LONDON - The portrait of Jane Austen in the English Literature, History, Children’s Books & Illustrations auction on 10 December is a highly familiar and public image: it is, after all, the most widely reproduced likeness of the novelist. However, it is also an intimate image of “Aunt Jane,” with almost all reproductions of the image based on the engraving used in her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of Jane Austen. This representation will enjoy even great public recognition with its inclusion on the Bank of England £10 note, set to be released in 2017. Commissioned by James Edward, the watercolour itself served as the basis for the engraving and has not been publicly exhibited in living memory, as it has always remained in family possession.
James Andrews' Portrait of Jane Austen, 1869. Estimate: £150,000-200,000
Austen was an important presence in Edward’s childhood, maintaining a close friendship with his mother Mary and living only a few miles away from his father’s parish of Steventon. A particular bond is clearly apparent in the affectionate tone of the surviving letters between the two and is reaffirmed in Edward’s later decision to chronicle Austen’s life. Perhaps the strongest indication of the Austen’s influence on her nephew, however, was Edward’s youthful ambition to become a novelist. Indeed, one of Austen’s most famous passages about her own writing comes from a letter to her nephew, consoling him when he misplaced a portion of his manuscript. She teasingly suggests that she herself could be suspected of having stolen it to use in her own work, but then admits that the differences in their styles would make such a theft futile:
“What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited Sketches, full of Variety & Glow? How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces so little effect after much labour?”
Of course any reader of Austen’s novels is attune to her irony and suspects – probably correctly – that her true opinion of Edward’s artistry was rather lower than an innocent reading of the above passage suggests. Regardless, it is unmistakably the teasing of an affectionate aunt who realises that she is the likely inspiration for her nephew’s literary ambitions.
Many people have commented on the calm and open expression on Austen’s face in this portrait, but when we remember the history of the watercolour this makes perfect sense. The watercolour is Edward’s picture of his beloved Aunt Jane, and it is suffused with the love and tenderness of that relationship.