Monday, 16 December 2013

Happy Birthday Jane Austen

© Paula Byrne
Happy Birthday Jane Austen!

Last week saw the sale for £164,500 of the James Andrews portrait of Austen. The portrait  is the most well known portrait of Jane Austen, albeit a prettified, late Victorian version of her.

As I have previously posted, I am more interested in the portrait that caused a bit of a stir a couple of years ago, the one belonging to Dr Paula Byrne and currently on display at Jane Austen’s House Museum.

I want to address some of the objections that have been raised against this being a portrait of Jane Austen and share some of the research I have been doing of late into the Smedley family. 

The background view is not a real one/It has no relevance to Jane Austen

It is now known that the view from the window of the portrait is of St Margaret’s Church and Westminster Abbey. According to Paula Byrne, from the line of sight it is probable that this is the view from The Sanctuary, a building that used to stand behind St Margaret’s Church and which was occupied during the early nineteenth century by the Smedleys.*

Map showing the Sanctuary
Line of sight from the Sanctuary

It has been argued that the portrait is likely to be of someone connected to either St Margaret’s or Westminster Abbey and that the artist used an engraving of the churches for the portrait. I don’t find this very persuasive. Surely if that was the case the view would be of either St Margaret’s or Westminster Abbey. The fact that it shows both adds credence to the contention that this is a real view from a real window. Furthermore, it is argued, backgrounds of portraits are significant and these churches are not significant to Jane Austen. But perhaps the view is significant, but to the artist rather than the sitter. It strikes me that the artist wanted to show the location where the portrait was drawn. If this is indeed Jane Austen then perhaps the artist wanted to show that the novelist was sitting there, in that house, the Smedley household.

We know from his letters that Edward Smedley was an admirer of Jane Austen’s work:

It is most truly kind, both in your mother and your self, to wish me to partake of that from which you are to derive pleasure ; but 1 think Mr. John Knightley* would reject me from that bond of brotherhood which I have established with him from the earliest moment of our acquaintance, if, on the night of the 2nd of January 1 were to quit my armed chair, my fire- side, my pen, my books, and my writing-desk, for a twelve miles' drive, six hours' ennui, a spoonful of orange-jelly, and a small glass of lukewarm negus. Letter Edward Smedley to Miss B____December 30th, 1831

 And as early as 1813 Maria Edgeworth mentions in a letter that after visiting Smedley at his rooms at Cambridge she is reading Pride and Prejudice in the carriage; no doubt Austen would have been discussed at some point during their day together. 

Now we are again on the London road, and nothing interrupted our perusal of ' Pride and Prejudice' for the rest of the morning. I am desired not to give you my opinion of ' Pride and Prejudice/ but desire you to get it directly, and tell us yours. Maria Edgeworth letter to C. S. Edgeworth May 1, 1813.

So, given that Edward read Austen perhaps he wanted a momento to record the fact she visited them there. Perhaps he thought it would be something to show to his new bride, Mary Hume, whom Edward married in January 1816. According to the experts it is likely that it was drawn at about that time.

There is no connection between Jane Austen and the Smedleys

The Smedleys are not in the Austen’s known circle of friends and there is no mention of them in any of Jane Austen’s extant letters. That Edward Smedley Snr. (1750-1825) was married to Hannah Bellas I don’t believe is particularly significant, despite the familiarity of the name Bellas. (Austen’s niece’s daughter married a Bellas.) I believe the connection is too distant to be relevant.

