Thursday, 13 June 2019

A Watercolour of the Rice Portrait

A Watercolour of Jane Austen

Startling new evidence has recently emerged in favour of the Rice Portrait of Jane Austen, in the form of a previously unknown Victorian watercolour.

Watercolour of Rice Portrait

The watercolour was purchased at a second-hand shop in London by a member of the public who, realising that it was a copy of the Rice Portrait, contacted the owners. The painting is particularly interesting in that it shows the Rice Portrait as it was before 1920, when it narrowly escaped destruction in a catastrophic house fire and was subsequently cut to fit a Victorian frame. In the watercolour, Jane Austen stands in the centre of the painting as the artist originally intended, rather than slightly off centre as she is in the oil painting. The picture was sold as part of a house clearance; the previous owner is unknown. Chalk markings on the back, including the word ‘Starkey’, the number ‘13’ and the date ‘26/5/11’, are unidentified but may relate to previous sales of the painting. 

                                                                       Back of watercolour

The watercolour is housed in a plain gold frame. On the back is the stamp of the frame maker: Hogarth of 96 Mount Street. Joseph Hogarth and his family traded as picture framers in London for over 50 years from 1826 to 1890 but the address on Hogarth’s stamp, 96 Mount Street Grosvenor Square, narrows the date of framing to 1866-1886 when the firm traded from this address.[1]

                                                          Frame maker's stamp

On the back of the watercolour is inscribed: ‘Jane Austen after Romney by Fanny Countess of Winchilsea’. Comparison with family correspondence suggests that the inscription is in the hand of Henry Edward Harcourt Rice (1864-1943). If so, then how it came to him is not known. We do know that Harcourt Rice was given the Rice Portrait in 1928 by his cousin Gwenllian Rice (Lady Northborne) after the death of her father, so it is possible that the watercolour was given to him at the same time.

That Harcourt Rice wrote ‘after Romney’ on the watercolour suggests that the Zoffany attribution had been discarded by this time. Harcourt Rice clearly believed the portrait was in Romney’s style – that the portrait was by Romney’s friend Ozias Humphry would probably not have occurred to him, Humphry being then, as now, not well known as a painter in oils. How or when the watercolour left the Rice family is unknown.

                                                    Inscription on back of watercolour

Fanny’s full name was Frances Margaretta Finch-Hatton née Rice (1820-1909). She was the daughter of Jane Austen’s niece Elizabeth (Lizzie) Austen Knight (1800-1884) and Edward Royds Rice (1790-1878) and the sister of John Morland Rice (1823-1897), an early owner of the Rice Portrait. 

                                                       Fanny, Countess of Winchilsea

A letter from the historian of Magdalen College Oxford, John Rouse Bloxam[2], confirms that the Rice Portrait was given to John Morland Rice sometime between the previous owner’s death on 21 April 1882 and the date of the letter, 26 March 1883. It is reasonable to suppose that Fanny painted it after the Rice Portrait was given to her brother, so we can date the watercolour to between 1882 and 1886. On 17 October 1849 at the age of twenty-eight, Fanny Margaretta Rice married George William Finch-Hatton (1791-1858), the Earl of Winchilsea, nearly forty years her senior and already twice widowed. George was a friend of Fanny’s father, Edward Royds Rice and of Jane’s brother Edward Austen Knight. The Finch-Hatton family seat was Haverholme Priory in Lincolnshire, but they also frequently stayed at their other country house, Eastwell Park, adjacent to the Austen-Knight family home at Godmersham. Jane Austen visited Eastwell Park frequently and met George several times. 

Fanny and George had four children, two of whom went on to become the 12th and 13th Earl of Winchilsea. George died in 1858 and for the next fifty years the Dowager Countess lived as a widow, frequently having family staying with her or visiting her relations. Austen scholar Margaret Hammond in her book Relating to Jane wrote that ‘the Haverholme house was always full of sisters and brothers, cousins and aunts’[3]. Margaret Hammond also notes that Fanny was ‘a more than averagely good amateur artist, exhibiting once at the Royal Academy’[4] and relates that during her honeymoon in Seville, Fanny spent some time copying a picture by Murillo which is still extant. A watercolour of the family home, Dane Court, now owned by Mrs Rice, the owner of the Rice Portrait, was probably also painted by her. 

