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.

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