What did Jane Austen really look like?

In 2017 an image of Jane Austen will appear for the first time on British currency – but with just one authenticated image of the great writer, how do we know what she really looked like? 

Writing for History Extra, expert David Lassman explores the many pictures that have contributed to our knowledge of the author’s likeness…

(Universal History Archive / Getty Images)
The National Portrait Gallery attributed this unfinished portrait to Jane Austen’s sister, Cassandra, and dated it to circa 1810. (Universal History Archive / Getty Images)
 

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the only ‘authenticated’ image we have of Jane Austen (1775-1817) is a watercolour in which her back is turned and a bonnet covers any discernible features, which was painted by her sister, Cassandra, in 1804. (There is another image, owned by the National Portrait Gallery, purporting to authentically show Austen’s facial features, but more of this one later.)

Given, then, that we do not know for certain exactly what the author of Pride and Prejudice, and several other English literature classics, looked like, the question has to be asked: does it really matter? For anyone with a vested interest, say those possessing an image purporting to be of Jane and showing her face, or a company promoting Austen-related product, the answer must surely be a resounding yes. 

As for the rest of us, the fact that her works continue to be so immensely popular worldwide, both in their written form and numerous screen adaptations, and the commercial industry that has sprung up around her is worth billions of pounds, we might, at the very least, be curious to find out if the likenesses we are ubiquitously presented with owes more to marketing than actuality. 

This is because in the 200 years since Austen’s death in July 1817, images purporting to be of her have been made-over, touched up, sexed-up and prettified in order to advertise everything from books and alcohol, to magazines and cosmetics. A typical example occurred in 2007, when a publisher airbrushed the author into “something more appealing” for one of their book covers, after complaining “she was not much of a looker”.

And with the appearance of one of these images (or at least a later variant of it) on British currency from later this year to coincide with the bicentennial of her death, this seemingly official endorsement of one representation over all others might be seen as bringing to an end what has been, at times, a contentious, controversial and even vindictive battle of wills to authenticate one true likeness of this Hampshire-born author.


In 2013, the Bank of England announced that an image of Jane Austen will appear for the first time on British currency. Features of the concept design include an illustration of Pride and Prejudice character Miss Elizabeth Bennet and an image of Godmersham Park. (© Bank of England/Bloomberg /Getty Images)

 

Finding authentic portraits

To put this into context, there are currently around a dozen images that may show Jane Austen where she was actually present at their creation, along with several posthumous attempts to create an Austen-esque likeness (more of these later). In regard to the former, these range from the early 1780s, before Jane reached adolescence, to 1816 after she had turned 40 and the year before she died.

The earliest of these images, if authentic, was painted around 1783, although the artist is unknown. It was recently ‘discovered’ in a Christie’s catalogue (which identified it merely as being of the English School c1780). The image related to the auction of items from Godmersham Park, the Kent estate which Jane’s brother, Edward, inherited after being officially adopted by the Knight family in the same year (it was a relatively common practice in Austen’s time for wealthy childless couples to adopt a male ‘heir’).

This ‘Godmersham painting’ shows two adults and four children, which, if genuine, are Mr and Mrs Knight and a quartet of Austen children: Edward, Francis, Cassandra and Jane. As Edward is holding a bunch of grapes in the air – a heraldry symbol of good fortune – it is tantalising to imagine the small girl beside her brother mimicking his action, as the eight-year-old’s later literary career would owe so much to this particular event. The cottage at Chawton, famous for being the place where Austen completed her major works, resides on one of the estates that Edward later inherited from the Knights.

Five years later, in 1788, the portrait that for many people does authentically reveal Jane’s facial features came into existence. During a visit to a great-uncle, Francis Austen, it is said the 13-year-old Jane, by now having begun writing, was painted by Ozias Humphry (1742–1810). Humphry was a leading English painter of portrait miniatures before deteriorating eyesight forced him into using larger canvases. The artist had connections with Francis Austen (indeed, Humphry had earlier completed a portrait of him) and it is thought to have been Francis who commissioned the portrait of his great-niece. Before the identity of this possible creator was established, however, it was attributed to Johan Zoffany (1733–1810), this particular artist temporarily lending his surname to the portrait’s prefix. Today, however, it is known as the ‘Rice portrait’, from the Rice family, which currently holds possession after an ancestor was bequeathed the painting in 1883.


For many decades after its original publication in 1884, the ‘Rice portrait’ was accepted as an authentic portrait of Jane Austen, says David Lassman. (STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)
 

For many decades after its original publication in 1884, this painting of a gold locket-wearing adolescent girl in a high-waisted, white cotton muslin frock, carrying an unfurled parasol and standing with an expression of confidence and intelligence, was accepted as authentic. So unanimous was this acceptance as a true likeness that the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) tried to purchase it in the 1930s, but the Rice family did not want to sell. In the middle of the 20th century, however, this would dramatically change.

In 1948, the National Portrait Gallery finally acquired its own portrait of Jane Austen. This was a small sketch in pencil and watercolour which – unlike the authenticated ‘bonnet’ portrait by her sister, with its rear view of Jane and inscription ‘C.E.A. 1804’ – is unsigned, undated and unfinished. Nevertheless, the NPG attributed this portrait also to Cassandra and dated it to circa 1810.

If 1810 is the correct dating, then the arms-folded, seated, impatient looking Austen is most likely at the Chawton cottage where she spent the final years of her life, and is perhaps thus irritated as she is keen to get back to her revisions of Sense and Sensibility (which was to be published the following year).

