Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Facts Are Stubborn Things - Why a Brimful of Tricks doesn't stack up - Part One.

On 9 July 2014 The Times Literary Supplement published an article titled 'Brimful of Tricks' co-authored by journalist Henrietta Foster and Austen academic Dr Kathryn Sutherland. You can read the article HERE. In it, the authors sought to dismiss the claim to authenticity of the Rice portrait and to advance an adventurous new theory - that the portrait is a fake, painted by the Rev Dr Thomas Harding Newman.

In the next two blog-posts I will be examining the arguments advanced by Foster and Sutherland in their article, which for convenience I'll refer to as Brimful.

(For background information you can read about the Rice Portrait on wikipedia HERE and in much more detail on the official website HERE. There is a brief summary of the history of the portrait on the Jane Austen Centre website HERE and an overview of the latest evidence on the TLS website HERE.)

The Brimful article is formed of two distinct parts  - the first section is the authors' (not entirely objective!) overview of the history of the portrait. The second part of the article then goes on to look at the character of Rev. Dr Thomas Harding-Newman and to advance the authors' new theory that Rev. Dr Thomas Harding Newman faked the portrait of Jane Austen for malicious reasons of his own.

The partisan nature of the article is hinted at in the very first paragraph: 'The Rice family, who own it [the portrait], and their champions, among whom are some distinguished academics, claim that the girl depicted is Jane Austen, and produce at intervals a new discovery in support of their claim - a new artist, a new hidden message, a linen stamp or yet another family anecdote about Great Aunt Jane.' In a stroke, the flow of new evidence which has steadily emerged is discounted and, as the authors themselves record, 'each new proof of authenticity has been dismissed by the art establishment on one set of grounds or another.' Whether the refusal by the art establishment to even consider the evidence is justified or is motivated by other concerns is, of course, another matter entirely.

The Brimful article moves on to the latest new evidence to emerge - the research carried out by Stephen Cole of Acumé Forensics in 2012 - evidence which is roundly dismissed by Foster and Sutherland. It is therefore worth taking a closer look at the credentials of Stephen Cole. Acumé Forensics is a private company, set up by Stephen Cole and colleague Michael Dixon, together with two former police officers, in 2004. Their expertise is in using all forms of digital technology to solve crime and in this they are leaders in their field. You can see HERE  a list of criminal investigations which they have been involved in. Acumé have also been used for historical investigations: they were employed by National Geographic and ITN to reconstruct the case of Jack the Ripper and they also worked with Clare Balding analysing the film footage for Channel 4's documentary 'Secrets of a Suffragette' on the death of Suffragette Emily Davison, which aired in 2013.

Stephen Cole was asked to examine a photograph of the Rice Portrait which had been taken by Sir Emery Walker, well known photographer, engraver and printer, in 1910. The National Portrait Gallery hold two original glass negatives of the photograph Walker took of the Rice Portrait in that year. It was a high resolution digital scan of these two negatives provided by the National Portrait Gallery that Stephen Cole was asked to analyse.

His conclusion was that there were two signatures of Ozias Humphry, the words  'Jane Austen _7' and the possible date of 178_ in the upper right hand corner of the portrait.

You can read his full report HERE.

Given the reputation of Stephen Cole in his field of expertise, the response of Foster and Sutherland is surprising considering that neither of them claim to be either art experts or experts in digital technology. They explain away the findings as 'the effect of the cracked glaze glinting against the flash of Walker's camera, faults in the film of later version, or even hairline scratches on the original glass negative.' Their dismissal of the findings is quite remarkable. It must be of great comfort to the criminals currently spending a total of 850 years behind bars thanks to Acumé's research to hear that their work can be so easily discounted! Stephen Cole's work is internationally recognised by criminal courts. As such his analysis deserves to be treated with some consideration rather than simply dismissed out of hand. (In a letter to the Times Literary Supplement in response to the Foster/Sutherland article published in August 2014, Stephen Cole was understandably less than impressed by the manner in which his work, and by extension, the reputation of Acumé Forensics had been impugned. In their turn Foster and Sutherland responded that Acumé's expertise was not in authenticating works of art and that they could not see the relevance of Acume's investigation to authenticating the portrait.)

