Friday, 1 April 2016

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

Rev. Dr Thomas Harding Newman
In July 2014 the Times Literary Supplement published an article written by Austen scholar Dr Kathryn Sutherland and journalist Henrietta Foster titled Brimful of Tricks (Brimful). You can read the full article HERE. I've discussed the first section of the article, on the history of the Rice portrait, in the first of this two part blogpost HERE.

In this second part I am analysing the latter half of the Brimful article, which examines the life of Rev. Dr Thomas Harding Newman and advances a radical and surprising new theory - that he forged the portrait of Jane Austen as an act of revenge.

Rev. Dr Thomas Harding Newman was the eldest son of Colonel Thomas Harding Newman and his first wife, Harriet Cartwright, who died when Thomas was four. Sutherland and Foster set out the facts of his life succinctly: "Newman was born in 1811 at Hornchurch, Essex, into a rich family with interests in Jamaica and Barbados. His family owned Clacton Hall in Essex and Black Callerton in Northumberland, and he hunted with his own pack of foxhounds. He went up to Wadham College, Oxford, in1829 and was elected a demy at Magdalen College in 1832 and a Fellow from 1846, remaining in post until 1873, when he resigned his fellowship and returned to Essex on receipt of a large increase in income. He died in April 1882."

(For more on the Rev. Dr Thomas Harding Newman you can also read my post HERE.)

The authors of Brimful recount that on December 30, 1880 Thomas Harding Newman wrote to his former Magdalen colleague John Rouse Bloxam (nephew of the artist Sir Thomas Lawrence) and informed him of his wish that their mutual friend Morland Rice, a great-nephew of Jane Austen,  should have the portrait of Austen which had come into his family via Harding Newman's stepmother, his father's second wife, Eliza Hall.

Harding Newman wrote:

"I should like to give another painting of Jane Austen, the novelist by Zoffany to her relative your neighbour Morland Rice. It is of a girl about 15 and came into my family the gift of Col. Austen of Chippington [sic] to my mother-in-law, or rather stepmother, my father’s second wife; who was a great admirer of the novelist. I can remember Col. Austen visiting this place. Latterly when at Bramber I have failed to fall in with my old friend. I don’t think he can have forgotten me. I was at Oxford when he knocked his head against a post and ascertained that the post was the harder of the two." 

This is the first known written reference to the portrait.

On Easter Monday 1883, a year after Harding Newman's death, John Rouse Bloxam wrote a letter to his friend General Gibbes Rigaud:

"Talking of paintings Hardman-Newman [sic], nephew of Dr Newman has just sent me a full-length portrait by Zoffany of Miss Jane Austen, the novelist, to give to Rice, who is a connection of the Lady. Rice is much pleased with it – I knew Newman intended to leave it to Rice but did not – but his nephew to his great credit has given it." (Correspondence held at Bodleian Library, Oxford)
Letter from John Rouse Bloxam to General Gibbes Rigaud

The Brimful article then goes on to examine accounts of the Rev. Dr Thomas Harding Newman. From these reports they suggest that the character that emerges from the reminiscences of his contemporaries casts doubt on the entire provenance of the Rice portrait.

The authors refer to the reminiscences of two brothers - Lewis and William Tuckwell, both of whom refer to Thomas Harding Newman's penchant for playing practical jokes. It should, however, be noted that neither of the Tuckwell brothers was a contemporary of Harding Newman; William Tuckwell was eighteen years younger than Harding Newman, while Lewis Tuckwell was almost thirty years his junior. William Tuckwell's resminiscences were published in 1901, and as Owen Cheswick remarked, one of his foibles was "to pretend to be much older than he was." Lewis Tuckwell's Old Magdalen Days was not published until 1913. "Reminiscences" written so long after the fact should be treated with a degree of caution. Nevertheless, the reports of Harding Newman as being a consummate practical joker seem justified and many are the tales of the pranks he used to play. William Tuckwell recorded that while many of his sayings and pranks survived, they were mainly too coarse for repetition.

The third biography referenced by Sutherland and Foster is by W.D. Macray who in his Register of the Members of St Mary Magdalen College, Oxford (1909), recorded of Harding Newman:

"Possessing artistic taste and knowledge, he yet, by an unrestrained indulgence of humour which led to great eccentricity, practically often acted as the College jester, and it must be said that it was well for the College, and all for any parish in which he might have lived, that he never became the incumbent of any benefice in the gift of the College."

Thomas Harding Newman was undoubtedly a practical joker, a man who delighted in acting the fool to entertain his friends and peers.

