Monday, 16 July 2018

The Rice Portrait - an update

The Rice Portrait

It has been a while since I added a post to this blog, the reasons for which are explained below.

Regular readers will know that I am a firm supporter of the Rice Portrait and believe it to be a portrait of Jane Austen when a teenager. You can find plenty of information about the portrait here on my blog and also on the official Rice Portrait website Here.

However the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) has been implacably opposed to the picture for many years. In particular, Jacob Simon who until his retirement was Chief Curator at the NPG, has long campaigned against the Rice Portrait. Jacob Simon still works voluntarily at the NPG and continues to update the research pages on the NPG website.

In 2017 there were two major developments relating to the Rice Portrait.

1. Firstly, the National Portrait Gallery finally agreed to examine the Rice Portrait. Jacob Simon claimed to have examined the portrait twice, at an exhibition at Olympia and at Falmouth Art Gallery. Both claims were false. I sent statements from curators of both exhibitions confirming that Jacob Simon had not examined the portrait. The NPG could hardly continue to deny the validity of the picture when they had never actually seen it. Representatives from the NPG, including the Director Nicholas Cullinan, Curatorial Director Dr Tarnya Cooper and Jacob Simon's successor as Senior Curator of 18th Century Collections Dr Lucy Peltz, examined the Rice Portrait at the end of April 2017. Jacob Simon did not attend and to this date has never examined the Rice portrait. In their report after the viewing, issued in May 2017, unsurprisingly, the position of the NPG remained unchanged - that they believed the portrait dated to 1801-1806.

2. Secondly, at the beginning of April 2017, science journalist Anjana Ahuja published a prominent article in the Financial Times about a portrait she had purchased at auction 15 months previously. The portrait, which has the signature of the artist 'James Northcote' and the date '1803' on the front of the picture, has on the back a canvas supplier's stamp for 'Wm Legg' - an identical stamp to the one of the back of the Rice Portrait. Jacob Simon, an authority on James Northcote, authenticated the picture which he and the owner claim to be of a 'Mrs Smith' whom Northcote mentions in his account book for 1803. You can read the online version of the FT article Here.

'Mrs Smith'

The NPG's statement issued after their viewing of the Rice portrait made no mention of the Northcote portrait which had recently come to light save to refer to the NPG's own online database. However an internal report on the Rice portrait written by Dr Lucy Peltz on 13 April 2017, prior to the NPG viewing, used the newly discovered Northcote as support for her assertion that the Wm Legg stamp on the back of the Rice portrait dates to 1801/2-1805/6. She cites these dates as this is when an artist's supplier named William Legg, who hailed from Reading, was known to have been trading in High Holborn.

You can read the NPG statement and the report written by Lucy Peltz on the What Do They Know website which holds my Freedom of Information Request Here. The relevant documents are attached to the letter from the NPG dated 18 September 2017.

Until the appearance of the Northcote portrait, all known canvas stamps for William Legg from Reading bear William and his brother' John's initial as follows: 'W&J Legg'. The Rice portrait was unique in bearing the stamp 'Wm Legg' as distinct from 'W&J Legg'.

Supporters of the Rice portrait including myself argued that the stamp on the back of the Rice portrait could therefore belong to a different William Legg, possibly another member of the same family, trading from the same area at an earlier date. Businesses in the late eighteenth century were very much family affairs and it is known that William Legg from Reading had an uncle William Legg who traded in London.

The discovery of the Northcote painting with its stamp of Wm Legg is therefore crucial for the dating of the Rice portrait. If genuine it would indicate that Wm Legg and W&J Legg are the same person ie. the William Legg who traded in High Holborn from 1801/2 until 1805/6 and so disprove the claim of the Rice Portrait to be Jane Austen.

Wm Legg stamp on the back of 'Mrs Smith'

The Northcote painting has been endorsed by both the previous and the current Senior Curators at the National Portrait Gallery and is also referenced on the National Portrait Gallery's website which you can read Here. The Northcote attribution has also been supported by Bendor Grosvenor who wrote about the painting on his blog which you can read Here.

The Northcote signature and date on 'Mrs Smith'

Despite this, it was my belief that there was something very wrong with this so called Northcote painting. The auction house clearly had doubts about it - despite being signed, they described the painting only as 'attributed to Northcote'. The picture has no provenance whatsoever, Ms Ahuja states only that it came from a house clearance. There is - inexplicably - also no formal authentication report from Jacob Simon, despite the importance this picture has for the claims of the Rice portrait. My request for high resolution images of the Legg stamp on the back of the Northcote painting have been refused and Ms Ahuja has also refused to allow any independent examination of her picture.

During the course of the summer of 2017 I made a Freedom of Information request to the NPG which you can read Here and also a complaint to the Financial Times which finally ended with an adjudication by the FT's barrister, Greg Callus, which you can read Here. (Following the closure of the Press Complaints Commission the FT refused to join the Independent Press Standards Organisation and deals with complaints internally.)

Having my complaint roundly rejected by Mr Callus was a severe blow. I had hoped - perhaps optimistically - that my concerns about the circumstances surrounding the Northcote portrait would be properly investigated.

For a while I put the matter aside. I felt thoroughly deflated. Six years of research had been undone by the sudden appearance of this Northcote portrait. But it would not rest. I knew that something was amiss. All the research carried out over the years pointed to the Rice portrait being genuine. The sudden and mysterious appearance of this signed and dated 'Northcote' with its Wm Legg stamp on the back was too convenient. And then for it to be purchased by an Financial Times journalist who was so biased against the Rice Portrait that she did not contact its owner until the day before she was due to publish her article was suspicious.

I decided to have one last attempt to discover the truth. It seemed to me that the only possible chance of proving that things were not as they appeared would be to find out the true identity of 'Mrs Smith', the subject of the portrait.

It seemed an impossible task, I had so little to go on.

But now, finally, after months of searching, I have discovered the true identity of 'Mrs Smith'. To find out who she is, look out for my next blogpost, coming soon.

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