Ozias Humphry, self-portrait
Recent evidence, included that cited above, is suggesting that the portrait is not by Johann Zoffany as was once thought, but by Ozias Humphry, who was a competent but by no means a great portraitist; Humphry's real talent had been in miniatures.

The authors point out that Ozias Humphry would not have been entitled to sign his paintings 'RA' until he was elected to the Royal Academy as a full member in 1791. Until then he should be signing 'ARA' as an associate member. Foster and Sutherland advance this as further evidence that the findings of Stephen Cole are inaccurate.

However, whilst it is true that Ozias Humphry was not admitted as a full member of the Royal Academy until 1791, there is clear evidence that Humphry WAS signing his portraits RA long before this date, and as early as 1786.

In his biography of Ozias Humphry published in 1918, G C Williamson published images of some of Humphry's miniatures which he'd painted in India during his time there from 1785 until 1787, including a miniature of a young boy, Saib Zada, son and heir to Asoph ul Dowlah whose portrait Humphry also painted while at Lucknow in 1786. At the time Williamson was writing his biography these miniatures were in the ownership of R.S. Aitchison. The miniature of Saib Zaida later came into the ownership of Valerie Eliot, widow of TS Eliot, and after her death it was sold along with the rest of her collection at Christie's in 2013 for £56,250. It is signed by 'Ozias Humphry RA Pinxt' and is dated 1786. As far as I am aware no-one is claiming that this portrait is a fake, despite the fact Humphry had signed the portrait RA a full five years before he was formally entitled to do so.

Entry in Blouin Art Sales Index

Saib Zada by Ozias Humphry in G C Williamson
  Life and Works of Ozias Humphry, R.A. London, 1918, p 146.
reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

The Brimful article goes on to point out that until the 1980s the painting was thought to be by Zoffany and so it was. But misattribution is not that unusual. Ozias Humphry's The Ladies Waldegrave as Venus and Juno (not to be confused with Joshua Reynolds' The Ladies Waldegrave), for example, was once thought to have been painted by Romney. The portrait was sold by art dealers Lewis and Simmons for $100,000 to New York art collector Henry Edward Huntington as being a portrait of Mrs Siddons and Miss Kemble by George Romney. The latter subsequently sued for breach of warranty.

The Ladies Waldegrave by Ozias Humphry
It took a seven day court case in May 1917 in the Kings Bench Division in front of Mr Justice Darling for the matter to be decided. The portrait had been owned by a Mr John Adams and apparently 'the family got into the habit of calling it Reynolds.' (1).  The case ended suddenly when the plaintiff produced a sketch of the painting which had been discovered in the archives of the Royal Academy and which was undoubtedly by Ozias Humphry with his distinctive monogram of an H within an O in the bottom right-hand corner. Moreover, it was held that the subjects of the portrait were not Mrs Siddons and Miss Kemble but (Charlotte) Maria and (Anne) Horatia Waldegrave. No blame was attached to the defendants, who had sold the portrait believing it was a Romney.

The Times, London, England,  24 May 1917: 4

As the Devonian Yearbook for 1918 remarked in its article The Great Picture Case - 'an interesting feature of the case is the evidence it gives of the fallibility of experts and of the fictitious value of pictures.'

The Times put it more bluntly. 'The fallibility of expert judgements in the matter of art has long been notorious, and a single mistake, however serious, need not necessarily cast discredit on the skills of those who make it,' the paper observed in its editorial of May 24, 1917. 'The experts who blundered in this instance may feel a little sore.' After recounting other mistakes of the art world, the author of the editorial continued with the following advice: 'the lesson for experts from these and other cases is the old lesson - not to be too "cocksure" in their opinions, and still more, not to be too positive in stating them.'

