Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Jane Austen 200 and the Mystery of the Missing Portrait

In January 1817 Jane Austen began work on her latest novel, Sanditon. On 18 March she laid down her pen. She would not return to her novel again. Four months later, exactly 200 years ago today, at the age of 41, Jane Austen died at a house in Winchester.

House in Winchester where Jane Austen died

In her lifetime Austen completed six full-length novels. The four already published had been moderately successful, while Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were not yet published at all. ‘Short and easy will be the task of the mere biographer. A life of usefulness, literature, and religion, was not by any means a life of event,’ wrote Jane’s brother Henry condescendingly in his Biographical Notice which accompanied the publication of her final two novels six months after she died.

How different it is now. Jane Austen is very big business indeed. Her novels have spawned a lucrative global industry of films, books and merchandise worth billions. While her fame grew incrementally for the first hundred and fifty years or so, after the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice hit the small screen in 1995 and had a large percentage of the female viewing audience entranced by the image of Colin Firth in a wet shirt, the income generated by Brand Austen hit the stratosphere and its been rising ever since.

In this, the 200 year bicentenary of her death, the whole world has gone utterly Austen mad.

For Brand Austen, the lack of certainty about Jane’s appearance is an advantage. If we don’t have a reliable portrait of her then Austen can be shaped into whatever image we like. And what Brand Austen would like her to be, above all, is attractive. Image is everything.

Ideally for the Brand, Jane Austen would look like Jennifer Ehle’s Elizabeth Bennet, perhaps with a dash of Gwyneth Paltrow and a sprinkling of Anne Hathaway, or a soupçon of Anna Chancellor (who happens to be descended from Jane’s brother, Edward Austen) added to the mix. She would definitely be pretty. Without a definitive image, Jane Austen can be moulded to fit the Brand.

L'Amiable Jane
Take the ubiquitous silhouette of Jane Austen which adorns everything from the sign outside the Jane Austen House Museum to the £2.00 coin issued by the Royal Mint to commemorate the bicentenary. Yes, its a lovely image of a Regency woman. No, its not Jane Austen. There is nothing about the figure of the woman in this silhouette which accords with what we know about Austen, who was tall and very thin. There is no provenance for the picture at all, it just turned up in a second edition of Mansfield Park with the words L'Amiable Jane written above it.

The National Portrait Gallery bought the silhouette in the 1940s from Arthur Rogers, a dealer in rare books based in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. Rogers had bought it from another dealer, Archie Miles of Leeds who had picked up the book a few years before, possibly from a house in Bath, although Miles was not entirely sure about this.

But it’s easy to see why the silhouette of L’Amiable Jane remains in popular use. Aside from the fact that it is out of copyright and therefore can be freely used, it depicts an elegant and attractive Regency woman. The image fits Brand Austen like a silk glove.

For the bicentenary year, a series of events was launched to commemorate Austen's life and her work. In Hampshire the celebration of Austen's life and talent was launched under the aegis of Jane Austen 200 an impressive partnership of organisations including Hampshire County Council, Jane Austen House Museum, Chawton House Library, the Jane Austen Society among others. You can find the complete list of Partners on the Jane Austen 200 website HERE.

Winchester Discovery Centre

Last month I visited the exhibition which forms the centrepiece of the commemorations - The Mysterious Miss Austen, which opened on 13 May at Winchester Discovery Centre and runs for a few more days until 24 July 2017. At the centre of the exhibition are six portraits claimed to be of Jane Austen, 'together under one roof for the very first time'.

The six portraits are the watercolour of Jane Austen sitting with her back to us, the sketch said to have been drawn by Cassandra Austen owned by the NPG, the silhouette of L'Amiable Jane mentioned above and also owned by the NPG, the James Andrews portrait taken from the Cassandra sketch, the Byrne Portrait and the portrait contained in James Stanier Clarke's Friendship Book. (You can read a summary of all these pictures on my blogpage Portraits of Jane Austen HERE).