Sutherland and Foster then move on the obituary of Thomas Harding Newman, which appeared in the periodicals Life and Modern Society in June 1882. It is rather unfortunate that throughout the obituary the anonymous author refers to "James" Harding Newman rather than "Thomas" - and it is unlikely therefore that he is writing from personal knowledge or acquaintance with Thomas Harding Newman himself.

According to this obituary, titled "An Oxford Eccentric", The Rev. Dr Harding Newman was a very funny man:

''Imagine, then, in Dr Newman an old gentleman of the middle height, sprightly and springy; the countenance oval, the nostrils large, the nose rectangular and serving at the tip to support his spectacles, the mouth rather broad and rippling with humour, the eye prominent and evironed by a huge ring, and the forehead partially concealed under a chestnut wig cut straight; in a word a Pickwick without embonpoint, and with a sarcastic in lieu of a weak mouth...he was before all things a raconteur.'' 

He was "from first to last brimful of tricks". The obituary recounts that "his mission was to raise a laugh and he would never spare trouble. He would buy an old picture at some one of the Wych Street shops for a song, touch it up in accordance with his intuitions, and exhibit it to his friends as a genuine old master."

Foster and Sutherland advise that "Wych Street probably refers to an ancient medieval street in London, standing where the Aldwych is now, and known for its abundance of booksellers and antiquarian shops".

This description of Wych Street is not quite accurate however. A contemporary reader would have immediately understood the reference  - for Wych Street along with nearby Holywell Street was a famously disreputable area, well known not so much for antiquarian shops as for selling pornographic books and pictures. As early as 1849, a letter to The Times decried "Holy-well Street and Wych Street in which are shops the windows of which display books and pictures of the most disgusting and obscene character." It was here that one of the most prolific publishers of pornography in the nineteenth century, William Dugdale, plied his trade. The whole area was finally bulldozed in the early twentieth century as part of a slum clearance scheme.

Wych Street 1870
Illustrated London News
The inference is that Rev. Dr  Harding Newman thought it amusing to buy a pornographic picture in Wych Street and pass it off as a nude painted by an old master. (Perhaps he was also making a more serious philosophical point about the distinction between pornography and art?) This fits perfectly with what we know of Thomas Harding Newman's character, one whose speech was "a trifle to pungent for the staider spirits of the Athenaeum", and a man who was fond of jokes which were "too coarse to be repeated".

Harding Newman was also an antiquarian, like his friend John Rouse Bloxam. Foster and Sutherland state that "it was, apart from Magdalen, the only thing they had in common." Not quite - they did, for example, have a number of friends in common, such as Thomas Henry Whorwood who left bequests to both Bloxam and Harding Newman in his will. When the old gates of Balliol College, dating from 1288, were being thrown out Harding Newman rescued them and installed them at his home at Nelmes. (Subsequently they were recovered and restored to Balliol and are thought to be the oldest gates in the country.)

The authors of Brimful then recount Harding Newman's 1873 libel case against Rev T. H. Griffith who had accused him of "committing an unnatural offence" after "serious reports respecting his character reached the ears of the vicar of the parish." Griffith was accusing Harding Newman of being gay, which at that time was an imprisonable offence and as the later tragic stories of Oscar Wilde  and Alan Turing have shown, discriminatory laws against gay people led to harsh consequences. The jury found in Harding Newman's favour and after finding Griffith guilty of malice towards Harding Newman, awarded £300 to the latter in damages.

Foster and Sutherland suggest that it was the "ongoing scandal" of this case which gave Magdalen a reason to refuse Harding Newman a College living and his obituary records that "Oxford became in his later days anything but a congenial spot". But the assertion by the authors of Brimful that he left Magdalen with a sense of grievance is pure conjecture. According to the obituary in Modern Living, it was the fact that by the 1870's Harding Newman had become something of an anachronism in modern Oxford that was the problem. "The era of the eccentric college fellow is over" the obituarist records, somewhat regretfully. "Newman was the last of his race, and the funniest."

The modernising of the universities had started in the 1850s with the University Reform Act of 1854 which removed the privileges previously enjoyed by descendants and relatives of benefactors. Reform continued gradually during the 1860s culminating in the Cleveland Commission of 1873. Universities were becoming more orientated towards serious scholarship and it seems Thomas Harding Newman was somewhat out of step with this brave new world. "The existence of such a sinecurist in an institution presumably intended for education was an anomaly, an absurdity, and an anachronism" as his obituarist put it and so "when his college decided for him that he had inherited too large a private fortune to continue to retain his fellowship, he acquiesced in a decision which, perhaps, was a little severe, and betook himself to his ancestral home at Nelmes, near Romford."