 

The ‘Rice portrait’

In the same year as the NPG acquired its own portrait and subsequently claimed it as the only true likeness, eminent Austen scholar RW Chapman also cast doubt upon the ‘Rice portrait’. It was, he argued, due to the fact that the style of costume the figure was wearing belonged to a much later period of fashion; one where the author would then have been in her 30s, not her teens.

Despite the fact that reputable costume historians have since argued that the style could have belonged to an earlier period, contemporary to the creation of the image, and documents have emerged that Chapman – by his own admittance no fashion expert – had been advised about the dating of the costume by a prominent member (and later director) of the National Portrait Gallery, the damage had already been inflicted.

In 1994, for example, when the portrait was finally offered to the NPG, it declined it, and when it was later put up for auction in New York in 2007 – it was granted an export licence on the basis it was not Jane Austen – the portrait failed to sell.   

An interesting footnote is that among the early detractors of the National Portrait Gallery’s image was RW Chapman himself, whose opinion in 1946 (two years before the NPG acquisition) was of it being “a disappointing scratch”.

Of the remaining images completed during Austen’s lifetime, all vying for possible authenticity, two are from the same 1983 Godmersham catalogue, two are silhouettes (a popular way of recording your profile for posterity in Georgian times) and one was undertaken by the Prince Regent’s librarian – James Stanier Clarke – in 1816, around the time Austen dedicated Emma to the man who would later become George IV.


An engraving made especially for Duyckinck’s 'Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women of Europe and America' (1873) showed the author sporting a wedding ring. (Culture Club/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
 

Posthumous attempts

As mentioned earlier, there have also been several posthumous attempts to create an acceptable Austen likeness from one of the existing portraits, or to create something from scratch. Probably the most infamous of the former type is a watercolour completed by professional artist James Andrews of Maidenhead in 1869 and the engraving produced from it the following year, by the Scottish firm of Lizars. These two men had received their commissions from one of Jane’s nephews, James Edward Austen-Leigh, in preparation for his upcoming Memoir of Jane Austen. Andrews was told by Austen-Leigh to “pretty up” Cassandra’s “disappointing” sketch (the one that the National Portrait Gallery would later purchase), but after the further ‘enhanced’ engraving was brought into existence, one of Jane’s nieces (coincidentally called Cassandra) commented: “I confess to not thinking it much like the original; but that the public will not be able to detect.” The Bank of England is certainly hoping that, almost 150 years later, this is still the case, because their depiction appearing on the new £10 note is based exclusively on the Lizars steel engraving.

Other posthumous attempts range from the tongue-in-cheek Hollywood poolside make-over (as perpetrated by Entertainment Weekly for an article on Austen adaptations) to the bizarrely inaccurate depiction of Jane Austen sporting a wedding ring in an engraving made especially for Duyckinck’s Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women of Europe and America (1873) – despite the author having never married.

The most recent attempt is by the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, which has unveiled a portrait based on a waxwork figure that resides at the centre as part of their ‘Jane Austen experience’. The life-size figure itself is based on an earlier attempt, also commissioned by the centre, which was created by Melissa Dring in 2002. It was her work on Vivaldi, according to the centre’s website which first alerted David Baldock, Jane Austen Centre director, to this forensically trained artist (Dring trained at the Royal Academy School in London as a portrait painter and then as a police forensic artist with the FBI in Washington). The 1810 watercolour was used by the forensic artist as a starting point, along with more detailed contemporary eye-witness accounts of Jane’s features.


The most recent attempt at Austen’s likeness, based on the life-size waxwork figure at the Jane Austen Centre. (Picture © The Jane Austen Centre, Bath)

 

The ‘Byrne portrait’

One portrait that was originally thought to reside in the posthumous images, but according to its current owner, the author Paula Byrne, should actually be in the lifetime pantheon, is a drawing allegedly completed around 1815 (its creator is not known). The portrait depicts what would have been the late 30-something author sitting at a table doing what she did best, but as appealing as it is to see Jane Austen as we might have imagined her, critics point out it is exactly that: an imaginary portrait, created years after the author had died. Certainly, this is how it was described at the auction where Byrne’s husband, Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate, purchased it as a gift for his wife.

For the time being, the jury is still out on the authenticity of this ‘Byrne portrait’, as it is on all the other images that purport to show the face of Jane Austen, despite the Bank of England’s contribution to the debate.

As for the one authenticated portrait of the author, the 1804 watercolour by Jane’s sister Cassandra, with her gaze facing away, one wonders whether that beneath the untied bonnet, as she looks into the distance, Jane Austen does not allow herself a wry smile at the posture she has adopted and the mystery that it will still evoke two centuries later. 

And if she did have anything to say on our preoccupation with wanting a true likeness of her, then perhaps the words she wrote in Emma, when the heroine refers to Harriet Smith, best sum up our feelings: “What an exquisite possession a good picture of her would be! I would give any money for it.”

David Lassman is a former director of the International Jane Austen Festival. He has recently written an Austen-related feature film entitled Encounter, due for release in 2017, and is currently working on an autobiographical book entitled How I Became Jane Austen’s Press Agent, charting his time as PR and media consultant for the Jane Austen Centre in Bath. Lassman’s views on Austen have been sought by media organisations such as CNN, BBC and the New York Times, and he has made many radio and television appearances, including the 2008 documentary Crazy About Jane; BBC’s The One Show and Good Morning America.

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