But there are other connections. Edward Smedley Snr’s close and long standing friend was Gerrard Andrewes, Dean of Canterbury and Rector of St James’ Church, Piccadilly. Andrewes is buried in the church at Great Bookham where he was vicar for a time. Great Bookham, of course, was where Jane’s aunt and uncle lived for many years. Samuel Cooke, vicar of Great Bookham, was Jane’s godfather and we know she visited them there. Gerrard Andrewes was vicar of the neighbouring parish of Mickleham, and must have known Samuel Cooke well. Perhaps that is why Henry Austen attended St James’s Church, Piccadilly when he lived in London, as mentioned in two of Jane Austen’s letters:

Mr. Tho. Leigh is again in Town - or was very lately. Henry met up with him last Sunday in St James's Church Jane Austen letter to Cassandra Austen dated 1 July 1808

The events of Yesterday were, our going to Belgrave Chapel in the morning, our being prevented by the rain from going to evening Service at St James, Jane Austen letter to Cassandra Austen dated 24 May 1813

The younger Edward Smedley was offered a preachership at St James Chapel by Andrewes and then in July 1815 he was appointed clerk in orders at St James’s Parish. So Edward Smedley was a minister at the church attended by Henry Austen and no doubt by Jane too when she was staying with Henry and both know Gerrard Andrewes. They must at least have met Edward Smedley during this time.

Smedley contributed to John Murray’s Quarterly Review amongst other things and Murray published later published several books of Smedley’s. But in his thirties Edward began to show signs of ill health. By 1828 he was totally deaf and in later years he also began to lose his sight. In 1836 Lord Northampton (Spencer Compton), who knew Smedley, collected together contributions from a number of living writers for a volume of poetry, with the idea that the proceeds would go to Smedley to ease the financial strain he was then under. Contributors included many of the best known poets of the day including Compton himself, Tennyson and Wordsworth. Smedley died before it could be published and so the proceeds went to Smedley’s family. Among the subscribers to The Tribute are a Miss Austen and Rev. E Austen-Leigh.

The writing on the back is not contemporaneous with the drawing

The drawing is in pencil yet the writing on the back is in ink. It is likely therefore that either the artist wrote the name on the back later, or ‘Miss Jane Austin’ was written on the back of the portrait by someone else. Whoever wrote the name could be mistaken or the picture could be been of any one of a number of Miss Jane Austins living in London in the early nineteenth century.

However – in the John Murray Archive in Edinburgh there is a folder with a number of letters from Edward Smedley to John Murray II (as I’ve mentioned Murray was Smedley’s publisher). I am no graphologist but to my untrained eye the handwriting of Edward Smedley is very like the handwriting on the back of the portrait. Here is a specimen – note the distinctive epsilon E. And as I discuss in more detail below, Edward Smedley spelled Jane Austen’s name with an ‘i’.

Deirdre le Faye in her article in JASA's Sensibilities publication entitled Black Ink and Three Telltale Words observes that 'JanE is spelt with a Greek epsilon (ε), suggesting it was written by someone who had had a classical eduction - therefore more likely to be a man than a woman.' 

Edward Smedley was educated at Westminster School and Trinity College, Cambridge whose first published work in 1812 was A Few Verses English and Latin. According to his Memoir he was proficient in Latin and Greek at the age of eleven:
That he was clever and forward is proved by the age at which he got into Westminster College, or, in less local phrase, was elected one of the scholars on the foundation. He was only eleven years old when he stood this searching trial of his proficiency in Greek and Latin grammar. 

Frances Rolleston in a letter to Edward Smedley's widow Mary dated 6 February 1864 refers to: 
H. and E. Smedley, the accomplished brothers, younger than myself, but far before me in acquirement; Henry in Greek and Latin, Edward also in Italian

Letter from Edward Smedley to John Murray dated 28 February 1831
Reproduced by kind permission of the National Library Scotland
Note the use of the epsilon (ε) - the same as on the back of the portrait

The name on the back of the portrait

There is also the style of ‘miss’, oddly written and without the long ‘s’, customary in the early nineteenth century but gradually on its way out. The writing is a little shaky, and it looks as though the ‘M’ of miss was started as a ‘J’ then changed. Might it be the handwriting of a man who was losing his sight and was infirm? Edward Smedley died in 1836 at the age of 48 after battling illness for many years. Perhaps it was in these last years that he wrote Jane Austen’s name on the back of the portrait, until then there had been no need, after all he knew who she was.

