Once again the Janeite world (and the Muggle press that insists on blowing these things all out of proportion) are creating a controversy out of nothing over images of Jane Austen.
Sotheby’s is auctioning a fake portrait of Jane Austen next month. As fake portraits go, this one is probably slightly less fake than some others. It was commissioned by James Edward Austen-Leigh to be used to create an engraving as a frontispiece to Austen-Leigh’s 1869 Memoir of his aunt. The painting was done by James Andrews of Maidenhead by tracing Cassandra Austen’s watercolor portrait of her sister. The engraving was later used as the basis of perhaps the best-known image of Austen, the infamous “wedding ring portrait” included in a book of eminent persons.
There has been some concern expressed by our own correspondents over this sale, as it is feared it will share the near-fate of Jane Austen’s turquoise ring, purchased and taken out of the country rather than added to a public collection; it would probably be nearly impossible to mount a second rescue mission by Janeites and the museum at Chawton as was done for the ring. However, we find it difficult to get very upset about the fate of this portrait. It is a nice little painting, and that’s it. It wasn’t taken from life, thought it was traced from a portrait that was so taken. However, in the dearth of such images taken from life, Janeites have created new icons of our favorite author. The painting certainly deserves to be part of a museum collection dedicated to Austen. It is to be hoped that whoever purchases it can preserve and display it for all to enjoy.
This portrait has been in the news lately in other ways, as the engraving created from it was used as the basis for the image of Austen that will appear on the British ten-pound bill in a couple of years. Biographer Paula Byrne has been all over the press of late complaining about the portrait chosen for the banknote. Prof. Byrne has previously been recorded as quite passionate on the subject of images of Austen. She feels that the portrait makes Jane appear “saccharine” and that it is an “airbrushing” of Cassandra’s original portrait, and perpetuates Austen’s family’s whitewashing of her personality. We understand Prof. Byrne’s passion on the subject, though most Austen fans, scholars, and attentive readers know better than to consider Jane Austen a sweet, retiring spinster. However, we think that the portrait was chosen for a very simple reason: it is in the public domain. Cassandra’s portrait is owned by the National Portrait Gallery and it cannot be used without its permission, and probably without paying a hefty licensing fee.
All that being said–yes, let’s pick a different Austen quotation for the banknote! We still think the best one would be “I write only for Fame and without any view to pecuniary Emolument.” However, the Muggle public would probably not recognize Austen’s delightful snark.
Check out our previous post, A Closer Look at Images of Jane Austen.