After the sudden culmination of the court case, the Humphry portrait of the Ladies Waldegrave was offered by the defendants to the National Portrait Gallery. It was thought it may have been of interest as a rare example of Ozias Humphry's work in oils. Presumably the offer was rejected by the NPG as the portrait is now in private hands.

It was in the 1980's that Ozias Humphry's name was connected to the Rice Portrait. The authors of Brimful of Tricks record that art historian Madeleine Marsh suggested it was by Ozias Humphry and in this she was supported by an insurance valuation of 1985 by fine art valuer Conall Macfarlane, who for many years was a director of Christie's Auction House. In his valuation he described the portrait as by Ozias Humphry and of a 'Portrait of a girl, possibly Jane Austen but certainly a member of the Austen family shown standing full length in a white dress holding a green parasol, a landscape beyond - signed with initials'. He goes on to say: 'Recent research would appear to indicate that this may be a portrait of the novelist as a child, circa 1790.'

Valuation by Christie's in 1985

The authors of Brimful don't mention that the National Portrait Gallery also attributed the portrait to Ozias Humphry in their Directory of Regency Portraits published in 1985. NPG curator RichardWalker stated that the portrait which had formerly been attributed to Zoffany was more likely to be by Ozias Humphry and was of a young girl in the costume of about 1805, when Jane would have been 30. As Ozias Humphry went blind in 1797 this was an impossibility - which just goes to show that the experts at the NPG, like other experts, are capable of making mistakes.

(In the same year the linen stamp bearing the name W Legg was discovered on the back of the canvas which the NPG then claimed was proof that the portrait was painted after 1800. I have covered this issue at length in previous posts on this blog. I do not believe that this evidence is in any way conclusive. It is quite possible that this is not the stamp of William Legg the colourman from Reading but of another W Legg.)

The Brimful article then moves on discuss the written evidence for the portrait. As the authors note, the first known reference to the portrait was in December 1880 when Rev Dr. Thomas Harding Newman wrote to his friend John Rouse Bloxham that he had a portrait of the novelist that he would like to give to their mutual friend and Jane's relative, John Morland Rice. But how much weight can - or should - be placed on this lack of written evidence? After all, the first documentary evidence for the Cassandra sketch held in the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), dates only from 1869 when it was produced for James Edward Austen-Leigh's Memoir. Like the Rice Portrait, no mention of the Cassandra sketch was made when Richard Bentley was looking for a portrait to accompany his reissue of Austen's works in 1833. And the Byrne portrait, which I believe Dr Sutherland (as do I) thinks may also be a portrait of Jane Austen, has no written documentary evidence whatsoever.

Indeed, the lack of documentary evidence is not really that surprising. If there's one thing the Austens were good at, it was destroying documentary evidence. Cassandra Austen destroyed most of the letters from Jane, and then in 1865 when Admiral Francis Austen's daughter Frances (Fanny) inherited all the letters Jane Austen had written to Fanny's mother, she promptly burned the lot. Hardly any documentary evidence survives of the Austen family. As Caroline Austen wrote to her brother Austen-Leigh when he was preparing to write his biography of Jane Austen - 'I am sure you will do justice to what there is - but I feel it must be a difficult task to dig up the materials, so carefully have they been buried out of our sight by the past generat[ion]' (2)

It is likely that the only reason Austen Leigh wrote his biography of Jane Austen at all was to pre-empt someone else writing it - at least that way the family could control the narrative. As Caroline wrote in her Memoir in 1867, 'A memoir of Miss Jane Austen has often been asked for, and strangers have declared themselves willing and desirous to undertake the task of writing it - and have wondered that the family should have refused to supply the necessary materials.' 'Private' would be one word to describe the Austen family; 'Secretive' would be equally appropriate.

