Wednesday, 17 October 2018

The provenance of the Rice Portrait

The Rice Portrait of Jane Austen

In recent years there has been a great deal of new evidence produced which supports the claim of the Rice Portrait to be of Jane Austen. (See the official website HERE)

However debate about this picture has gone on for so long that many of the facts have become mired in confusion as well as in deliberate obfuscation and mis-information.

It is therefore worth reiterating the known provenance for the Rice Portrait as a reminder of just how strong it is:

Documentary evidence for the provenance of the portrait exists in the form of a letter held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford dated 30 December 1880 from the then owner of the picture, Revd Dr Thomas Harding-Newman, to Oxford historian John Rouse Bloxam.

Revd Dr Harding-Newman wrote that the portrait had been given to his step-mother, Elizabeth Harding-Newman née Hall, by Colonel Thomas Austen because Elizabeth Hall was a great admirer of Jane Austen. He stated that Colonel Austen was a friend of Elizabeth Hall and that he could remember Colonel Austen visiting their house when he was young.

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 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.

Colonel Thomas Austen was Jane Austen's second cousin. He was the grandson of Jane Austen's great-uncle Francis Austen who is known to have financially supported Jane Austen's father, George Austen. Francis Austen was a wealthy landowner and attorney and on his death in 1791at the age of 94, his estates and wealth were inherited by his son Francis Motley Austen and on the latter's death, by his own eldest surviving son, Colonel Thomas Austen.

According to Jane Austen's great-niece Fanny Caroline Lefroy, who was the family historian, the Rice Portrait was painted in 1789, and it is likely that it was commissioned by great-uncle Francis Austen. Jane Austen is known to have visited Francis Austen in the summer of 1788 for a family celebration with her family.

Elizabeth Hall was the daughter of Thomas Hall of Egham, Surrey and Cumberland Street, London. (Cumberland Street was also town residence of Sir Thomas Philip Hampson, relative of the Austens and financial backer of Jane Austen's brother Henry Austen.)

Elizabeth Hall's aunt, Ann Hawley née Humffreys, was married for 40 years to Sir Henry Hawley of Leybourne Grange and Harley Street, London. The Hawleys are known to have been friends of the Austens and are mentioned in Jane Austen's letters. Two of the Hawley daughters married into the Bridges family of Goodnestone Park, also very close friends of the Austens.

Further documentary evidence for the portrait is provided in a letter from John Rouse Bloxam dated Easter Monday 1883 to General Gibbes Rigaud, also held at the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Bloxam wrote that Benjamin Harding-Newman had sent him the portrait to pass on to John Morland Rice, a relative of Austen (he was the grandson of Jane Austen's brother Edward Austen)

Benjamin Harding-Newman was the nephew and beneficiary of Revd Dr Thomas Harding-Newman and was carrying out the expressed wishes of the latter that the portrait be given to Morland Rice.

The portrait has remained in the ownership of the Rice family ever since and is now owned by the widow of Henry Rice.

Revd Dr Thomas Harding-Newman mistakenly attributed the portrait to Johan Zoffany. It is now known that the artist was Ozias Humphry, whose brother, William Humphry, was vicar of Kemsing and Seal, Kent and a friend and neighbour of Jane Austen's relatives the Walters. (William Hampson Walter was the step-brother of Jane Austen's father, George Austen.) Ozias Humphry's patron was the Duke of Dorset, whose agent was Francis Austen; Ozias Humphry had painted Francis Austen's own portrait in 1780:

Francis Austen by Ozias Humphry
Held at Graves Gallery, Sheffield

To claim that the provenance of the Rice Portrait is complicated is ridiculous - it is perfectly straightforward. 

If this were any other picture - or if the National Portrait Gallery had been successful in buying the picture in the 1930s as they tried to do - it would have been accepted years ago.