                                                               Watercolour of Dane Court

When he was given the Rice Portrait, John Morland Rice was ‘much pleased with it’[5]. He hung it over his drawing-room mantelpiece and his niece Marcia Rice recorded in 1953 that he never had the slightest doubt as to its authenticity and delighted in telling the story of how Dr Newman used to say to him “you ought to possess the portrait of your Great Aunt. I shall leave it to you”.[6]

                                                                                John Morland Rice

The discovery of this watercolour shows that not only Morland Rice, but also his sister Fanny, had no doubt that the Rice Portrait was a portrait of Jane Austen. This is hardly surprising. The identity of the sitter had never been in question but even if it had, they would both have been sure it was Austen because there were women in their lives who had known Jane Austen personally.
Firstly, there was their mother, Elizabeth (Lizzie) Austen Knight, who was still living at Dane Court when the Rice Portrait was gifted to her son. 
Elizabeth Austen was born in 1800 to Edward Austen (1767-1852) and his wife Elizabeth Bridges (1773-1808). Adopted by the wealthy Knight family, Edward took possession of the estate at Godmersham in Kent in 1798 and took the name of Knight in 1812. Edward also owned an estate at Chawton, Hampshire where in 1809 he gave his mother and Jane and Cassandra the use of the bailiff’s cottage, just along the road from the main house.

In 1813 Godmersham house was being painted. The family removed to Chawton in April and remained there until September. Fanny Austen Knight (1793-1882), Edward’s eldest child, wrote that ‘Mrs Austen’s house is very near ours & of course we met every day frequently’.[7] When the family finally returned to Godmersham, Jane went with them and stayed until November. In April 1814 the family returned to Chawton in April and stayed until June. By the time the Austen Knights went back to Kent in the summer of 1814, Lizzie was fourteen and a half years old. She had seen her Aunt Jane almost every day for ten of the previous fourteen months and had come to know her well during that time.  

Lizzie married Edward Rice at eighteen, and the couple raised fifteen children at Dane Court. Evelyn Templetown, Fanny Winchilsea’s daughter, later wrote: ‘They truly were an exceptionally attractive and interesting family and one and all devoted to each other – and all of them adored their mother and had a deep affection and respect for their father.'[8] The Rice’s were a very close-knit family who were seldom apart for long.

John Morland Rice was particularly close to his family. An accident when he was young gave him recurrent bouts of ill health and he spent long periods staying at Dane Court with his mother and at Haverholme with Fanny. Fanny too spent long periods at Dane Court, so much so that Evelyn Templetown later remembered it as being her second home. She recalled that her grandmother Lizzie, who was beautiful in her youth, was ‘yet more beautiful in her old age, high bred, gracious and witty with an ever-young interest in all things that went on around her’.[9]

Lizzie’s granddaughter Marcia Rice wrote that her father had told her, ‘Grandmama “read Aunt Jane as no-one else could”. This was because she was her niece and could enter into the whole atmosphere of the wit and the setting of the books’.[10]

Lizzie Rice must have known if the portrait was not Jane Austen. It is inconceivable that Lizzie Rice would have allowed an image purporting to be of her Aunt Jane to be given to her son John, and for that same image to be painted by her daughter Fanny, if it was not Jane. But Elizabeth was not the only niece of Jane’s who could bear witness to it being a portrait of Jane Austen. Marianne (May) Austen Knight (1801-1895) was twenty months younger than Lizzie, born September 1801. As children the two had been close and they continued to be so throughout Lizzie’s life. Caroline Austen, another of Jane Austen’s nieces, after meeting Marianne in 1819, wrote to her brother James Edward Austen Leigh, ‘Her greatest personal recommendation to me, is being very like poor Aunt Jane.’[11]
Marianne never married and for many years lived at Godmersham, looking after her father and the rest of the family, until Edward Austen Knight’s death in 1852. After this Marianne became dependent on the goodwill of relatives. For years she lived with her brother Charles at the rectory at Chawton but by 1880 all her brothers were dead. Her elder sister Fanny was unwell, and her younger sister Louisa was living in Ireland. This left her sister Elizabeth at Dane Court. Marianne spent a good deal of time between 1880 and 1884 here. Marianne or ‘Aunt May’ was staying at Dane Court when Elizabeth Rice’s granddaughter Marcia Rice visited for two weeks in 1880 and found Aunt May on a long visit. ‘She seemed thoroughly established. I was greeted at the door of Dane Court by her, an active, bright, lively little lady in a white cap with lavender ribbons.’[12]