Alternatively, maybe Edward wrote her name on the back because he intended to send it to someone else. His publisher perhaps. In February 1831 Edward Smedley asked Murray whether he was about to republish Jane Austen’s novels ‘in a pocket book form.’ Maybe he was wondering whether Murray would want to use the portrait in his new edition. At the very least, his enquiry shows an interest in the author, many years after her death.

Austen’s name is spelt incorrectly

The name on the back of the portrait is ‘Miss Jane Austin’ not ‘Austen.’ Surely whoever drew the portrait would not have spelled her name incorrectly? Well, her publisher John Murray did, even on cheques made payable to her, consistently spelling her name with an ‘i’ rather than an ’e’. And so does Edward Smedley. The artist is unlikely to be someone vey close or related to the Austen family who probably would not have spelled her name that way. But the Smedleys, rather more on the periphery, might.

Certainly whoever put the picture in a frame around the middle of the nineteenth century believed it to be a portrait of the novelist, her name and dates are on the frame.

Austen would not want to be portrayed as a writer

It is argued that Austen would not have sat for a portrait in a pose which shows her as a writer, and conversely is has also been argued that if she had, then where are all her novels?

I agree, I believe that despite her own pride in and passion for her work, she would not have sat for a commissioned portrait. I’m not sure how much her brothers Edward and James approved of her writing as a profession (there is no mention of it in her epitaph) and I don’t think she would have formally sat for a portrait that portrayed her as such. But her family, especially Henry, were proud of her work and Henry was unable to resist proudly bragging that she was the author of the novels. On her part Jane does not seem to mind that her identity is becoming known.

But this portrait is unlikely to be a formal commission. It is drawn by an amateur, although possibly one who has received some professional training. Someone like Edward Smedley’s brother Henry perhaps. Henry Smedley trained as a lawyer but soon found that law was not really to his taste. Instead he devoted his time to art and antiquarian interests and to politics. His friends included the artist and engraver John Thomas ‘Antiquity’ Smith, friend and tutor to the artist John Constable. It is entirely possible Smith also taught Henry Smedley. The pair used to spend time seeking out art and antiquities on behalf of collectors.

" Well," said I to my respected friend, Mr. Henry Smedley, whose house I had entered just as the chimes of the venerable Abbey and St. Margaret's had agreed to complete their quarters for nine, "I am delighted to find that Inigo's beautiful front of Whitehall is in so fair a way of recovery." Bonington's drawings held at a respectful distance from the butter dish, were the next topic of conversation. "I agree with you," observed my friend; "they are invaluable, even his slightest pencil touches are treasures. I have shown you the studies from the figures which surround Lord Morris's monument in the Abbey; have they not all the spirit of Van Dyck?"  From Smith’s A Book for a Rainy Day

Another great friend of Henry Smedley was Charles Tennyson D’Eyncourt, a man of some pretension who spent some time trying to revive the Order of Knights Templar as a British order of chivalry. One of those who Tennyson D’Eyncourt named as being admitted as a Knights Chevalier was his good friend Henry Smedley, together with Henry’s father-in-law, Richard French.

There is just one letter in the Murray collection that is in Henry Smedley’s hand. His writing is small and neat, described as a ‘Porsonian hand’ in his obituary, consistent with someone who would draw the meticulous detail of, for example,  the lace on the dress of the sitter which is beautifully drawn.

Like his brother, Henry Smedley also died young, on March 14th 1832 at the age of 47. According to his obituary:

His kindness and liberality to artists were very conspicuous, and many there are who can testify to the advantage they derived, not only from the correct- ness of his judgment, but from his friendly introduction to more opulent patrons. His extensive and valuable collection of etchings, his large port folios of engravings, his rare specimens of Niello, and his curious works on the fine arts, were always open to their inspection ; and if he was at home himself to comment on their rarity or excellence, he astonished by his knowledge of the old masters, in which he had few, if any superiors in this country. Mr. Smedley was seldom without a pencil in his hand, and amused himself with annotating the margin of almost every book and every print he had in his library. From The Annual Biography and Obituary Vol 17.