Did James Edward Austen-Leigh know about the Rice portrait? I believe that he probably did. I have described HERE how Colonel Thomas Harding Newman's third wife Anna Maria Parry was connected to Speen, the small village between Kintbury and Newbury. Anna Maria's father Charles Parry was the Vicar of Speen and her mother, Mary Parry, rented her house to James Edward Austen-Leigh for four years, from 1833 until 1837 when he inherited nearby Scarlets. When he moved out his mother Mary and sister Caroline moved into the house, which by now had been inherited by Anna Maria Parry and her sister, Harriet Allen. According to Deirdre Le Faye's Chronology they took over the house for one year. However it seems that Mary Austen and Caroline Austen remained at Speen until after Mary's death in 1843. According to Le Faye, Caroline Austen left Speen on July 10, 1844. Anna Maria Parry had married Thomas Harding Newman in 1840 and they initially lived in Northam near Bideford, Devon, where Harding Newman's son also lived. Later they moved to Speen and are recorded as living here on the 1851 census where they remained until their respective deaths in 1856 and 1872. Given these links it is likely that James Edward Austen-Leigh and Thomas Harding Newman did know each other, in which case it is also highly likely that James Edward Austen-Leigh knew that Thomas Harding Newman possessed a portrait of Jane Austen which had been given to his wife.

So why did James Edward Austen-Leigh not use the portrait in his Memoir? It is possible that this portrait had - for some reason - become a subject of embarrassment or resentment to this side of the Austen family. Despite their efforts to present a close knit loving family, one does not have to look far under the surface to realise that this was very far from reality, despite the Austen family's efforts at concealment. It appears that by the time Austen-Leigh became persuaded that a biography of his aunt was necessary, that there was already a serious rift within the family.

Foster and Sutherland state that Austen-Leigh's biography was 'a joint effort by various relatives who had known the novelist.' It was a joint effort - but only from certain sections of the family. It did not include the members of Jane's brother Edward Austen Knight's family. As Dr Sutherland explains in her own excellent introduction to Austen-Leigh's Memoir of Jane Austen, before publishing his biography of Jane Austen, Austen-Leigh had written to Edward's daughter Fanny Knight, now Lady Knatchbull, asking for sight of Jane's letters to her sister Cassandra which Fanny Knight had inherited. His request had been refused, not just by Fanny, who was now senile, but also by Fanny's sister Elizabeth Rice and her daughter Louisa. In the end, Austen-Leigh had to publish without them.

That there was a family rift is also suggested by the later actions of Lord Brabourne, Edward Knatchbull. As Foster and Sutherland recount, Fanny Knight's son, Lord Brabourne, in 1884 published his Letters of Jane Austen which was intended as a rival publication to Austen-Leigh's Memoir. Dr Sutherland in her introduction to the Memoir relates how when Brabourne published his mother's collection of letters 'he attached to them a short introduction whose chief purpose appears to be to oust Austen-Leigh's biography and assert his rival claims to the more authentic portrait.' Brabourne is explicit; these letters 'have never been in [Austen-Leigh's] hands' and they 'afford a picture of her such as no history written by another person could give.' (3)

The two sides of the family were clearly in competition with each other and Lord Brabourne did use the Rice portrait as his frontispiece. But immediately after his own book was published, he set about selling off the precious letters written by Jane that he had inherited. They obviously held no sentimental value for him. In 1919 Austen scholar Robert Chapman wrote to Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh about it: 'It is very disappointing about the Letters, I wish they might have come back to the family, and [I'm] incensed at the vandalism of the late Lordship - scandalous old man!' (4)

Perhaps James Edward Austen-Leigh and his siblings know very well about the portrait - but for reasons of their own, chose to ignore it.

Foster and Sutherland remark that 'even at the time, it seemed extraordinary to some that a family as socially aspiring as the Austens should nowhere have mentioned the fact before 1883 that their eminent ancestor had been painted by one of the great portraitists of the age.' But while Rev. Dr. Thomas Harding Newman referred to the painting as being by Zoffany, there is no evidence of what previous owners believed. It now seems likely that it was painted by Ozias Humphry, who was a lesser known portraitist. Furthermore, we have absolutely no idea what the Austen family discussed between them. If the portrait had been commissioned by another branch of the family, from which they were now estranged, and had never been in the possession of the immediate relations of Jane Austen, is it really so extraordinary that we have no documentary record of them mentioning the fact?

