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


  1. One glance at the Rice portrait is enough to show it is of the early nineteenth century. The gown and shoes - and the cropped hair - are of 1800-1810. To an untrained eye, one white muslin frock looks like another, but several key features of late 18thC dress are missing and date this to c1805:

    This has an extremely shallow bodice, finely gathered, not the deep crudely gathered bodices of the late 18thC

    This lacks the deep frill at the neckline typical of the 1780s/90s

    There is no deep sash

    The waist is very high

    No straight long or three quarter sleeve - the short puffed sleeve is typical of post-1800 dress.

    As is the simple heelless, buckleless shoe.

    No-one seems to have addressed one of the most salient points about the appearance of this young lady - her hair style. The cropped style is typical of the first decade of the 19thC - a la Titus.

    The evidence provided on the Rice portrait website, which led me here, to support an 18thC date for the costume is not very strong.

    Some portraits are of questionable date. For example, the Engleheart portrait is said to be 1787 in date. The auctioneers note that this is 'circa' only. The hairstyle and gown are clearly 19thC - indeed, a very similar portrait also by Engleheart, and dated 1804, can be seen in the V & A:


    Also, although the website clearly has an agenda, to prove to authenticity of the portrait, the evidence is one-sided: only pictures purportedly 18th C in date are given – none from c1805, which would show how much similar the gown in the portrait is to that period, rather than 1788.

    Also, images from the 18thC which do not support the hypothesis are omitted.

    Rather than picking and choosing images, taking as wide a range of portraits of verified date from 1788 and c1805, and comparing these to each other and the Rice portrait would show that the Rice portrait cannot date from before 1800.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment on my blog. Unfortunately as you have chosen to remain anonymous I do not know whether you have any knowledge of 18th century fashion but I would just like to point out that your rather sweeping statements are factually incorrect. I wonder also whether you have taken into account that the girl in the Rice Portrait is wearing a child's dress NOT an adult dress. A woman in England in 1800 was wearing clothing very similar to that her daughter may have worn ten or twenty years before and female adult clothing of 1800 was closer to children’s clothes of 1780 than to women’s fashion of 1790. There is also a possibility that the child's dress is French - Jane Austen's aunt who lived in Paris had spent the Christmas of 1787 with the Austens at Steventon and may well have brought the dress as a gift.

      I also wonder whether you have actually read my blog as if you had you would have seen many examples of high waists, puffed sleeves, dresses with no deep sash, all of which are from before 1800. Take one example from your list - your statement that 'the puff sleeve is typical of post-1800 dress' Yes it is - but there are examples here of puffed sleeves dating from 1790, so to extrapolate from the fact that puff sleeves are popular after 1800 to the statement that therefore the dress CANNOT date to BEFORE 1800 is nonsense!

      I am particularly puzzled by your comment that no-one has addressed the hairstyle as I wrote a whole blogpost in February on hairstyle alone and offered many examples of similar hairstyles dating from the 18th century, examples which are taken from dated portraits.

      I am not sure whether you are referring to my blog or the Rice Portrait website as having an 'agenda' - of course the latter is putting the case in favour of the portrait, that's the point! And so of course only portraits from the 18th century are given - as evidence in support of the claim that the dress dates to 1788/89. What would be the point of posting examples from after 1800, that prove nothing one way or the other? I don't understand what your point is here.

      Thank you for your comments however I would respectfully suggest you read the pages here which refer specifically to dress and hairstyles.

  2. What more can one say? Ellie Bennett is absolutely correct that it shows, yet again, appalling and typical bias against the Rice Portrait to fail even to refer to it in the above-mentioned Exhibition, let alone to ask Anne Rice, the owner, whether it would be possible to include her portrait. Are we surprised? Sadly, not at all.
    The anonymous comment above is partisan and the views on the dress likewise. Perhaps the author would care to reveal herself and we will see whether she is one of the usual pro-NPG suspects?
    Those like Ellie Bennett and myself who support the Rice Portrait as painted by Ozias Humphry in 1788/9, rather than after 1800 as the NPG claim, would ask anyone who is truly open-minded to study the wealth of detail on the Rice Portrait website and to be found in Ellie Bennett's extensive research, which includes dress and hairstyle details. The depth of research amassed over many years is far-reaching and highly convincing. Every argument that the NPG and its supporters have tried to put forward to disprove the Rice Portrait (chiefly relating to the colourman's stamp on the back of the portrait and the style of dress) has been rebutted but it is clear that they simply don't want to know.
    One could write a book on the shenanigans that the NPG and their acolytes have resorted to; and without a doubt that day will come. What - almost - amuses me amid the negativity they seek to spread is that they don't dare to put forward, despite their expertise, either the name of the artist or the name of the girl. Deirdre le Faye tried to do so a while ago but was entirely discredited.
    Wouldn't you have thought that by now they could put forward an alternative to: this is Jane Austen as a girl painted by Ozias Humphry? Come on, you NPG-ites, have a go!

    1. Thank you very much for taking the time to comment on my blog. You are correct, it does show appalling bias on the part of the curators of The Mysterious Miss Austen exhibition to exclude the Rice Portrait and in my view it is unscholarly for them to have done so.

      Unfortunately a few influential individuals have waged a vociferous campaign against the Rice Portrait for many years. As you rightly observe, every piece of evidence which has been put forward has been dismissed and ignored by the National Portrait Gallery and by Jacob Simon, the ex-Chief Curator in particular, who, despite his claims to the contrary, has waged a campaign against this picture for many many years. The proof of this is there for anyone who chooses to look.

      You make a very good point that no alternative candidate for either the sitter or the artist has been suggested, aside from Deirdre Le Faye's suggestion, which has been entirely discredited.

      I very much appreciate your statement of support for the Rice Portrait and hope it will encourage others who also support this picture and who are convinced by the extensive evidence in its favour, to follow your example and say so publicly.

  3. This seems to be extremely sensible advice from a previous comment:

    "Rather than picking and choosing images, taking as wide a range of portraits of verified date from 1788 and c1805, and comparing these to each other and the Rice portrait would show that the Rice portrait cannot date from before 1800."

    You say under that you don't understand the point of looking at fashion from after 1800.

    The point is that you might then learn something about the fashion of that period, which would inform your debate. The position you take of ignoring it undermines your credibility enormously.

  4. Anonymous - I am so sorry for not replying before - I was away walking in the summer and missed your comment. I am always appreciative of comments and feedback so thank you! However - my point in using these images is that every argument that has been used against the dress in the Rice Portrait being eighteenth century has been disproved by the images here. I don't see the point in showing post 1800 images as these are irrelevant to the debate. Puff sleeves, high waist, narrow band, short hair - can all be seen in these pre-1800 images, which demonstrates that the claim that the dress in the Rice Portrait is after 1800 is fallacious. In any event, the monogram of Ozias Humphry has now been positively identified on the picture which demonstrates the portrait must be dated before 1797. Fact trumps 'opinion' in my view.