Henry strikes me as the archetypal amateur gentleman with some pretentions of grandeur, a man that would choose vellum as the medium for his portrait, a man that would embellish the background with classical columns and drapes which look like theatrical props but yet was not quite good enough an artist to execute the portrait as competently as a professional artist would.

Would Austen consent to sit for an amateur portrait for a friend and admirer who wanted to draw her in the act of writing? I think it is possible that had she been visiting the Smedleys she may well have consented to this, may even have been pleased to do so.

The family were not aware of the portrait

When Richard Bentley republished Austen’s novels in 1832 he asked Henry Austen if there was a portrait of his sister that he could use. Henry said that he thought that there was, but then could not find one and had to tell Bentley that there was no useable portrait of his sister.

If the portrait was drawn in 1815 then Henry had more pressing worries on his mind at the time - at the end of the year he was seriously ill, so ill the family feared he might not survive. Then his bank was in trouble and by March 1816 he was declared bankrupt and left London. Perhaps Jane did not think the little drawing done while she was visiting the Smedley’s to be significant enough to tell him. Or maybe she just preferred to keep it to herself.

If the Smedleys connection was more with Henry Austen via his church than the rest of the family and he was no longer in London after March 1816 then it is possible that the family never learned of the existence of the portrait. There is no reason why Smedley would have known that Bentley was republishing, once the deal with Murray had fallen through. His brother Henry had died in the March of 1832 and his own health was deteriorating and with it, his financial security. No doubt he had other things on his mind. 

Jane Austen did not own a cat

The cat in the portrait is an oddity. It is badly drawn and looks out of proportion with the rest of the drawing.  What is it doing there? I don’t find the argument that the cat was added to denote spinsterhood very convincing.

Richard Jenkyns says that no-one would have their portrait drawn with someone else’s cat. True enough if she had commissioned the portrait, but I think it is unlikely that she did. If the picture was intended to be kept by the artist, maybe he would have drawn the cat that was on the table. Everybody kept cats, it helped keep the mice and rats at bay. 

Perhaps the cat was a detail that was added later, it looks like it might be, slightly out of proportion to the rest of the drawing. Perhaps he wanted to give the portrait a more homely feel. Maybe he messed up that corner of the drawing and added a cat to cover it up. Maybe he just liked cats. We must not forget, if this was drawn by Henry Austen, he was an amateur.

The jewellery and the dress are too expensive

There seems to be two jewellery objections – firstly that the sitter is wearing too much jewellery to be Jane Austen and secondly that she is not wearing jewellery that we know she owned, primarily the topaz cross. Again, these arguments only have credence if the assumption is that the portrait is being done as a commission. If it was done during 1815 when Jane was spending a lot of time in London with Henry, then she would hardly be likely to send home for her topaz cross for the portrait. It was more casual than that. On the point about she is wearing too much jewellery,, we simply do not know what jewellery she owned. Who outside the Austen family knew about the gold and turquoise ring before it came up for auction in 2012? And it is impossible to tell from the portrait whether the jewellery is expensive or paste. What is obvious from reading her letters however, is that every time Jane Austen was up in London, she loved to shop. Her letters to Cassandra are full of accounts of shopping trips. And if the portrait was drawn in 1815 this was when she was feeling at the top of her game. Her fourth novel was about to be published and she had been noticed by the Prince Regent. If there was any time when Austen would have splashed out some paste jewellery and a new dress this would have been it. The argument that she is wearing too many rings to write comfortably is  strange to my mind. She is being captured in the act of writing, she is not actually writing (if so she is writing backwards which would be odder still). The artist is showing that she is a writer, nothing more that.