Byrne Portrait

Stanier Clarke Portrait

The James  -Andrews Portrait

And yet the Rice Portrait was conspicuous by its absence. There was no image of the portrait, no reference to it. It is not mentioned. For the purposes of this exhibition, the Rice Portrait does not exist.

The Rice Portrait

Towards the end of the exhibition is a display cabinet containing the Royal Mint commemorative coins. The booklet which accompanies the coins is not displayed. Why might this be I wonder? Could it be because the image of Jane Austen which is used by the Royal Mint is a reproduction of the Rice Portrait?

Royal Mint Booklet

For eighty years debate has raged about whether the Rice Portrait portrays a young Jane Austen. Books have been written about it, newspaper articles and journals have discussed it. It has been used on book covers, in magazines and elsewhere.

I checked with the owner, Mrs Rice, whether she had been asked for her picture to be included and she confirmed that no-one had contacted her about it and that, had she been asked, she would have been delighted to have her portrait of Austen included in the exhibition. The impression which has been given over the years is that the owners of the Rice Portrait are keeping their picture out of sight. In fact nothing could be further from the truth.

The Mysterious Miss Austen exhibition is jointly curated by Louise West, former curator of Jane Austen's House Museum and by Austen academic Professor Kathryn Sutherland. It is no secret that Professor Sutherland is opposed to the Rice Portrait.

In July 2014 Kathryn Sutherland, in conjunction with another vociferous opponent of the Rice Portrait, journalist and producer Henrietta Foster, wrote a piece for the Times Literary Supplement suggesting that the Rice Portrait was a nineteenth century fake. I wrote a rebuttal to their claim which you can read HERE and HERE. Of course Professor Sutherland is perfectly entitled to argue against the Rice Portrait just as I am entitled to disagree with her.

However to omit any reference to the Rice Portrait at all in an exhibition which purports to bring together the known portraits of Jane Austen, is something else entirely. This picture, irrespective of one's personal opinion, has at least as much claim to be in the exhibition as any of the others. It is disingenuous to claim that the exhibition collects all the known portraits claiming to be Austen and leave this one out, to not even reference it.

That Professor Sutherland has chosen to do so does a great disservice to interested members of the public who should be given the opportunity to draw their own conclusions. For her to act as gate-keeper and not even acknowledge this picture's existence, let alone the controversy which surrounds it, is not acceptable in my view. It reveals a partisan approach and suggests she has allowed her personal animosity to this picture to outweigh scholarly considerations of balanced arguments and debate.

At the end of the exhibition it was clear to me that the only mystery at The Mysterious Miss Austen was why the Rice Portrait, one of the most important portraits relating to Jane Austen, had not only not been included, it had been airbrushed out entirely.

Jane Austen's house at Chawton
Jane Austen has been mediated through two hundred years of misinformation and image manipulation. How sad that in this 200 year anniversary of her death, when Jane Austen is celebrated, discussed and debated more than ever before, that this beautiful portrait has been excluded from exhibitions and denied even a place in the story of Jane Austen's image.

I have no doubt very soon this picture will be acknowledged as being a portrait of Jane Austen in her youth, and that those who sought to distort the truth will find themselves on the wrong side of history.

The only thing I feel I can do to honour the memory of Jane Austen is to continue to fight for the truth to be told. I hope others will do the same, for 'we have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be' (Mansfield Park).

RIP Jane Austen 16/12/1775 - 18/07/1817

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

James Northcote and the curious case of the companion portrait

The newly discovered Northcote painting

In the spring of 2017 a new portrait came to light with a stamp on the back for Wm Legg. It is signed 'J Northcote' and dated 1803.

The stamp for Wm Legg is identical to the one of the back of the Rice Portrait of Jane Austen. This stamp forms one of the main arguments the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) has against this picture. They claim it belongs to a William Legg who was known to have only traded as a colourman to artists after the year 1800.

The Financial Times ran a major piece about the Northcote painting in their weekend paper on 01 April 2017 (I am sure this is just a coincidence!) written by their journalist Ms Anjana Ahuja who happens to be the owner of this picture.

If this Northcote is genuine it would support the contention of the National Portrait Gallery, vociferously supported by various academics and experts*, that the Rice Portrait dates to after 1800 and not to the late 1780's as the supporters of the portrait claim.

This picture is therefore crucial to the debate over the Rice Portrait and it would be hard to overstate its importance. How fortunate that it happened to turn up in the possession of a journalist! The Financial Times refused Mrs Rice the right to reply and did not publish either her rebuttal (co-written with me) or her letter explaining that the 200 words they allowed her for her response was inadequate to even begin to defend her portrait.

BUT  - Is this a genuine Northcote painting? I have noted in a previous post that the date on the frame marking on the back of the portrait is obscured by the stretcher and all that can be seen is the back of a number '2'. Furthermore the signature and date on the front of the portrait are very odd, and cannot be relied upon to be contemporaneous with the painting. It is noteworthy that at no point in Anjana Ahuja's article in the Financial Times is there an image showing the signature on the front of the painting. The only place I have been able to locate a picture of the signature is on the The Saleroom Website, an auction database website.

The signature on the portrait
Taken from the Clevedon Saleroom website

There is another major problem with this picture however. It is one of a pair.

The portrait now claimed to be a Northcote was entered for auction at Clevedon Salerooms in North Somerset.

The auctioneers were concerned enough about the picture to describe it as 'attributed' to Northcote' despite the signature and the date, signifying that they had doubts about the attribution.

The picture was entered into the auction due to be held on Thursday 19 November 2015. Clevedon Salerooms holds viewing days prior to the auction and in her article in the Financial Times, Anjana Ahuja wrote that she 'drove down to take a speculative look'.

The Northcote portrait was entered as Lot 148. Presumably, when she went to view the picture, Lot 148 was standing next to Lot 147. And Lot 147 is very interesting indeed.

A Nineteenth Century Gentleman

Lot 147 is described as 'Early 19th Century English School' and as a half length portrait of a gentleman wearing a brown jacket and high collar, unsigned.

Lot 147
Compare this to the Northcote painting:

The portrait the NPG has authenticated as a genuine Northcote

Now take a look at them in their frames: 

 The exposure and the colour balance of the photographs are different (compare the different colour of the carpet) but the moulding of the frames is identical.


The pictures are the same size and in identical frames. They were entered into the auction together, and were auctioned in adjacent lots. Moreover - both have the same scrub marks in the same area at the bottom left of the picture.

Take a look at this:

In this picture the auctioneers refer to 'some slight scuffing, very minor inpainting'.

Now, here's the one signed as a Northcote: 

The auction house state that 'there is a strange rubbed/greyish area around the signature also some scuffing in the same area, the lady's drapes appear to have had some later work, some craquelure'.

Same rubbed area - but only one of these portraits is signed J Northcote and only one is dated 1803.

The other bears no signature and no date.

Now lets take a look at the back of the pictures:

This is the back of the unsigned portrait
This is the back of the portrait signed Northcote
They are different. The signed portrait has a newer piece of wood in place. The canvas also seems more bunched up at the top of the picture and is less neat than on the unsigned portrait. In my opinion this indicates it has been tampered with since it was originally framed. It also has 'Northcote 7' written on it and a stamp for William Legg which the other one does not.

Back of portrait signed Northcote

Both have a frame mark but in both cases the date is obscured by the stretcher:

Unsigned portrait - date is obscured

All the above pictures are from the website for The Saleroom.

Signed Northcote portrait date on far right is obscured apart from back of a '2'
This image is taken from Jacob Simon's NPG research pages

These are companion portraits. The pictures complement one another. The sitters do not face each other so are unlikely to be husband and wife. More likely they are two members of the same family, perhaps a mother and son or a brother and sister. They are listed next to each other in the auction and it is therefore utterly improbable that they came from different sources. Whoever entered them this time split them up but it is very likely that they were previously purchased as a pair.

Authentication by the National Portrait Gallery

Jacob Simon of the National Portrait Gallery informed Anjana Ahuja that the portrait is of a 'Mrs Smith'.

Ms Ahuja and back of her painting with new retaining clips

James Northcote kept detailed records of his paintings, Almost all of them are listed in his account books which are held at the National Portrait Gallery. Jacob Simon himself edited James Northcote's account books for the Walpole Society in 1995/96. As he writes in his introduction, 'the book covers the best part of a lifetime'. Almost all Northcote's pictures are listed although Jacob Simon tells us that 'about two dozen paintings, mostly family portraits but also a few Royal Academy exhibits and engraved pictures went unrecorded'. Very few people would know Northcote's records better than Jacob Simon.

James Northcote listed 22 paintings in his account book for the year 1803. Entry numbered 407 is described as 'Mrs Smith a head in black drapery, 20 guineas/also the frame 3 guineas, all paid'. But there is no mention in this entry of a second portrait. Neither can entry 406 or 408 in Northcote's account book refer to this companion picture. Entry 406 is Emily St Clare with a hawk. Entry 408 is Charles Black, a banker, holding paper and pen. Although Northcote's account books are not exhaustive, it is extremely unlikely he would have recorded that he painted 'Mrs Smith' and not also mention the companion picture.

The portrait was sold at Clevedon Saleroom's quarterly specialist sales of art and antiques. The  catalogue for these sales goes online 12 days before the auction date and collectors would have been alerted to the sale. This was a professional and well-known and respected auction house. This painting 'attributed to Northcote' would not have gone unnoticed prior to the sale. Ms Ahuja was able to purchase it for the price of £400, a fraction of the price tag a signed Northcote portrait would normally fetch at auction.

If the Financial Times article is factually correct then Jacob Simon, acting on behalf of the National Portrait Gallery, turned up at Anjana Ahuja's house with his ultraviolet light one evening last year and apparently authenticated the portrait on the spot, having 'examined "Mrs Smith" from every conceivable angle'. In her article she writes:

'Our Merry Widow, he concluded, was a genuine Northcote, painted in 1803 and bearing the rare William Legg stamp. In addition, partly hidden under the stretcher lay another stamp on the canvas known as a "frame marking", dated 1802. Taken together, he told us after a long pause, these markings would have a bearing on the Rice Portrait.'

I find it astonishing that Jacob Simon authenticated this portrait on that same night. He must have known that there is another, very well known portrait called "Mrs Smith" by Northcote and also dated 1803, which is in Los Angeles. Would he not have needed to carry out further research before declaring this to be genuine? He apparently did not even remove the portrait from its frame to check the frame marking in its entirety. How then, did he know that it read 1802? Or, if he did take the portrait out of its frame, then where are the photographs of the complete frame marking? They are not on the NPG website. We only have the image showing a partial '2'.

Furthermore, if this is "Mrs Smith" then who on earth is the man in the companion portrait? And - why - as a fan of British portraiture and a Northcote enthusiast, did Ms Ahuja not buy this second, unsigned portrait after attending the viewing? Given the similarities between these two portraits, if one truly was a genuine Northcote painting then it was a fair bet that the other one was also a Northcote, even though it has no signature. She states she is a collector of Northcote portraits and tells us herself that she owns another Northcote painting from 1803 with a similar signature and frame (although she has thus far not revealed which one). If the frame on Mrs Smith is similar to the picture she already possesses then it would follow that the previous lot, number 147 would have been worth a punt too! And how much did the unsigned picture sell for? A mere £200.

The very odd signature and date on the front of the portrait, the reluctance on the part of both the owner and the NPG to provide images of the Legg stamp and the date of 1802 on the back of the picture, the existence of a companion portrait in the same auction and the fact that there is already a 'Mrs Smith' in Los Angeles, all lead me to believe that this picture is not 'Mrs Smith', does not date to 1803 and probably is not a genuine Northcote.

In my next post I will be looking in more detail at the curious fact that there are now two paintings called Mrs Smith, both painted by James Northcote in 1803.

* Academics and experts who have opposed the Rice Portrait include Austen scholars Deirdre Le Faye, Professor Kathryn Sutherland and Dr Paula Byrne, her husband and Shakespeare academic Sir Jonathan Bate, journalist Henrietta Foster, fashion experts Aileen Ribeiro and Hilary Davidson, art expert Bendor Grosvenor and of course, Jacob Simon, ex-Chief Curator and now a researcher at the National Portrait Gallery. This list is not exhaustive but these are, or have been, the most vocal opponents of the Rice Portrait over the years. Many of them are quoted or mentioned in the FT article. After publication in the FT, Jonathan Bate tweeted 'Terrific piece: last nail in coffin of "Rice Portrait" of Jane Austen.' Paula Byrne replied 'I never believed that the Rice Portrait was the young Jane Austen: costume wrong'. Hilary Davidson tweeted 'looking at the Rice Portrait again, I realise I have never seen a puffed sleeve before 1798 at the absolute, stretching it, earliest'. (Perhaps she should read my posts on costume on this blog then!) Bendor Grosvenor tweeted 'Final proof that the Rice Portrait cannot be Jane Austen?'

Ellie Bennett

Saturday, 8 July 2017

The Legg Stamp on the Rice Portrait - a correction and a new stamp

This post concerns the stamp on the back of the Rice Portrait for Wm Legg in the light of a recent addition to the debate  - a portrait which it has been claimed definitely ends the debate as it purports to carry a stamp for the same Wm Legg and to be unequivocally dated to 1803. This picture, if it is as claimed, would be conclusive evidence that the Rice Portrait is not of Jane Austen.

I have posted a number of times about the 'Legg' stamp on the Rice Portrait. For example, see my post HERE for 'A case of the wrong Legg'.

William Legg and W&J Legg

This stamp forms the crux of the National Portrait Gallery's argument that the Rice Portrait cannot be of a young Jane Austen. The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) claim that the stamp on the back of the Rice Portrait belongs to a certain William Legg who traded with his brother John in High Holborn as a colourman from 1801 to around 1805/6. It is known that this William Legg was in Reading prior to 1801 and so if the stamp on the back of the Rice Portrait belongs to this individual then the NPG are correct to argue that the Rice Portrait cannot be a young Jane Austen as she was in her mid-twenties in the year 1800.

But - and it is a big But - as I have previously explained, the case is not clear cut as this for until recently all the known stamps for the colourman William Legg from Reading are shown with both William and his brother's initials, as W & J Legg.

Stamp for W&J Legg

The stamp on the back of the Rice Portrait is different. This stamp is for Wm Legg  -  NOT
W&J Legg.

Wm Legg stamp on Rice Portrait

I have argued that it is quite possible that the stamp on the back of the Rice Portrait is for a different individual.

William Legg from Reading had an uncle whose name was also William Legg who is known to have traded as an upholder close to High Holborn and there was also another William Daniel Legg who was a linen trader in London at that time. There was also a very well established wollen trading family who traded in Cornhill by the name of Legg who were distantly related to the Knights of Godmersham Park - you can read about this Legg family on my blog HERE.

It therefore does not seem impossible that there was an earlier William Legg trading as a linen supplier and/or colourman from High Holborn at an earlier date, especially when you consider that Holborn was the prime area for linen traders - there were hundreds of such traders in this area in the late Eighteenth Century and many of them would have been undocumented.

