Portraits: Jane Austen & Gilbert White

February 23, 2019 at 4:49 pm (history, jane austen, people, portraits and paintings, research) (, , , )


An old (May 2017) article on Smithsonian.com by Brigit Katz assesses the “Six Portraits” that were on display during the 200th anniversary year (1817-2017) commemorating Jane Austen’s death. It asks the question, Was Austen demure, sardonic or glamorous? (based on no one portrait looking like any other in the group) while acknowledging that actually the “Six Portraits Deepen the Mystery of Jane Austen.”

NPG 3630; Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen

Without going into the good / bad points of individual portraits,* I will outline the portraits that were displayed:

(*I briefly commented on “the wedding ring” image ten years ago; it continues in heavy usage. I did touch on several portraits, though, in 2013)

  • The pencil and watercolor sketch of Jane by her sister Cassandra Austen (circa 1810) [National Portrait Gallery]
  • the hollow cut silhouette by an unknown artist from circa 1810- 15 [National Portrait Gallery], “L’aimable Jane
  • watercolor of Austen in blue dress, bonnet [rear view], also by Cassandra Austen, circa 1804
  • the 1869 James Andrews watercolor portrait [had been up for auction in 2013] and the frontispiece of her nephew’s biography, A Memoir of Jane Austen, published in 1870, based on the Andrews watercolor
  • portrait said to represent Jane Austen, in album belonging to James Stanier Clarke, librarian to the Prince Regent
  • the ‘Byrne’ portrait

No clue as to why the ‘Byrne’ but not the ‘Rice’ portrait.

The lack of portraits – though not the lack of ‘contenders’ – depicting Jane Austen echoes the story of Gilbert White of Selborne, another late-18th century Hampshire resident.

A riveting 1987 article by J.E. Chatfield actually “summarises verbal descriptions of the Selborne naturalist, the Reverend Gilbert White (1720-1793) by his contemporaries and discusses the background to each of the illustrations which have been suggested as possible likenesses of White.” After citing a group of portraits comes the notice (similar to what Jane Austen enthusiasts might typically read): “The only proven authentic likenesses of Gilbert White are two small pen and ink sketches drawn inside his copy of Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer’s Iliad now in the British Library.”

It was the growing fame of his book The Natural History of Selborne that (naturally) made “further information on [White’s] life and personality” of interest to its readers.

Under Descriptions of White: “There are relatively few recollections of him from members of his own family, in spite of the vast numbers of nephews and nieces which Gilbert White refers to in his journals.” Also mentioned, that at the time of centenary editions of the National History of Selborne (originally published in 1789) “there was no suggestion or knowledge of any portraits or sketch of White.”

Sound familiar?

It was after the sale of The Wakes (White’s home) in 1844 to Prof. Bell, “who was working on his edition of The Natural History & Antiquities of Selborne,” that a White nephew passed on recollections. The “Reverend Francis White who remembered his uncle Gilbert well, although he was only twelve years of age when White died…., provided the information on White’s physical appearance – only 5 feet 3 inches in stature, of a spare form and remarkably upright carriage.”

Nineteenth-century editions of Selborne have included “Recollections of White by older villagers.” If only such a census had been made shortly after Austen’s lifetime! It was this kind of off-hand recollection that James Edward Austen Leigh (Jane Austen’s nephew and my diarist Emma’s husband) that Edward hoped to collate from those nieces and nephews still alive. His sources, however, proved a bit problematic. And some were quite uncooperative.

An interesting comment, from circa 1880, that could so easily be applied to Jane Austen: “‘White was thought very little of till he was dead and gone, and then he was thought a great deal of.'”

I invite you to read the Chatsfield article, look at the Austen portraits as well as Gilbert White’s, and reflect on the highly valid points made.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: