Portrait Pricing in Regency England

January 3, 2012 at 10:37 am (jane austen, jasna, portraits and paintings) (, , , , , , , )

The end of my 2011 JASNA AGM paper, “A House Divided? How the Sister Arts Define the Dashwood Sisters,” briefly examined the discrepancy between the earnings of Musicians and Artists, in an effort to illustrate that — in keeping with their interests — Marianne Dashwood’s naming a competence of £2000 could only cause an outcry by Elinor for the sum to signify wealth to her.

In my research, with its attempts to track down portraits and miniatures mentioned in Smith&Gosling letters and diaries, it’s sometimes possible to place a price-paid upon a work: for original sums are sometimes recorded.

In the program Jane Austen: The Unseen Portrait? it is mentioned that 30 guineas might have been asked for a miniature, 300 guineas for an oil portrait. Surely, those are high-end amounts.

To illustrate:

In her 1820 diary, Emma mentions that she and elder sister Augusta go “with the Goslings to Sir Wm Beechey’s”.

Beechey’s account books, published in 1907, has a notation for payment on 26 March 1820: “Of Mrs. Gosling, for Mr. Robert Gosling (last half)… 26£ 5s 0d”

Earlier (and later) notations of payments are then found:

1817 –

1 April: “Of Mrs. Gosling (as half), for a half-length of her two daughters and three-quarter of her own…105£”

8 August: “Of Mrs. Gosling (as last payment), for the Miss Goslings, and three-quarter of Mr. W. Gosling…105£”

[Question: Was Charlotte’s own portrait given over to William Ellis, her eldest step-son? Or is there a payment missing?]

1818 –

21 April: “Of Mr. Gosling (first half)… 26£ 5s 0d”

[Question: Did Robert’s portrait really wait two years (until 1820) for payment? Mr Gosling should be William Gosling, the father; Mr W. Gosling, the eldest son William Ellis Gosling; Robert and Bennett Gosling the remaining two elder brothers]

1823 – Beechey’s prices have risen, a bit:

24 February: “Of Mrs. Gosling (as half), for Mrs. Bennett Gosling… 31 £ 10s 0d”

Even a rudimentary bit of math comes up with sums well under 300 guineas per picture. Typically, “half portraits” cost less than “three-quarter” lengths.

Sir William Beechey, having painted the Royals and been knighted in 1798, would not have been an unknown itinerant artist.

Blog readers who live in London, can visit the National Portrait Gallery and view the Sitters Book of artist Margaret Carpenter. One Carpenter-Wilkie Collins-Charles Dickens researcher did just that, and found that Mrs Carpenter received a mere 4£ 4s 0d from Dickens, “whether of him or someone in his family isn’t clear”. The same reader notes that Mrs Carpenter was “patronised by most of the more prominent personages”.

{note that readers reply on that website wondering if the sitter is the Charles Dickens — never thought about it: 1820, the sitter could be my Charles SCRACE Dickens!}

My intention here, is to bring forward the notion that not all portraits were made for engaged couples, or exceptionally pricey. Emma herself writes in an 1825 letter,

“Augusta has told me about Mary Gosling’s picture but I should really extremely like to pay for it and have it {my conclusion: Mamma was willing to pay; or else, Mary was offering her friend this, paying for it herself} – I am sure I could very well afford it for you know many expences are cut off this year & it would be a great treasure to me — I will write to Mary Gosling tomorrow–“

So family are not the only contenders for the purchase or the acquisition of a portrait: friends might also have received a memento!  But: As I’ve written before, there are so many pieces out there merely titled “Portrait of a Lady”… Some gift of Jane or Cassandra Austen to, say, Alethea Bigg, may be out there, yet never properly ID’ed.

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