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.











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