Fan art might not be fan art, but it’s hard to tell


Fan painting of Jane Austen

Copyright claimed by Paula Byrne

A while back, we shared a link to an auction of what we teasingly referred to as “fan art,” a portrait of Jane Austen thought to have been executed by a dedicated reader who liked to draw photos of how he imagined his favorite authors to look. At the time, we added a copy of the photo of the portrait (which you can see at left–click for the larger size) that we took from the auction site.

A few days after the auction, we received a request from someone claiming to represent the buyer. He said the buyer now owned the copyright, and asked us to remove the photo. He also promised that the image was being investigated and we would receive information about it when it became available. We disagree with the claim of copyright, which was owned by the photographer of the portrait, not the owner of the portrait; however, we don’t own the copyright either way, and he asked nicely, and we didn’t care enough about the image to fight it, so we took it down, asked to be updated when the time came, and forgot about it.

Yesterday, we received an e-mail saying we could post the photo again, with a press release about a program(me) to be aired on BBC Two, meaning we won’t be able to see it legally, which gives zero information about the actual portrait other than the usual tiresome claims about THIS IS THE ONLY REAL PORTRAIT OF JANE AUSTEN EXCEPT FOR THAT UGLY TIRED LITTLE THING IN THE NPG THAT DOESN’T COUNT. It all sounds very interesting, but it does us zero good as far as actually learning anything new. It just tells us to watch the TV program(me) that will be broadcast on another continent if we want to know more. We’re feeling a little used here, Gentle Readers. But we present the information, because that is our job, and we think it will be this week’s Wonder Story About Jane Austen. See our previous post about images of Jane Austen. Full press release after the jump.

BBC Two follows academic’s investigation into possible unknown portrait of Jane Austen

This month, BBC Two follows a British academic as she unveils a portrait that may be one of the only remaining images of Jane Austen. In a one-off special, Martha Kearney follows the search to find out whether an unusual drawn portrait really does capture the face of the well-loved author.

Will the picture stand up to forensic analysis and scrutiny by art historians and Austen experts? And if it does, how might it change our perception of one of Britain’s most revered writers? Jane Austen: The Unseen Portrait? (9pm, Mon 26 Dec, BBC Two) follows the investigation behind one of the literary world’s most exciting art works.

Janice Hadlow, Controller, BBC Two:  “Jane Austen: The Unseen Portrait? will sit at the heart of our Christmas schedule and will be a fascinating chance for the BBC Two audience to delve deeper into the life of one of Britain’s best-loved authors.”
Jane Austen is one of the most celebrated writers of all time but with only a rough sketch by her sister we have just an inkling of what she may have looked like. Austen academic and biographer Dr Paula Byrne thinks that this may be about to change. She believes that she’s discovered a portrait of the author that has been lost for nearly two centuries and may offer fascinating new insight into how Jane once lived and portrayed herself to the world.

Paula Byrne: “If this really is an authentic portrait of Jane Austen, it has the potential to change our image of her for ever — instead of the prim spinster of Cassandra’s unfinished sketch, here is a professional writer at the height of her powers.”

Martha follows Paula’s search to gather as much evidence as possible in her quest to prove that she really may hold one of the rarest literary portraits of all time. From eighteenth century costume experts to the editor of Jane Austen’s letters, Paula must interrogate as many experts as possible to build a case for why this really might be Jane. After months of research, she presents the portrait to three of the world’s most prominent Austen experts. Will she be able to convince them that it really is as authentic as it seems?

Jane Austen: The Unseen Portrait? airs at 9pm, Monday 26th December, BBC Two and is one of two films commissioned by the BBC Arts department to celebrate the life and work of one of our greatest authors this Christmas.

The programme was commissioned by Janice Hadlow (Controller, BBC Two) and Mark Bell (Commissioning Editor for Arts) and will be executive produced by Liz Hartford for Seneca Productions and Adam Barker for BBC Knowledge. The director is Neil Crombie.