Lack of documentary evidence and lack of provenance

This is a problem for anyone wishing to prove this is a portrait of Jane Austen. There is not a shred of known documentary evidence for the portrait outside of itself. Neither is it yet clear what happened to the portrait or why it ended up in the possessions of Helen Carruthers, ex-governess of John Foster MP.   Perhaps she bought it in a sale - on the backing is marked 'Price £3-3s-0d Frame £0-5s-0d'. Miss Carruthers lived in King's Bench Walk, London almost all her life and could have picked up the picture at an auction. She was a member of the English Association which she joined as a new member in 1836  so clearly had an interest in literature. It does not help that there is, I believe, some deliberate obsfuscation on the part of the Fosters with regard to Miss Carruther’s identity, the reasons for which I may discuss in another post. But for the meantime who she was and how she obtained the portrait remains a mystery. Lack of provenance remains a difficulty. 

She does not fit with Brand Austen

The current popularity of Jane Austen is phenomenal. Over the past twenty years interest has grown to heights she would never of thought of even in her wildest, most optimistic dreams. It borders on the hysterical. Take the brouhaha from some quarters when Kathryn Sutherland made the reasonable point that Austen’s work was probably mediated through the work of an editor, in her case William Gifford. Any writer knows that the first challenge is to get one’s work past the red pen of the editor before getting anywhere near a printing press. But Austen has grown to such hagiographic proportions that any reasoned analysis is met with hostility. Jane Austen has become a brand, in part because of the paucity of information we have about her. Author, fictional character and the director’s casting conflate  into a vague romantic image of the early nineteenth century writer. It is ‘Brand Austen’ carefully and cleverly constructed to market Jane Austen for all its worth. Take the oft used silhouette of 'Jane Austen' ‘L'Amiable Jane.’ What is this portrait’s claim to be that of Jane Austen? It was found in a copy of the second edition of Mansfield Park. It’s a claim that is thinner than pond ice on a sunny day in spring, but the image fits the brand.

We are all guilty of partiality – the Byrne image suits my imaginary picture of Jane Austen and so I want it to be genuine as much as others want the opposite. But so far I have not come across any argument that has swayed me against my opinion that this is a portrait of Jane Austen, even though it may never be proved. 

And you never know. Maybe, just maybe, one day it won't be this picture that everyone uses to wish Jane Austen a happy birthday...

The Smedleys were:
Edward Smedley Snr (1750-1825) married Hannah Bellas (1755-?)

Their sons:

Henry Smedley (1785-1832) married Elizabeth Calvert French (1779-1859)
Edward Smedley (1788-1836) in 1816 married Mary Hume (1786-1868). Unless stated otherwise it is this Edward Smedley I am referring to in the above post.
Francis Smedley (1791-1859) married Frances Ellison (1795-?)
There were also at least two daughters of whom I can discover nothing at all at present.

Of the Smedleys I know about it is clear they were something of a literary family.

Edward Smedley Snr was the author of Erin, a geographical poem.
Edward Smedley published a number of poems and several longer non-fiction works including Religico Clerico and Sketches from Venetian History for Murray’s Family Library.

Two of Edward Smedley’s daughters- Menella Bute Smedley and Elizabeth Hart achieved minor success with their writing, as did Francis (Frank), son of Francis Smedley. (Menella Bute Smedley lived with her cousin Frank. She introduced him to the writing of her second cousin, the grandson of her aunt. His name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll. Jabberwockyit had been claimed was based on an early work of Menella’s.)

POSTSCRIPT - 18.12 13
Reading again Deirdre Le Faye's critique of the portrait referred to above I note that she says: 'the fact that she is shown writing the wrong way round, may mean the portrait was intended to be engraved as the frontispiece for the publication of her works, but perhaps was adjudged too badly drawn and so was never used.'

If my theory is correct then everything points to the portrait having been drawn in the autumn of 1815. The dress has been dated to 1814-1816. Jane was in London at that time for three months, staying with her brother Henry Austen. Henry was ill for some time so Jane was going out on her own. Edward Smedley was clerk in orders at Henry Austen's church. And Emma was about to go to the printers. Perhaps, then, Edward Smedley asked his brother Henry to draw a portrait for the frontispiece for the novel but it was indeed adjudged too badly drawn to use.

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