Thursday, 5 January 2012

Jane Austen portrait update

So, things have been racing along this week with regard to the drawing found by Paula Byrne and shown on 'Unseen Portrait' on the BBC (see previous posts).

There are two very thoughtful and clear posts summarising the issues and the debate at
The links from today's entry on the Austenonly blog to Bendor Grovenor's article and to Bonhams are well worth following.

It still seems to me that provenance is the key to the puzzle. In previous posts I speculated that if drawn by Eliza Chute as posited by Dr Byrne in the programme, that it may have come down to Sir John Foster via his paternal grandmother's family. Information has now come to light that Sir John was bequeathed the drawing by his governess/long time friend Helen Carruthers. Whether this throws the rest of the theory out of the window, I am not sure. I have no idea who Helen Carruthers is - the closest I have got is a school teacher of that name living in Clapham in 1901. Hopefully some more information about her will come to light soon.

Other questions remain: Why did Miss Carruthers bequeath the picture to him? Could she be returning to him something that came from his family originally? Or was he the recipient of all her effects and the picture simply happened to be amongst them? In which case where did Helen Carruthers get the drawing from? Presumably an examination of her will should help with this.

Following Dr Byrne's tweets it seems she is now moving away from the belief that it was drawn by Eliza Chute to considering it was the work of a 'low-end professional'. The reason for this is apparently because of markings on the back of the portrait as follows: Price £3-3s 0d Frame £0 5s 0d.’ 

Dr Byrne obviously may have other reasons for deciding it is not the work of Eliza Chute , but in itself, I don't think the pricing in itself is conclusive. Is it not possible that the picture was sold at a later date and the price added then? Might not Wiggett Chute have sold it? Or is there a reason why this is not possible?

Earlier today I was pencilling the name of family members onto old photographs that belonged to my mother (she had not labelled them as she knew who they were) - and the thought also occurred to me that the name on the back of the portrait may also have been added at a slightly later date. If (and I know it's a big if) it was drawn by Eliza Chute for herself, she would have had no need to write the name - she knew who it was. Maybe someone later asked her who it was and the name was written on it then? Speculation again! But without knowing more I am reluctant to ditch Eliza as the artist just yet...

As I noted in a previous post - the unusual medium still points to Chute as the artist as she is known to have used it, and there are also the similarities with the painting Eliza Chute drew of her sister to consider.

Although Dr Byrne has suggested that the background of St Margaret's and Westminster Abbey might relate to the fact that Jane Austen’s brother, Frank, was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath in 1815, I personally don't find this very convincing. St Margarets appears to me to be the main focus of the view from the window not Westminster Abbey. And the obvious link between St Margaret's and Jane Austen is Eliza Chute.

What about whether it is Jane Austen at all? Jane's poor nose has been discussed at infinitum! Was it big or small, fat or thin? The only authenticated picture we have is the one sister Cassandra drew, and which everyone knows was said not to be a terribly good likeness. But looking at the shape of the nose in Cassandra's drawing I would say it is not dissimilar. The footnotes from Bonhams refer to GH Tucker: Jane Austen the Woman 1994 and quotes: Mrs Beckford, a friend of Jane's, however, described her in a letter as 'a tall thin spare person...the face by no means so broad & plump as represented...'
I think it is also relevant that this drawing - if it was done in 1915, would have been only weeks before she became ill, and so it would hardly be surprising if a rounder, youthful face had been superceded by a rather more thin and drawn one. So I don't think discrepancies in some of the descriptions we have of Jane Austen  necessarily rule out the picture being authentic. 

No doubt more information will come to light soon.

It's all terribly interesting...

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