Foster and Sutherland hypothesise that added to this supposed "sense of grievance" was the "indignity" of being compared to his namesake, the charismatic theologian John Henry Newman. No evidence is put forward to support the assertion that Thomas Harding Newman objected to comparison with his namesake - in fact the evidence we do have points in the opposite direction - that it did not bother him at all and that, on the contrary, Thomas Harding Newman found the confusion between the two Newmans immensely amusing. According to his obituary in Modern Living he once sent a jocular poem to two elderly sisters who had mistakenly written to him instead of to John Henry Newman.

Mary Allies, the daughter of Harding Newman's step-sister Eliza Hall Newman who had married the Rev. Thomas William Allies, wrote in her biography of her father:

"At Oxford he [Thomas Allies] became intimate with the Rev. Thomas Harding Newman, of Magdalen, his future brother-in-law. Thomas Harding was a Newman by accident, for his father, Mr. Newman of Nelmes took the name of Newman instead of Harding. There was thus no relationship between Thomas H. Newman and John Henry Newman, only the difference of the letter T, and both were doctors of divinity after the approved Anglican fashion. This letter T led to many jokes caused by mistaken identity, and no one enjoyed them more than T. H. Newman." 
(Thomas William Allies by Mary H Allies, 1907)

Foster and Sutherland then suggest that Harding Newman comes up with a plan for revenge. The plan is not to embarrass John Henry Newman or Magdalen College directly but more obtusely it is to buy an old portrait, "rework it" to pass it off as Jane Austen and give it to Jane's great-nephew John Morland Rice as a gift. The suggestion is that as Magdalen was also Morland Rice's alma mater and as Rice was a friend of John Rouse Bloxam, the unwitting go-between, who in turn was a lifelong friend and one time curate of John Henry Newman, this deception would embarrass them all, particularly as John Henry Newman was known to enjoy the works of Jane Austen.

John Henry Newman

The authors posit that in order to make the deception more plausible, Harding Newman invented a provenance to the portrait by saying that it had been given to his stepmother Eliza Hall by Colonel Thomas Austen. The involvement of their mutual acquaintance John Rouse Bloxam would give the plan more credence than if he gave the portrait directly to Morland Rice.

So how credible is this theory? Aside from the fact there is no evidence whatsoever that Thomas Harding Newman bore any sense of grievance, jealousy or desire for revenge, and that his supposed means of seeking revenge is more than a little convoluted, there are some other major problems with the theory that the portrait is an elaborate hoax.

An obvious flaw in the theory is that Thomas Harding Newman failed to carry out the supposed plan. Despite his stated intention he never gave the portrait to Morland Rice. The authors suggest that that he "somehow forgets to formalise the arrangement." Is it really credible that if, as this theory suggests, having gone to a huge amount of effort in setting up an elaborate hoax by buying an old portrait and re-working it to look like a young Jane Austen and writing a letter to his friend Bloxham with an invented provenance, in order to exact revenge - he would then simply forget to carry it out? Doesn't sound like much of a revenge! It was left to his nephew, Benjamin Harding Newman to give the portrait to Morland Rice, apparently of his own volition, after Thomas Harding Newman's death in 1882.

There is also the difficulty Harding Newman would have had explaining his plan to his stepsister and daughter of Eliza Hall, Eliza Hall Allies. She was the wife of his close friend Thomas Allies. Both Eliza and Thomas Allies were prominent Tractarians and very close disciples of John Henry Newman. It is incredibly unlikely therefore that they would have colluded in such a scheme to embarrass him. If the account given by Thomas Harding Newman that the portrait had been a gift to his stepmother was a fabrication as is claimed here - then Eliza Hall Allies must have been aware that it had not belonged to her mother. Eliza Allies' sister, Julia Harding Newman, now married to a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, was also still alive at the time and so she too would presumably have had to have been included in the deception to "invent a story" that the portrait had been given to her mother.

Eliza Hall Allies 

According to the authors of Brimful, Thomas Harding Newman forgot to carry out his trick, but his heir  apparently "remembers". Whether they are alleging that the heir, Harding Newman's nephew Benjamin Harding Newman is complicit in the scheme or an innocent patsy, is not clear. If innocent, then he too, according to this theory, is unsurprised by the full-sized portrait of Austen which has suddenly appeared in his uncle's possessions, as is his mother, Anne Lefroy Sadleir (niece of Jane's "first love" Tom Lefroy.) She was living with Benjamin's sister, Harriet Croker, in Hornsey in north London. Harriet's husband was one of the two executors for Thomas Harding Newman. Are we asked to believe that none of these people questioned the story about it being given to Thomas Harding Newman's stepmother if the story was a fabrication?

