“Jane, is that you?”

November 22, 2014 at 2:04 pm (history, people, portraits and paintings) (, , , , )

The “Jane” in question here is not Jane Austen but Jane Perceval, wife then widow of Spencer Perceval the British Prime Minister murdered in 1812.

Although my first volume of Smith & Gosling biography begins in 1814 – the history surrounding the PM’s death two years prior is vital: Spencer Perceval was a relative of Mamma Smith’s brother-in-law Charles, 1st Marquess of Northampton. The Marquess’s son, young Lord Compton, ended up in Parliament soon thereafter. Several letters discuss the Percevals — Jane and her children — during the immediate aftermath of the assassination.

One letter, written by Jane herself, has her on the defensive against an out-cry caused by the widow’s upcoming remarriage. Emma Smith mentions the fact of her marriage to “Sir H. Carr” (no embellishments) in her 1815 diary.

The woman, obviously distraught at the negativism, and combating an illness, was pleading her case at such length, that I simply had to find out more about her. And that’s when I came across this purported portrait on the blog PottoingAround. It went up for auction in May 2014.

janeperceval_vigee lebrun

A major  “anniversary” year in 2012 (200 years since the assassination), there started some thoughts on commemorating Perceval; at least one biography came out; some press articles &c. It is less his death than how the family responded and coped that interests me. I’ve read of similar backlash when Mrs Thrale (who made no bones about how unhappy Henry Thrale made her) married Mr. Piozzi. “Public opinion” as well as private sentiments were making themselves felt in this case, however — especially as Mrs Perceval had been granted a generous “pension”. This remains an area I’ll have to delve into a bit more, just out of curiosity.

This portrait, a pastel by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, dates to 1804. The French artist was resident in England at the time, so the fact of it being her work seems not in question. What IS questioned is the identification of the sitter.

It’s difficult to compare portraits – and say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ based on various representations looking like each other: there are too many portrait series where the sitter is KNOWN and the portraits look very little alike (I might, as a quick for instance, mention Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire’s several portraits).

For my purposes, I sure HOPE this is Jane Perceval. Hands-down, it would win my case; for I wish to call Jane Perceval, in May 1812, a ‘vibrant’ woman in her forties. No one viewing this portrait would be immune to the charms of this face just eight years later.

* * *

  • More info on Vigée Le Brun, the terrific Batguano site (this pastel is near the top of the page)
  • the “hidden in plain sight” family history of an MP
  • recent news on a Spencer Perceval memorial plaque

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