This portrait, with its secure provenance and certain status, is the most important likeness of Jane Austen ever likely to become available on the open market. The only two portraits of Jane that are known to have been taken from life were both by her beloved sister Cassandra. One (in private possession) shows only her back, and the other is a pencil and watercolour sketch of her face which although of no artistic merit – the great Austen scholar R.W. Chapman described it as a “disappointing scratch” – is the only certain likeness of the novelist taken from life. Cassandra's sketch was sold by descendants of Charles Austen (Jane’s youngest brother) to the collector Frederick Lovering. The portrait was then auctioned in these rooms (3-4 May 1948, lot 265, £135), alongside the rest of Lovering’s Austen collection, when it was acquired by London’s National Portrait Gallery. There are a handful of other contemporary portraits of contested authenticity, none of which have achieved widespread acceptance among scholars as a true likeness of Austen. These include the intriguing and controversial “Rice portrait”; a watercolour in an album compiled by James Stanier Clarke, which has been associated with Austen simply because Clarke knew her; an anonymous and almost certainly posthumously executed drawing; and two silhouettes of dubious authenticity.
This portrait was commissioned by Jane Austen’s nephew, Rev. James Edward Austen-Leigh (1798-1874), vicar of Bray in Berkshire, the eldest son of Jane’s eldest brother the Rev. James Austen (1765-1819), when he was writing his Memoir of Jane Austen, the first full length biography of the novelist. Austen-Leigh had been very close to his aunt Jane (her surviving letters to him are deeply affectionate) and realising that he and others of his generation who had known Austen were now elderly and that their shared memories would soon be lost, he took it upon himself to rectify an absence that had been remarked upon as early as 1831: “So retired, so unmarked by literary notoriety, was the life Miss Austen led, that if any likeness was ever taken of her, (and the contrary supposition would seem strange,) none has ever been engraved; and of no woman, whose writings are as numerous and distinguished, is there perhaps so little public beyond the circle of those who knew her when alive” (Maria Jewsbury, ‘Literary Women II: Jane Austen’, Athenaeum, 27 August 1831, p.553).
In need of a likeness of his subject, he appealed for help within the family and was lent the Cassandra sketch. However to James Edward, as to many others since, it is an inadequate likeness of the author: it is crudely drawn with particularly irregular eyes, it is evidently unfinished, and it shows Austen with harsh features and pursed lips. James Edward commissioned a local artist, James Andrews of Maidenhead, to produce a more satisfying likeness based on the sketch. Little is known of Andrews except that he exhibited a portrait of a family member at the Royal Academy summer exhibition of 1869. The presence of a series of pin-marks on this portrait together with a similar series of marks on the Cassandra sketch show that Andrews used the sketch directly as the basis of his portrait, probably by pinning tracing paper over the sketch then transferring this tracing onto the card. As well as adjusting her features, Andrews also changed the placement of her arms and sat her on a more elaborate chair (of distinctively mid-nineteenth century design). A stipple engraving based on Andrews’s watercolour was then used as the frontispiece to the first edition of Austen-Leigh’s Memoir, which was published in December 1869.
Andrews’s work was undoubtedly in part an idealisation of its subject, but was also informed by James Edward Austen Leigh’s own memories of his aunt’s appearance:
“In person she was very attractive; her figure was rather tall and slender, her step light and firm, and her whole appearance expressive of health and animation. In complexion she was a clear brunette with a rich colour; she had full round cheeks, with mouth and nose small and well formed, bright hazel eyes, and brown hair forming natural curls close round her face … At the time of which I am now writing, she never was seen, either morning or evening, without a cap; I believe that she and her sister were generally thought to have taken to the garb of middle age earlier than their years or their looks required[.]” (Memoir, p.70)
Andrews’s portrait, which shows Austen fuller in face and smoother in feature than the sketch from which it primarily derives, is extremely close to Austen-Leigh’s description of the aunt that he had known well as a young man. Other family members and friends similarly recalled her curly brown hair, clear complexion, full face (“rather round than long”, according to James Edwards’s sister Caroline, whilst Egerton Brydges, who had known her as a girl, remembered “cheeks a little too full”), hazel eyes, pretty – but perhaps unremarkable – features, and her choice of a cap as headwear. On seeing the frontispiece engraving in the Memoir, Casssandra Esten, a cousin and owner of the Cassandra sketch, remarked that it was “very much superior to any thing that could have been expected from the sketch it was taken from”, but she had never known Austen herself so was in no position to comment on its accuracy as a likeness, except in relation to the Cassandra sketch. Greater weight must be given to the verdict of Caroline, who had known Jane:
“The portrait is better than I expected – as considering its early date, and that it has passed through the hands of painter and engraver – I did not reckon upon finding any likeness – but there is a look which I recognise as hers – and though the general resemblance is not strong, yet as it represents a pleasant countenance it is so far a truth - & I am not dissatisfied with it.” (Memoir, p.192)
Caroline was by no means alone in finding this portrait to be the most satisfying likeness of the novelist; it was not only in sympathy with the family’s memories of “aunt Jane’s” appearance, but also with the characterisation of Austen within Austen-Leigh’s Memoir as a woman quietly content in the modest sufficiency of her limited circumstances, her writing conducted modestly within the domestic sphere, and lacking any desire to become part of the public world of letters. Every generation remakes its idols in their own image, of course, and this was a Jane Austen fit for Victorian consumption, but the unmistakable sympathy and love for his aunt that permeates the Memoir was also key to its success and to the transformative effect it had on Jane Austen’s reputation. The book itself rapidly went into a second expanded edition and, in an early example of the deeply personal and intimate response that Austen continues to draw from her readers, Austen-Leigh, to his great pleasure and surprise, received wide-ranging correspondence from readers, and through these letters he began to realise that his much-loved aunt had become, to thousands of strangers “a living, though an unseen friend”. The reviews of the Memoir showed just how widely love for the novels had spread, and how easily this affection was transferred to their author: in the words of The Spectator, “it is always a pleasure to know that any popular writer was what he or she ‘must have been’”. The same review shows how the portrait frontispiece was crucial to the overall impact of the Memoir:
“It is a great comfort to us to have so complete a verification of the theory we have always cherished – that Miss Austen’s personal character was a sort of medium between the heroine of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet, and the heroine of Persuasion, Anne Elliott … The portrait prefixed to the volume – a very remarkable portrait – entirely bears out this double likeness to Anne Elliot and Elizabeth Bennet. It is a small head, with very sweet lively eyes, and a fullness about the face which seems to speak of health and spirit, but the air of high breeding and gentleness of nature is deeply impressed upon it. It is refinement, playfulness, and alertness, rather than depth of intellect, which the face seems to express.”
Andrews’s portrait immediately became the accepted image of Jane Austen, and the endless sequence of reproductions and re-imaginings began as early as 1873, with Evert A. Duyckink’s Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women of Europe and America (1873). This book included an engraving of Austen based on the Andrews portrait but with slightly stronger features and extended to three-quarter length. It adds props including an ink-well, a manuscript and, more surprisingly, a wedding band on her ring finger. As subsequent generations have reimagined Jane Austen, the Andrews portrait has been similarly rethought, reworked, and reimagined, but – even when, as in a famous parody, the author is shown poolside in LA – our image of Jane Austen always returns to this simple and unpretentious watercolour.
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