17 thoughts on “Fan art might not be fan art, but it’s hard to tell

  1. Please don’t feel used, we’d signed a NDA so couldn’t speak–do you want to Know anything else? Church by the way is St Margaret’s and corner of Westminster Abbey, so locates her very much in London, art and fashion experts dates portrait to 1815?
    Thanks so much


    • Okay, if you’re under an NDA that explains why not much information is forthcoming. But you have to understand my frustration! I didn’t feel like it was a quid pro quo situation about taking down the portrait, as I said in my post–I took it down mostly because I was asked nicely to do it (a pleasant change from the sometimes rude demands I am subjected to as a blogger), and it wasn’t terribly important overall, since the post itself was still available. But I do feel a little disappointed to get a teaser about a TV show I won’t be able to see–at least not legally–until some time in the future.

      Another thing is that I at least am feeling a bit of been there-done that about this. We’ve been through this with all the hype about the Rice portrait–which was auctioned and failed to meet the reserve price, because buyers thought the provenance too dodgy for the price asked. Then more recently the James Stanier Clarke “Friendship Book” also failed to meet a reserve price for auction, presumably for the same reason. There’s a lot of hype and nothing comes of it. So without any real facts, it’s hard for me to work up much enthusiasm about this other than some mild snark. Sorry. It’s nothing personal, really. 😉 Also I rather like Cassandra’s portrait (I have seen it in person twice and inspected it as closely as the museum display allowed) so I am not as desperate for something “better” as many seem to be.

      We do know this: this new drawing is a portrait of Jane Austen. The question is whether it was taken from life or done out of an educated imagination (or from someone who actually met Jane Austen at some point, perhaps?).


    • Mark

      Erm, should you not rule OUT the possibility of this being a portrait – real or otherwise – of a sitter called Austin living in or near Tothill Street, Westminster in the period 1810-1820 first? By my reckoning there are a few candidates….


  2. This portrait isn’t new- it was written about in the 2007 Jane Austen Society report 2007 by Deirdre Le Faye in an article about imaginary portraits. Julie Wakefield has written about it on her blog today-
    I have the article if anyone wants to get in touch with me. jodiwe at bt internet dot com


    • Yes–that was mentioned in the description by the auction house, which I quoted in my previous post on the auction of the portrait. What’s new is the claim that it might be a taken-from-life portrait of Austen, rather than done from the imagination of a fan of her work.


  3. With all of the siblings Jane Austen had it would seem that there would be a portrait of at least one of them that could be compared to this one. If this is the case there would have to be the barest of similarities in facial features in the family, would there not? I rather like it because it shows a woman of intelligence, shrewdness, and wit just like our dear Jane (?)


  4. Allison T.

    The gentlemen of the family, whose likenesses we do have, are all remarkably handsome. Jane was said to resemble Henry.


  5. Linda

    I think it’s Virginia Woolf, dressed in her Jane Austen gown for a fancy-dress party… If we’re going to judge by noses and dresses and pens in hand, it seems as plausible as anything else to me.


  6. Alert Janeite Lisa sent the story to her list this morning. I’m now rather glad that a severe attack of illness prevented me from replying immediately–before I’d crawled to the computer, read the posts here and on austenonly, and listened to the radio link on austenonly. I concede the portrait’s likeness to Henry Austen, and I suppose that we Yanks are going to have to wait until we can see the BBC2 program before we can offer truly considered opinions.

    But I’ve still got more questions than Dr. Byrne has answered thus far. Why Westminster Abbey and St. Margaret’s in the background? How do an approximate date of 1815 and an inscription of JA’s name on the back constitute proof that the portrait is an authentic, taken-from-life portrait of her? And (my immediate gut reaction) why is the “JA” in the portrait wearing so much bling? I count three or four rings, three or four necklaces, and possibly an ornament at the waist–and we can’t even see her wrists or her left hand. Unlikely for a clergyman’s daughter of modest means, I would guess. So count me in the skeptics’ camp till I can view the TV program.

    And, actually, I feel better now. Nothing like a good controversy to get an Alert Janeite who thought she was down for the count off the mat!


  7. Joan R

    Not wanting to gloat, but lucky me will be visiting the UK at the time of this broadcast so will definitely be watching it (along with the new Amanda Vickery documentary showing on Christmas Eve – hoping to see a bit of us all at the AGM). So I will try to remember to post some comments on what I think of this portrait business.

    And lovely to see you back on your blog, Maggie


  8. Oh, and another thing: Jane Austen didn’t like cats. So what is she doing sitting near St. Margaret’s wearing bling looking like her brother in drag and with a cat next to her? Seems fantastical to me.


Comments are closed.