Despite being previously unaware of the portrait, there were many in the next generation who nevertheless believed it to be a portrait of the novelist. Foster and Sutherland relate that 'members of the family were urged to authenticate the painting.' There was no 'urging' as far as I can tell - however the recipient of the portrait, Morland Rice, having been given the portrait by a descendant of the Harding Newman family, was naturally keen to ascertain its history, and there is no reason why this should be surprising. The authors relate how:

'Fanny Caroline Lefroy, a great-niece born three years after Austen's death and then in her sixties, considered to know "more than anybody about family history", wrote to Mary Augusta Austen-Leigh on October 23, 1883. "I never heard before of the portrait of Jane Austen . . . . I suppose Mr Morland Rice can throw some light on the matter, or is it a picture he has picked up of a Jane Austen painted by Romney but not the Jane. Mr Morland Austen picked one up & fondly believed it was her, but it was painted at Malta where she never was." '

But when you read the whole letter which Fanny wrote to Mary, she sounds much more open to the idea of it being genuine:

I never heard before of the portrait of Jane Austen I feel sure it never was either at Steventon or Chawton. My mother & Aunt Caroline would certainly have recollected it had they ever seen it. In 1789 the year it was painted she was a school girl in the Abbey School here. Possibly she might have been to Godmersham to stay with her cousins & companionise her brother Edward & possibly Mr and Mrs Knight had it done. I suppose Mr Morland Rice can throw some light on the matter or is it a picture he has picked up of a Jane Austen painted by Romney but not the Jane. Mr Morland Austen picked one up & fondly believed it was her, but it was painted at Malta where she never was. I will write & ask Cassie if she knows anything of it. I am sure her father & mother never had any money to spend on portraits of their children. If it is genuine would not would not [sic] Mr M.R. generously allow it to be photographed? I should greatly like to see it. (5)

(In her article A Literary Portrait Re-examined, published in the Book Collector in 1996, Deirdre Le Faye in quoting the above letter writes 1787 but I think this is a transcription error for I read the date as 1789. See below.)

The date 1789 from Fanny Lefroy's letter to
Mary Augusta Austen-Leigh

According to Foster and Sutherland, a year later Fanny is still 'struggling with one or two difficulties,' as recorded in a letter of September 9, 1884 from Morland Austen to Morland Rice They don't finish the sentence as he actually wrote it however. In full it reads: 'Except for one or two difficulties, she would have no doubts about its genuineness.'

The complete letter is reproduced below:

My dear Rice,

I thank you very much for your interesting letter, which puts the matter in a very different light. I saw Miss Lefroy yesterday. She knows more than anybody about the family history. She knew before of the portrait in your possession. Except for one or two difficulties, she would have no doubts about its genuineness. 

1. Jane A. was born Dec, 1775. The date on your picture is (she thinks) 1788 or 9, making her not 14.
2. Her parents did not go to Bath till they left Stevenson in 1801.
3. Jane and Cassandra were at school in Reading at that period. 

But on the other hand her Uncle and Aunt Leigh Perrot often visited Bath and she may have been with them, also "Northanger Abbey" was written long before 1801 and the local colouring is such as to show that she must have been there before she wrote it. 

There was only one Col Austen of Kippington, my father's elder brother, who married 1st Miss Morland, your mother's dear friend from girlhood, and from whom you have your own name as your mother told me three years ago.  
2nd Caroline Manning - who now lives at Hurstpierpoint and whom you met the other day.
My father was a second cousin of Jane Austen. My brother sold Kippington on inheriting some twenty years since and built a new house on the really old family property at Horsmonden, which my father had from old John Austen from Broadford and also the Tenterden property from another branch. Sir Henry A. whose wife (as mentioned in his life) was the great friend of Cowper the poet. The Tunbridge branch was the same. 
If you really want it, I could perhaps get the whole pedigree for you. 
We live in 45 Hertford St.Mayfair and are only here till the 24th. 
We should be very glad to see you any time you may be in London, if you will look us up I may have some more information to give you. 