Back in 1814, Marianne would have been almost thirteen when the visit to Chawton came to an end. Like Lizzy, she had seen Jane Austen every day for months. Now in her eighties, Marianne was as sharp as ever. Staying at Dane Court with John Morland Rice’s mother, she too must have known about the portrait of Jane Austen which was given to her nephew in 1882 or 1883.

If the Rice Portrait was not of Jane Austen these two sisters would have known it. 

Lizzie Rice died in April 1884 after which Marianne, at the age of 84 visited her niece Fanny Winchilsea at Haverholme Priory and then travelled to Ballyare in Donegal to live with her younger sister, Louisa Hill (1804-1889). Jane Austen had been Louisa’s godmother - a needle case which Jane Austen made for her goddaughter, inscribed ‘with aunt Jane’s love’ is now held at Chawton House Museum. In December 1884, Marianne’s nephew, Lord Brabourne, published his Letters of Jane Austen A Memoir, using as a frontispiece for his book the Rice Portrait of Jane Austen. This was the first time Jane Austen’s letters had been published and Brabourne’s book must have been of considerable interest to Marianne and Louisa. Neither they nor anyone else in the family raised any objection to the portrait of their aunt which Brabourne used as a frontispiece. In June 1889 the indefatigable Marianne, now aged eighty-seven, made a visit to London and on to stay with her favourite nephew Montagu Knight at Chawton House. It would be surprising if Brabourne’s Letters had not been a topic of conversation.

No-one, including those members of the family who had known Jane Austen personally, protested or suggested that the Rice Portrait was not Jane Austen. The discovery of this watercolour demonstrates the opposite was true – the family undoubtedly believed that the portrait was of Jane Austen, else why paint a copy of it?

Marianne remained active, writing letters to her family, right up until her death in 1895 at the age of ninety-four. Longevity ran in the family; of Elizabeth and Edward Rice’s fifteen children, ten lived beyond the age of seventy and eight beyond eighty, well into the Twentieth Century.

The Rice family were clearly delighted to have been given the portrait of ‘Aunt Jane’ and not one member of the family raised any doubt about it being Jane Austen. Not those who had known her, nor those of the next generation who were far closer to her than we are. The discovery of this delightful watercolour demonstrates how pleased they were and is yet more evidence that the Rice Portrait is indeed a portrait of Jane Austen as the family have always believed it to be. 

                                                  The Rice Portrait and the watercolour

[1] See
[2] John Rouse Bloxam to General Gibbes Rigaud 26 March 1883 Bodleian Library ref Ms add b117
[3] Margaret Hammond Relating to Jane (London; Minerva Press 1998) p272
[4] Ibid p272
[5] John Rouse Bloxam 26 March 1883 op. cit.
[6] Marcia Alice Rice The Rices of Dane Court Kent History and Library Centre U4025/Acc/7747/160 p24
[7] Fanny Knight to Miss Chapman October 1813 CKS Knatchbull Archive U951/C109/2 quoted in Sophia Hillan May, Lou and Cass - Jane Austen’s Nieces in Ireland (Belfast; Blackstaff Press 2011)
[8] Jean Corder Akin to Jane p55
[9] Evelyn Templetown Beautiful Old Ladies Kent History and Library Centre U4025/Acc/7747/22
[10] Marcia Alice Rice The Rices of Dane Court Kent History and Library Centre U4025/Acc/7747/160 p51
[11] Caroline Austen to James Edward Austen Leigh 4 May 1819 Hampshire Record Office, Austen-Leigh  archive 23M93/86/3 quoted in Deirdre Le Faye A chronology of Jane Austen (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press 2013) p599
[12] Marcia Alice Rice The Rices of Dane Court op.cit. p10