire.His married Frances Mary Wedd, a woman from a longstanding Dissenting family from Royston, Hampshire. The Wedd family had an interest in literature, indeed two of John Nathaniel and Frances' children went on to become writers, Albert John Foster and Edith Foster, better known as Edith Cuthell. Royston at the time was known for its Book Club, which both the Wedd family and the Nash family were involved.

So, what is the connection? Well in 1828 John Nathaniel Foster's sister Hannah married John Barnard Byles. Hannah died soon after, and in 1836 John married Emma Nash Wedd, Frances Wedd's sister and John Nathaniel's sister-in-law. She died in 1872.

And this is where the connection to the Chute's comes in, and how, I think, the picture of Jane Austen ended up in the Foster estate, because John Byles knew William Lyde Wiggett Chute, the owner of the Vyne, the family home of Eliza Chute.

Wiggett had inherited the house in 1827 but although he assumed the surname and coat of arms, did not move into the house until the death of Eliza Chute in 1842. After her death he set about major renovations to the house, including the library. The house had not been touched for some years by then.

John Barnard Byles was a barrister, in chambers in London at the same time as Wiggett Chute. They were a similar age. Wiggett was called to the bar in 1827, Byles in 1831. They both practiced law in the same area; Wiggett was High Sheriff in Norfolk at the same time that Byles was on the Norfolk circuit. It is inconceivable that they would have not known each other, and probably knew each other pretty well.

So my conjecture is: In 1842 Wiggett Chute was renovating Vyne. He had just taken possession after the death of Eliza. He was having a clear out of Eliza's things, as one does after a death. Wiggett is not a close relative of Eliza and is unlikely therefore to attach any great sentimentality to her sketches and other personal items. His friend, Byles has commented that his wife Emma or possibly his sister-in-law, Frances, was a fan of Jane Austen (this is conjecture of course) and so he had given her the portrait he has found, drawn by Eliza Chute, of no great significance, given that in 1842 Jane Austen was not a particularly well thought of writer. Byles takes the picture and gives it to his wife or sister-in-law as a present, thinking no more about it. One of them frames it adding the dates of her birth and death. Emma dies in 1872.

By the time Austen is once more becoming famous in the 1870's the picture has become more or less forgotten about. Hubert John Foster is abroad doing his army thing, and his son John, educated abroad and with his unhappy childhood, has little interest in his family's possessions. Never married and having no children, on his death the picture is sold. By this time, of course, no-one has any idea where it came from.

It's just a theory and includes a lot of supposition and speculation. But I think it's plausible...if you have any information either in support or in opposition to this theory I would love to hear it.

Postcript - I have received some interesting new information (see comments to part three 29.12.11) which complicates matters as it seems the portrait was left to Foster by his governess.