Yours sincerely 
H Morland Austen 

Fanny's certainty about the date is intriguing. In her letter to Mary Augusta Austen-Leigh she refers to '1789 the year it was painted,' and in Morland Austen's letter he says 'the date on your portrait is (she thinks) 1788 or 9'  - which suggests that she has seen the date on the portrait itself.

Far from 'invent an alternative provenance,' as the authors of Brimful state, it seems to me that Fanny Lefroy and Morland Rice are quite reasonably trying to square the information they have been given about the portrait with the known facts about Jane Austen's younger years. Quite possibly Morland Rice knew that Zoffany was in India from 1784 until 1790 which of course presents him with a difficulty if the portrait was painted in 1788 or 1789 as Fanny Lefroy believed. Doubts about the Zoffany attribution may also explain why Romney was mentioned as the possible artist.

The case might have been different if the mistake over the artist had not occurred  - Ozias Humphry had been in India at the same time as Zoffany - however he returned earlier, in the spring of 1788, and we know that later that year he was staying at Stephen Woodgate's residence in Sevenoaks as his post was redirected there from London. See HERE for the record in the Royal Academy. Ozias' brother William was married to Elizabeth Woodgate and Humphry spent a great deal of time at Seal and Sevenoaks. 

The portrait was used by James Edward's son, William, and the latter's nephew Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh in their biography of 1913 and by his daughter Mary Augusta Austen-Leigh in her biography, published in 1920. And as the authors of Brimful relate, John Hubback, the grandson of Jane's brother, Francis, was particularly enthusiastic about it - although whether he was in a position to exert pressure on the National Portrait Gallery, as is asserted by the authors, is very questionable.

Frontispiece to Mary Augusta Austen Leigh's
Personal Aspects of Jane Austen
Published 1920

In fact it was the NPG who first contacted Hubback via a Mrs Graveson because at the time Director Henry Hake was hunting for a portrait of Jane Austen for his gallery. John Hubback then contacted Henry Edward Harcourt Rice and subsequently wrote back to the NPG directly. He informed Hake that Henry Rice did not wish to sell the portrait but that he was willing for a copy to be made. Hubback suggested his own daughter, who was an artist, could carry out the task. Hake met with Hubback and explained that the Trustees did not buy modern copies of portraits. He did however note in a memorandum of the meeting on 6 October 1932 that ‘in the event of the picture having to come to this Institution we would like to have the opportunity of acquiring it.’(6)

One can assume, therefore, that at this stage the NPG were happy to accept the portrait as genuine or why would they wish to acquire it?

It was only later that NPG Director, Henry Hake, perhaps persuaded by Austen academic Robert Chapman who was not an enthusiast of the Rice Portrait, came out against it. After the Gallery acquired the 'Cassandra scribble' their position hardened still further. It was only after this that Richard Austen Leigh, co-author of the Austen biography published in 1913, reported that he had always had his doubts about the portrait. One can't help wondering how things would have worked out if the Rice family had sold it to the NPG in 1932.

In the next post I will look at the next part of the Brimful of Tricks article, which examines the life of Rev. Dr. Thomas Harding Newman and makes a quite extraordinary claim - that the Rice Portrait is in fact a fake.


(1) The Times May 16, 1817.
(2) Caroline Austen to JEAL NPG RWC/HH. fos 4-7 in Sutherland, Kathryn (Ed) J.R. Austen-Leigh A Memoir of Jane Austen and Other Family Recollections (Oxford University Press, 2002) 
(3) Ibid. Sutherland. Introduction: xxv
(4) Hampshire Record Office 23M93/97/4
(5) Hampshire Record Office 39M89/F25/2
(6) Rice Family Archive
(7) Heinz Archive, National Portrait Gallery

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic, your article is brimming with brilliance.