Jane Austen: The Unseen Portrait?


Fan painting of Jane Austen

Copyright claimed by Paula Byrne

Another BBC production from late 2011, “Jane Austen: The Unseen Portrait?,” reached our dental work via La Niña; one much less hyped than the Many Lovers program we blogged about yesterday, but that we found infinitely more interesting, against our better judgment and preconceived ideas.

A while back we complained about the upcoming program as being yet another ill-informed attempt to cash in on Jane Austen. Gentle Readers, Dorothy has served us a heaping helping of fricasseed crow, because we found the program fascinating. We were wrong! Yes, we were! We know what you are thinking: So Editrix, are you convinced that the portrait really is a portrait of Jane Austen, taken from life? We are happy to give the idea a ringing endorsement of: Maybe…just maybe.

The portrait, a pencil drawing on vellum in a style known as plumbago (no, really; we looked it up), was dated by several different art historians and a forensic scientist as probably being from the first two decades of the 19th century. The portrait was known to Austen scholars; Deirdre Le Faye wrote about it in the Jane Austen Society Report for 2007. She called it an “imaginary portrait,” done by an amateur artist from his imagination of what Jane Austen might have looked like. The portrait was auctioned in early 2011. The former owner, a manuscript dealer, purchased it in 1982 from the estate of a former M.P. from Cheshire. The portrait could not be traced earlier than that owner. Dr. Paula Byrne, whose husband purchased the portrait for her, is convinced that it could be a portrait of Jane Austen, taken from life. We are sure of that–Paula is quite certain in her conviction. She is not just out for attention; she truly wants to prove that the portrait is of Jane Austen, because she feels it presents Austen as a professional woman writer, not twee spinster Auntie Jane, as so many of the later portraits–fully imaginary themselves–do. Thus this BBC program, presented by Martha Kearney, sets out the portrait as a mystery to be solved: is it a portrait of Jane Austen? Was it taken during her lifetime? Who painted it? And why did Austen’s family seem to have not known about it? Continue reading