As William Legg from Reading had previously traded as a coach maker and glazier in partnership with his brother, and as he only traded as a colourman in High Holborn for a few years, it is my belief that the Leggs were invited to come up to London to keep the business going after the death of the long-time proprietor James Poole. By 1806 they had gone back to coach making, this time in Oxford Street. This implies there may have been some earlier connection between James Poole and the Legg family. We also know that James Poole and Samuel Legg (the uncle of William Legg from Reading) had a mutual friend in one William East who came from the same small village of Wooburn as James Poole - and that they were all non-conformists.

I therefore believe it is perfectly possible that there was a previous William Legg who was responsible for the stamp on the Rice Portrait.

I have also argued that the Legg stamp on the back of the Rice Portrait differed to the linen stamps for 'W&J Legg' in two respects - that Holborn is spelt with a 'u' as Holbourn and also because it has a '1' after the words High Holborn.

A new William Legg stamp

Then, in the spring of 2017, the NPG updated the research pages on their website to include information about a picture which had recently come to light which carried a stamp on the back which was for Wm Legg:

'Legg’s canvas stamp, “Wm. LEGG,/ High-Holborn,/ LINEN.” is found on James Northcote’s Mrs Smith, 1803, with duty stamp dated 1802 (Private coll., London).' 

You can read more about the NPG research on their website HERE

This stamp, the NPG claimed, was identical to the stamp on the back of the Rice Portrait. The painting was a portrait of an elderly woman dressed in black, which Jacob Simon of the NPG authenticated as being by James Northcote. It is signed 'J Northcote' and is dated 1803.

Jacob Simon subsequently produced a report: British canvas, stretcher and panel suppliers’ marks. Part 1, 1785-1831, which included an image of the Legg Stamp on the back of the Northcote and also an image of a partially obscured frame mark from the back of the Northcote painting which he claimed showed the date of 1802. (This is a PDF file  - you can locate it easily by putting the title in the search engine. If anyone knows how I can link to a PDF file please let me know!)

On the face of it then, this was categorical proof that the William Legg stamp on the back of the Rice Portrait dated that picture to the period 1801-1805 and it therefore could not be a portrait of Jane Austen.

Stamp on back of newly discovered 'Northcote' painting

A Correction

In the light of this I re-examined the stamp on the back of the Rice Portrait. Here are three images in increasing scale:

The stamp on the Rice Portrait

I compared the stamp on the back of the Rice Portrait to the stamp on the back of the 'Northcote' painting:

Holbourn or Holborn?

I now believe that the stamp on the Rice Portrait does NOT read 'Holbourn' after all  - I now believe that it reads HOLBORN and that I had been mistaken in believing the word to have been spelled differently.

The Figure '1' at the end of the words 'High Holborn'

In his report cited above, British canvas, stretcher and panel suppliers’ marks. Part 1, 1785-1831, Jacob Simon gives an example of a stamp by T Brown which has marks on the side, probably from the way the stamp was applied:

Rather than a numeric '1', I now think I was wrong about this too and that it is likely that the marking at the end of the stamp on the Rice Portrait could be a similar incidental marking from the edge of the stamp rather than a number which I originally believed to be the case.

(These are my opinions only and are not, as I understand it, shared by the owners of the Rice Portrait)

So where does this leave matters?

A conundrum

It appears that a near identical stamp to the Rice Portrait is indeed on the back of the portrait which the National Portrait Gallery has authenticated as being by James Northcote and dated 1803.

So is this the end of the story?

Far from it! For when I began investigating this picture I discovered that this so called Northcote portrait raises many intriguing and even disturbing questions - which I will be covering at length in future posts. This portrait is not what it seems.

