Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Jane Austen, 18th Century Costume and the Rice Portrait. Are the experts out of date?

The Rice Portrait

"Your gown seems very pretty. I like these glossy spots"
 Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park
The arguments surrounding the dating of the dress of the girl in the Rice Portrait have been rumbling on for years and remain the main reason given by the National Portrait Gallery for refusing to accept it is a portrait of Jane Austen. As far back in 1941 C K Adams of the National Portrait Gallery said: "The style of dress with narrow ribbon round high waist, and slightly puffed half sleeves is of the period c1805. In a search I have not found a similar dress on a dated portrait before 1803 when Jane was 28."

Where C K Adams searched we do not know but it is worth remembering that this was at the height of the Second World War in an era pre-internet, pre-television and pre-mass communication.

More recently, in 1995, Professor Aileen Ribeiro of the Courtauld Institute said that the Rice Portrait "cannot be earlier than c1800 and therefore cannot be Austen as a young girl." She was not always so certain, as she acknowledged - "When asked to comment a few years ago, I noted that this type of costume, as worn by young girls, could range in date from the late eighteenth century to the early nineteenth. Now I am sure a date in the first decade of the nineteenth century is right."

These days searching for pictures is easy and a search on "Pinterest" shows pages of portraits of children in white muslin dresses.

I am not a fashion expert. But to my untrained eye, many of the dresses in portraits dated before 1800 share common features with the dress of the girl in the Rice Portrait including puffed sleeves, narrow ribbons and high waists.

I am therefore at a loss to understand how the dress in the Rice Portrait can be so categorically dated to after 1800.

Here are some examples which I have found searching online:

Detail from The Oddie Children
William Beechey

Portrait of an Unknown Girl
William Marshall Craig

From Portrait of the Willett Children
George Romney

Detail showing sleeves

Mary Sheppard
John Russell

Small girl presenting cherries
John Russell

Shepherd Girl  (Little Bo Peep)
George Romney

Detail of sleeve

Portrait of a Girl
William Beechey

Sir Thomas Lawrence

Detail showing half sleeve

The Little Gardener
John Hoppner
c 1790

Detail from Charlotte Grenville with her Children
by Joshua Reynolds
c 1778

Detail from Mr and Mrs John Cunstance of Norwich
and their daughter Frances
William Beechey
c 1786

Boy and Cat
John Russell

Portrait of a Young Girl
John Russell
c 1780

Unknown Girl
Louis Ami Arlaud-Jurine

Detail of sleeve compared to the Rice Portrait sleeve on the right
The portrait on the left has been dated c1790

Princess Amelia
Sir William Beechey

Princess Sophia
Sir William Beechey

The Romps
William Redmore Bigg

Collectors and experts on Eighteenth century costume Lillian and Ted Williams thought that the dress could date to the eighteenth century: 

Having carefully examined the actual portrait, as opposed to its reproduction, we find several elements that clearly suggest eighteenth century dating starting in the late 1780s. We ourselves have owned several eighteenth century gowns similar to the one pictured in the Rice Portrait. In the Rice Portrait, we note the fullness of the cut of the dress with substantial distribution of its fabric around the bodice rather than trained in the rear in the later Empire style. Furthermore, the gauze gathered around the neckline – which is not discernible in many photographic reproductions – is consistent with late eighteenth century garniture. Finally, the shoes and certainly the parasol with its fringe of cut green silk are consistent with the same period. As far as dating is concerned, the width of the ribbon at the bodice is of no consequence one way or the other in our view.

Lillian Williams'
18th Century shoe collection

In 1993 Richard Walker of the National Portrait Gallery wrote in a letter to Deirdre Le Faye that "I think the costume experts have been over-confident and the dress she wears could be of the 1790's"

Having looked at the these portraits I think that he is right - what do you think?

Thank you for reading. My next post on Deirdre Le Faye's 1995 article A Literary Portrait Re-Examined. Jane Austen and Mary Anne Campion, published in The Book Collector will follow soon.

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