Then there is the portrait which Harding Newman allegedly faked. He would have had no visual guide to Jane Austen's appearance aside from the engraving by Lizars published in James Edward Austen Leigh's biography in 1869. This engraving was based on a watercolour by James Andrews which in turn was based on the sketch by Cassandra Austen, which is now in the National Portrait Gallery but at that time was still in the private ownership of the Austen family.

The Lizars Engraving

The Andrews watercolour

The Cassandra sketch

Was it coincidence then, that he happened on a portrait which looks so similar in style to the painting of Jane Austen's brother, Edward Austen Knight, now hanging at Chawton House which is believed by many to also be a work by Ozias Humphry?

Edward Austen Knight's Portrait and the Rice Portrait 

And was it also a coincidence that, working from this:

He came up with this:

Which looks more like this:

than like either the Lizars engraving or the Andrews Portrait?

Quite an artistic achievement! According to this theory Thomas Harding Newman was not just a scheming fraudster, he was a talented artist - so talented he could take an old portrait from a junk shop and fashion it in such a way that it fooled, among others:

1 The National Portrait Gallery who wanted to buy it in 1932 
2. Richard Walker of the National Portrait Gallery who listed it as being by Ozias Humphry in his Catalogue of Regency Portraits in 1985
3. Conall Macfarlane, valuer and director at Christie's, who attributed the portrait to Ozias Humphry in 1985
Brian Stewart, Director of the Falmouth Art Gallery and co-author of Dictionary of English Portrait Painters up to 1920 and a recognised authority on British portraiture who believed the portrait to be by Ozias Humphry
5. Art Restorer Eva Schwan who examined the portrait in 2010 and believes the portrait to be by Ozias Humphry
6. Art critic and historian Brian Sewell, a long-time supporter of the Rice Portrait until his death in 2015 and
7. Angus Stewart, President of the British Section of the International Association of Art Critics, also a long time supporter of the Rice Portrait 

In spite of the fierce controversy over the subject and the artist, no art expert has ever suggested the Rice Portrait to be a late nineteenth century forgery by an amateur artist nor have experts suggested "possible reworking around the mouth and eye areas" as the authors of Brimful claim. 

The authors of Brimful conclude that "while the alternative provenance sketched here is speculative, the evidence concerning Newman is not." But the character the authors assign to Rev. Dr Thomas Harding Newman is also speculative. Described as a raconteur, a comedian and a practical joker, in contrast the authors present a bitter, vengeful and resentful man who harboured a sense of grievance, none of which is borne out by the evidence. William Tuckwell, for example, when introducing Harding Newman in his Reminiscences remarked that he claimed "a kindly though certainly not a reverential interest". He seems to have been recalled with great affection by those who remembered his antics at Oxford.

The obituary in Modern Society noted that he was "as prodigal of his hospitality to his friends as he was of his inimitable fun to the entire social circle" and "a thoroughly genial gentleman, who was always the best of good company, never better, perhaps, than after the second bottle of Magdalen port." The "jester" was a gentleman who "never once offended his college common-room". According to Jackson's Oxford Journal, "Dr Newman was a man of high attainments in art, and a very popular member of the Athenaeum Club, and was also well-known in West-end society." He had a wide circle of friends and a large number of inhabitants of the parish were present at the funeral "to witness the sad ceremony," according to the Essex Standard, who also reported that he was "a true-hearted gentleman, kind, courteous, liberal and sympathising."

"The scheme is ingenious and almost foolproof" according to Foster and Sutherland. But without any evidence the only ingenuity is in the febrile imagination of the authors in constructing such a fantastical theory. There is no evidence whatsoever to support the portrayal of Thomas Harding Newman as a vengeful, bitter or jealous man and the alleged motive for this supposed act of forgery is gossamer thin. There is no evidence that this portrait is a late nineteenth century fake. The hypothesis that the provenance was fabricated is unconvincing. "Brimful of tricks" Rev. Dr Thomas Harding Newman may have been. But scheming fraudster he certainly was not.

Thank you for reading. My next two posts will deal with Deirdre Le Faye's article A Literary Portrait Re-Examined published in The Book Collector winter 1996.