Much Ado About a Picture

Who is this mysterious regency lady?

Attended a Jane Austen Society luncheon/lecture today about the Austen subject of the hour: the Byrne portrait, a miniature(though the images of it going around make it look more like a bigature!) that claims to be of Austen on the back, and its current owner has been hawking it as a recently noticed authentic drawing of her, when we only have two sketches by sister Cassandra, only one of which shows her face, though a number of people, including my mother, are rather skeptical.

The lecture most focused on the BBC special done on the subject, in which Bryne presented it to a few Austen scholars and a bunch of subject experts who were mostly able to conclude that there was nothing to disprove it: it looked like it was genuinely done in 1816 and the nose probably could be Austen’s(this was the biggest piece of evidence actually supporting it being of Austen, though said nose is pretty common among the English).  Also the artist wasn’t a very good one, which arguably increases the possibility of it genuinely being of Austen; it’s not like she could’ve afforded a better picture.  On the other hand, she probably wouldn’t have been dressed this well most of the time, even a cheaply done professional portrait would’ve been a big expense for her, and noone in her family ever seemed aware of its existence, which seems odd.

The theory mentioned by our lecturer, one Deborah Kaplan who I’d heard spoken of highly and did a good job all told, that I found most plausible, assuming of course it really is of her, was that it was done by a friend or acquaintance , who maybe even wanted to make her look a little more dignified than she really was, and kept it afterwards, explaining the lack of notice by her family.  There was a specific name mentioned, too, of one Eliza Chute, but when it comes down to it, we’re definitely never going to know just who it was.  Scholars will probably have fun debating that for a few centuries.

Her big point, however, was that the reaction of the Austenites in the special was dictated less from the technical analysis than from whether it matched their mental image of Austen or not.  She then further supported this point by opening the floor to questions/comments while inviting us to say whether we thought it was really Austen, and we obliged her perfectly, all of us chiming in that the shoulders really were her, the expression wasn’t hers at all, the Austen-descended actress who played Caroline Bingly in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice kind of looks like the portrait, and so on and so forth.  The simple fact of the matter is there’s no absolutely objective evidence either way, though there’s evidence that tends one way or another.

As we were breaking up, a man at our table commented that among all the other deficiencies of the artist, the woman was apparently writing right to left.  He suggested she was writing in Hebrew, and that it was in fact a portrait of a Jewish woman.  It’s as possible as it being of Jane Austen, one supposes.


6 thoughts on “Much Ado About a Picture

  1. Pingback: Is this the face I’ve been seeking: Paula Bryne’s miniature redux « Reveries Under the Sign of Austen, Two

  2. Izzy: my friend, Diana Birchall read your blog and she sends you this message: “. to Izzy: Actually, Jane Austen did write backwards, in mirror-writing to her nieces. To me that’s a point in the picture’s favor.”

  3. Hi, Izzy — As I am researching Eliza Chute, I’m rather surprised to read that Kaplan was still tossing her out as a potential artist in March 2012. I thought Eliza had been discounted almost as soon as she was proposed (pity… my blog loved the traffic!).


    • I got the impression from my mother very quickly that it wasn’t a very plausible theory, possibly just one people wanted to be possible. Denial is an amazing thing, sometimes.

      • The theory came from a similarly “posed” portrait (on vellum) done by Eliza Chute of her eldest sister, Maria, Lady Compton. The style is too different, however; so I wasn’t surprised when Byrne discounted the theory. Still, without Eliza Chute as possible artist the “maybe” for the sitter attribution becomes that much harder. The handwritten ID just isn’t enough; the “Miss” is not written in the manner someone of that period would have written the word. Byrne’s TLS piece about the portrait was an interesting read.

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