As for the stamp, as I have noted, we know that William Legg from Reading only traded for a few years at High Holborn, from 1801 at the earliest until around 1806. Yet during this time he apparently used two different stamps concurrently. The stamps for W&J Legg, of which there are three, as far as I am aware, occur on paintings dated 1804 and 1807 and on one which is undated. The Northcote portrait is the only picture which bears a stamp identical to the one on the Rice Portrait. So how reliable is the date on this picture?

The 'Northcote' portrait is claimed by the owner and by the NPG to carry a date of 1802 on the frame mark on the back of the picture. On closer examination however this is by no means clear from the image of the frame mark which Jacob Simon shows in his report.

By way of comparison this is an image from the back of a Hoppner painting also contained in Jacob Simon's report:

The date 1800 can be seen sideways on the right hand side, reading from top to bottom.

So now let's look at the date on the back of the 'Northcote' which the NPG claim reads 1802:

Date 18 (02) is said to be visible on the far right turned sideways

Closer view - I can only see the back end of a 2 on the far right hand side NOT 02

It is claimed that the final two digits on this frame mark show the date as being (18) 02. However with the stretcher covering part of the markings I can only see the back of a '2'.

Were it not for the existence of the date 1803 on the portrait itself, then this date could read any year ending in a '2'. It certainly is not clear from this partial view that it reads 1802.

As Jacob Simon, acting for the National Portrait Gallery, authenticated this portrait as a genuine Northcote, despite some very questionable features, presumably he took the stretcher off the portrait to show the entire date. And yet the NPG have thus far, declined to share images of either the Legg stamp or the complete frame mark on the back.

A request by Mrs Rice to view this portrait and photograph these markings was refused by the owner, Financial Times journalist Anjana Ahuja, who replied:

I did, however, want to address your request for access to Mrs Smith to examine the stamp. This is not necessary. The William Legg stamp that appears on her reverse, can be found in three separate places in the public domain: on the NPG website; on the Clevedon saleroom website; and in my FT article at ft.com.

As noted above, this is not adequate as the date on the back of the stamp cannot be seen unless the obscuring stretcher is removed so that the complete date can be scrutinised.

I have now submitted a Freedom of Information request via the website What Do They Know to the National Portrait Gallery for information about this picture including images of both the Legg stamp and the date. I am currently waiting for their response.

But how can it be possible that the date is not 1802 as claimed? After all, there is also a date on the front of the portrait of 1803.

Well - this too raises questions.

Let's take a look at the signature and date on the front of the portrait. Here is an image from the auctioneer's website. At the time of the sale the painting was described as 'attributed to James Northcote' despite carrying a signature - a warning to prospective buyers that the picture may not be all that it seems. The auctioneers also refer to 'a strange rubbed/greyish area around the signature also some scuffing in the same area'.

(You can read the auctioneer's report HERE)

Strange indeed! Could it be that the area has been rubbed back to reveal the signature? But if this was the case the signature too would have faded out whereas the lettering remains dark relative the surrounding area. It looks very much like the signature has been added AFTER the rubbing out has occurred. So what has been rubbed off? Who put this signature on this picture? And when?

What is certain is that there was no interest in this portrait and it sold for the reserve price of £400 to the journalist from the Financial Times, a fraction of the price a signed Northcote painting would usually reach at auction.

These days, in the age of the internet, it is extremely unlikely that this picture would have come to the market unnoticed. Clevedon Salerooms, like most auction houses, advertise online and email interested parties as to upcoming sales. So why was there no interest in this portrait? Did other prospective buyers dismiss it as not being a genuine Northcote? In which case what evidence is there that the picture IS genuine, that it does date to 1803 and that the frame mark is dated 1802? What research did the NPG carry out before authenticating it?

These are just a few of the very many questions which this picture raises. In my next post I will be examining this portrait in detail and revealing a surprising fact  - that a companion portrait was entered in the same sale.

Thank you for reading. Please note that the opinions expressed here are mine and mine alone. If you have any information you would like to share then I would be delighted  to hear from you. You can reach me via the contact page on this website.

Ellie Bennett