Wednesday, 16 January 2019

New Primary Evidence for the Rice Portrait

The article below is also reproduced on the Rice Portrait website here: Rice Portrait

The Rice Portrait
©Bridgeman Images 2018

It is rare for new evidence to be uncovered relating to Jane Austen. It is rarer still for a document to come to light from someone who was close to Jane’s immediate family. So, the appearance of a previously unknown note, written by Jane Austen’s great-niece Fanny Caroline Lefroy (1820-1885), is a significant discovery.

Even more exciting is the fact that the note relates to the painting known as the Rice Portrait.

The note was kept in Jane Austen’s writing desk, now in the care of the British Library. It has been placed inside a small brown envelope, on the front of which Fanny has written:

History of the portrait of Jane Austen


The note reads:

The history of the portrait of Jane Austen now in the possession of Morland Rice her Gt nephew.

Old Dr Newman, fellow of Magdalen years ago told him that he had a portrait of Jane Austen the novelist, that had been in his family many years. He stated that it was done at Bath when she was about 15 & he promised to leave him (Morland Rice) the picture.

A few months before Dr Newman died, he wrote to a friend of his (a Dr Bloxam) sending him a picture as a farewell present & added “I have another picture that I wish to go to your neighbour Morland Rice. This a portrait of Jane Austen the novelist by Zoffany. Her picture was given to my step-mother by her friend Colonel Austen of Kippendon [sic], Kent because she was a great admirer of her works”.

On the second page Fanny Lefroy continues:

Colonel Austen died 1859. He could not have had the portrait painted himself. He must have inherited it from his father John [corrected to Francis Motley] Austen who was first cousin to Jane Austen’s father, in 1789 the date of the picture Colonel Austen was probably not twenty.

The note is unsigned, but by comparing the note with other documents held in the Hampshire Record Office, we know that it is in the hand of Fanny Caroline Lefroy. A different hand has corrected Fanny’s note by replacing ‘John’ with ‘Francis Motley’.

Although it is undated, the note must have been written before Fanny’s death on 29 January 1885. We know that Henry Austen, nephew of Colonel Thomas Austen, visited Fanny on 8 September 1884 and it is possible that it was written around the time of this visit.

Fanny Caroline Lefroy never met Jane Austen, she was born three years after Austen’s death. However, her mother Anna (1793-1872), daughter of Jane Austen’s brother James, knew Jane Austen very well. As a young child, Anna stayed with her aunts Jane and Cassandra for some time after the death of her mother. As she grew older, she corresponded regularly with Jane - some of the best letters we have from Jane Austen are the ones from 1814 offering advice and encouragement when Anna was trying her own hand at writing and it is evident that the two women had a close relationship.

In 1864 Anna Lefroy wrote her ‘Recollections of Aunt Jane’ in a letter to her brother James Edward Austen-Leigh (1798-1874), who was compiling material for a biography of his aunt. Fanny, who never married, lived with her mother, and Jane Austen must have been a frequent topic of discussion during this time.

In the years after her mother’s death in 1872, Fanny Caroline Lefroy began working on her Family History Manuscript, a detailed history of the Austen and Lefroy families. At around this time she published three articles about Jane Austen in Temple Bar Magazine. In these articles Fanny’s in-depth knowledge of Jane Austen and her works is evident. She was undeniably a devotee of Jane Austen and is also recognised as an authority on Austen family history.

Fanny Caroline Lefroy’s thoughts about this portrait should therefore be taken very seriously indeed and her unequivocal description on the envelope and the heading of her note that this is a portrait of Jane Austen is very striking.

By the time she wrote her note, Fanny must have known about the letter Dr Harding-Newman (1811-1882) sent to John Rouse Bloxam in December 1880 (held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford), in which he outlined the history of the portrait:

I should like to give another painting of Jane Austen, the novelist, by Zoffany, to her relative Morland Rice. It is of a girl about 15 and came into my family the gift of Col. Austen of Chippington [sic], to my mother-in-law, or rather step-mother, 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.

Dr Thomas Harding Newman’s step-mother was Eliza(beth) Ann Hall (1791-1831). Eliza Hall may have known Jane Austen personally as her aunt, Ann Humffries, was married to Henry Hawley of Leybourne Grange for 40 years. The Hawleys were friends of the Austens and are mentioned in Jane Austen’s letters. Two of Henry Hawley daughters married into the Bridges family, also close friends of the Austens. Eliza Hall was one of a select band of admirers of Austen in the early nineteenth century at a time when Austen’s works were not widely read and the reason for this may well have been that she had met Jane Austen.

We now have three documents confirming that Fanny Caroline Lefroy believed that the portrait was painted in or around 1789:

1) In a letter to her cousin Mary Augusta Austen Leigh dated 23 October 1883, Fanny wrote: ‘In 1789 the year it was painted she was a school girl in the Abbey School here.

2) In his letter to Morland Rice dated 9 September 1884 after visiting Fanny, Henry Morland Austen reporting on his visit wrote: ‘The date on your picture is (she thinks) 1788 or 9, making her not 14.’

[note the wording ‘the date ON your picture’]

3) In this newly discovered note, Fanny Caroline Lefroy wrote: In 1789 the date of the picture

Dr Newman’s letter made no mention of the date the picture was painted so Fanny must have seen or heard something to make her so specific that the portrait was painted in 1789. The most likely explanation is that she saw the date on the picture for herself or that she was told about the date from someone else who had seen it on the picture. 

