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?

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