Imagining Jane Austen

June 11 2012

Image of Imagining Jane Austen

Picture: Mail

There was a flurry of news about the Rice portrait of 'Jane Austen' this weekend. The portrait has long been claimed as Jane Austen thanks to its apparent provenance. But more recently the identity has been questioned, most notably by the National Portrait Gallery in London, and not least on grounds of date. It is thought to have been painted too late to show Jane as a girl. Jane was bown in 1775, but the portrait, stylistically and in the fashion represented, seems to date from the early 19th Century.

The family who own the picture have been on a long quest to prove that it does indeed show Jane. Their latest evidence that it is her, which hit the headlines this weekend, is based on a series of inscriptions found on old photographs of the painting. These prove, say the owners, that the portrait was by Ozias Humphry - an attribution which is important since it would push the date back to when Jane was a girl. The story goes that these highly important inscriptions have since been removed by over-zealous restorers. See more details in The Guardian here, and the background on the dedicated Rice portrait site here.

The Daily Mail concluded their report on the new evidence:

If the portrait is confirmed as being Austen, it may be an embarrassment to the National Portrait Gallery, which granted the picture a licence for sale abroad on the basis that it could not be the writer.

The gallery chose not to comment.

The NPG need not fear embarrassment, however. I applaud the owner's attempts to prove their painting is Jane. But I'm afraid these apparent inscriptions in old photos of the painting, which I have been shown, are (to me at least) not compelling. Nor is this the first time apparently conclusive 'writing' on the painting, seen in questionably interpreted and magnified old photographs, has been claimed. For the best critique of the painting's identity, read former NPG chief curator Jacob Simon's brief note here. In particular, he deals with the question of the apparent inscriptions written on the painting:

The [Rice Portrait] website claims that the portrait is signed several times in monogram, inscribed JANE and dated 1788 but, from my lengthy experience of examining British portraits, these apppear to be purely incidental and meaningless markings. They were not noted by Thomas Harding Newman, owner of the portrait in 1880, who attributed it to Zoffany. They do not appear in photographs taken by Emery Walker in about 1910, despite claims to the contrary on the website. They were not apparent to the professional painting conservator who examined the portrait with others at Henry Rice's request before cleaning it in 1985. They were not apparent to Christie's experienced cataloguing staff in 2007 when the portrait was put up for sale in New York, despite an earlier report of initials on the portrait.

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