We must remember that in Fanny’s time it would have been possible to see more detail on the picture than we can now. At that time the painting was housed in an eighteenth-century oak frame. In 1920 the portrait narrowly escaped destruction in a calamitous house fire – it was saved by being thrown from a window – and afterwards it was cleaned and cut to fit a Victorian frame. Later restorations have included overpainting, which has since been removed by more recent conservation work. Recent examination of early twentieth century photographic plates of the painting has revealed the words ‘Jane Austen’ and the date ‘178_’ (the last digit is unclear) on the top right of the picture, as well as the signature of the artist, Ozias Humphry (not Zoffany as was once believed).

As Fanny Lefroy correctly observed, Colonel Thomas Austen (1775-1859) would have been too young to have commissioned the picture himself so he must have inherited it from his father, Francis Motley Austen (1747-1815). It is likely that the portrait was originally commissioned by Francis Motley Austen’s father, Francis Austen (1697-1791), a wealthy lawyer and landowner based in Sevenoaks who is known to have acted in loco parentis to Jane Austen’s father George Austen. John Hubback, grandson of Jane’s brother Francis, lived with his grandfather as a boy. He later recorded that great-uncle Francis Austen was a regular visitor to the Austen family home:

As a boy at Steventon Rectory, before he [Francis Austen] went to sea in 1788, he was a great favourite with another Francis Austen, his grandfather’s brother, a frequent visitor of the Rectory.

It is known from family letters that Jane Austen along with her sister and her parents stayed with old Francis Austen at Sevenoaks in the summer of 1788 when there was a grand family dinner. Jane Austen’s cousin Philadelphia Walter told her brother that they were ‘all in high spirits & disposed to be pleased with each other’. By the time the Austen family made their visit to Kent, the twelve-year-old Jane Austen had already begun writing. Austen’s early pieces are exuberant, full of life and great fun to read. Her characters steal, get drunk, commit sexual misdemeanours and even murder. The young girl who looks out so confidently at the world, is entirely consistent with the intelligent and lively author of these early works.

In her note, Fanny Lefroy refers to ‘Old Dr Newman’, which carries a hint of familiarity. It is possible that she had met Dr Harding Newman as recent research reveals that they were related. Fanny Lefroy’s second cousin, Anne Lefroy Newman, was the sister-in-law of Dr Harding Newman and the niece of Tom Lefroy, who is the subject of the very first letters we have from Jane Austen:

You scold me so much in the nice long letter which I have this moment received from you, that I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together.

Lefroy Family Tree

It was Anne Lefroy Newman’s son, Benjamin Harding Newman, who passed the portrait to the Rice family. This is recorded in a letter from John Rouse Bloxam to a friend, held at the Bodleian Library, Oxford:

Talking of paintings Hardman-Newman [sic], nephew of Dr Newman has just sent me a full-length portrait by Zoffany of Miss Jane Austen, the novelist, to give to Rice, who is a connection of the Lady. Rice is much pleased with it – I knew Newman intended to leave it to Rice but did not – but his nephew to his great credit has given it.

After the portrait was returned to the wider Austen family, it is apparent that it was accepted as being a portrait of Jane Austen. John Morland Rice, Austen’s great-nephew, had no doubts about it. According to his daughter Marcia:  

Over his drawing-room mantelpiece hung the portrait of Jane Austen by Zoffany – it was his great pride. Often did he relate the story of how Dr Newman of Magdalen used to say to him, 'you ought to possess the portrait of your great Aunt, I shall leave it to you.'

Lord Brabourne (Edward Knatchbull-Hugessen), another great-nephew, accepted it was Jane Austen and used the portrait as the frontispiece for his 'Life and Letters of Jane Austen' published in 1884.

Mary Augusta Austen-Leigh, daughter of Jane Austen’s nephew and biographer James Edward Austen Leigh, used it for the frontispiece of her biography of her great-aunt, Personal Aspects of Jane Austen, noting of the picture that ‘it is of my great Aunt Jane Austen’ and her brother William Austen-Leigh used it in Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters. A Family Record published in 1913.

Great-nephew John Hubback, who recounted in his autobiography that he had spent much of his boyhood at the home of his grandfather Francis, brother of Jane Austen, also had no doubt that the portrait as being of Jane Austen. It was he who the National Portrait Gallery approached in the 1930s when they were looking for a portrait of Jane Austen for the gallery, as they hoped to buy the picture for their collection. It was only at this time that any doubts were raised about the picture being of Jane Austen, and this was only after they were informed by John Hubback that the Rice family would not be selling the picture at that time.

The evidence and the provenance for this painting is extremely strong.

With the discovery of this note written by Fanny Caroline Lefroy, there are now five primary documents which support this portrait being of Jane Austen:

1. A letter from the then owner, Dr Newman, dated 30 December 1880 outlining the provenance. (Thomas Harding Newman to John Rouse Bloxam, Bodleian Library)

2. A letter from John Rouse Bloxam dated 26 March 1883 confirming that the portrait had been given to Morland Rice who was ‘much pleased with it’. (John Rouse Bloxam to General Gibbes Rigaud, Bodleian Library) The portrait has remained in the Rice family ever since.

3. A letter from Fanny Caroline Lefroy confirming she knew about the portrait and that the date of the portrait was 1789. (Fanny Caroline Lefroy to Mary August Austen Leigh, Hampshire Record Office)

4. A letter from Henry Morland Austen to John Morland Rice confirming the date of the portrait as 1788 or 1789. (Kent History and Library Centre)

5. A note written by Fanny Caroline Lefroy again confirming the date of 1789 and re-iterating the provenance.

To continue to doubt the authenticity of this portrait would be surprising, indeed some strange and unusual acrobatics would be required. One would need to set aside all five pieces of documentary evidence, set aside the provenance provided by Dr Harding-Newman which is supported by recent research on Eliza Hall and set aside the compelling evidence that the picture was painted by Ozias Humphry. Such acrobatics are not necessary or justified.

It is now time for this beautiful portrait to be universally accepted as being an endearing representation of a young Jane Austen.