Monday, 2 January 2012


Jane Austen's only officially recognised image
Have you seen the small sketch of Jane Austen in the National Portrait Gallery in London among the huge paintings on the walls which is the only officially recognised existing  image of her  It is small, not at all grand, and made with love by an amatorial sketcher: Jane's beloved sister, Cassandra. That's not enough for such a great writer and the enormous popularity she has gained nowadays. But there's a new intriguing item in the gallery of possible images of Miss Austen we have collected so far. This might-be  an Austen portrait has been analysed in detail in an original TV programme on BBC 2: Jane Austen The Unseen Portrait?

I'm totally caught in this mistery. This BBC show was so good and well built as a literary/art case to be  scientifically investigated on,  but in a detective-story-like manner,  that it was incredibly gripping though simply a documentary programme. The thorough, passionate work of reasearch/investigation literary scholar Dr Paula Byrne has undertaken from  May 2011 on , after getting this portrait of a "Miss Jane Austin" (mispelt, with an "i" instead of an "e", in a note on its back) as a gift from her husband,  is remarkable and encomiable. Her enthusiasm is contagious.

Dr Paula Byrne's Portrait of a "Miss Jane Austin"
Why is this portrait so important if it comes out to be really of Jane Austen? Not only because it will get an immeasurable value on the market (it was only paid £ 2,000) , but especially because it will revolutionise the view the world has of one of Britain's greatest writers. 

Dr Byrne and BBC Martha Kearney on their quest
As a matter of fact, if it comes out to be real, nothing would change for me, for what it counts. In fact, what first strucks me as a watcher is that THAT might well be  the sharp-tongued, witty, intelligent, self-aware and very matter-of- fact Miss Austen I've always had in my mind: little sweetness, no romance, no cuteness. This could never be enough in a serious investigation, but the emotion the sight provoked in me at first  was close to tears (I know, I know, I'm not Jane-Austen-like at all in that and in many other respects) and it happened before the account of Dr Byrne's investigation started, right at the first glimpse of the portrait on the screen. It might be HER!

At the end of her research Dr Byrne's proposes the case, supported by a number of evidences and clues,  to illustrious Austen experts such as Deirdre Le Faye, Professor Kathryn Sutherland of Oxford University and Professor Claudia Johnson of Princeton. They are invited to listen to what Dr Paula Byrne has discovered about the portrait she owns and decide whether it may bear any resemblance to what Jane Austen might have been like. Dr Byrne faces them in great excitement and tries to convince them of the goodness of her own investigating work. Did she succeed in convincing them?

The answer only in the end. First, the main evidences and clues she presents to support her theory:

- forensic tests were carried out on the ink used (constant white) and the vellum which proved it can be dated something between 1811 and 1869 (before the publication of James Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir)
- the clothes the lady in the picture wears were recognised by an expert as consistent fashionable clothing in the years between 1813-1815
- the family resemblance , especially the nose, was studied with highly modern techniques used to identify criminals from CCTV footage or photos. The resemblance is stunning, but the computer study supports that mere impression 
- the surname was often mispelt as "Austin" by people who knew Jane in her life: Eliza Chute (whom Dr Byrne is inclined to believe to be the amateur artist who drew this portrait in London), Elizabeth Lee, The Countess of Morley, Mrs Mosley and John Murray, her publisher, on a royalty check. 

There are lots of doubts to be solved and questions to be answered yet,  so this research must undoubtedly go on in order to be proved totally improbable or genuine. But what did the experts consulted by Dr Byrne say in the end? Where they convinced? Did they reject her theory? 

Deirdre Le Faye, Prof. Kathryn Sutherland and Prof. Claudia Johnson
She succeeded in bringing to her side two out of three scholars and she considered that "much more than she could have expected".  Deirdre Le Faye considers it "an imaginary portrait of Jane Austen" and during the presentation she debated most of Dr Byrne's clues. The other two experts, Professor Sutherland and Professor Johnson, were more supportive and , in the end, they agreed that it could possibly be an image of Jane Austen taken during  her life by an amateur artist. 

I'm sure we will hear more about Dr Byrne and her research on this portrait. Meanwhile, I'm totally fascinated by the lady in the picture. 

If you want to judge yourself and  you live in the UK,  see this programme on BBCiPlayer

 Here's a clip from the programme from my Youtube Channel . Enjoy!


Anne Shirley said...

I thank you for this information. I'm from Argentina, and well, she is not that popular here. Besides that I really love her, and I'm very interested about her.
About this new appearing picture, I don't think is Jane. I read in a biography (Claire Tomalin) that her family and some acquaintances said about Jane that she had a SMALL nose, not that nose that we see in this picture. This nose was of her mother and sister Cassandra, but not her nose. (Sorry if my English is awful).
I can't see the tv programme right now, because I don't have a count in youtube, but I will see it in the future.
Thank you very much for this information!!! =)
Happy new year!!!!

Rachel said...

My darling friend Maria, at first of all I'd like to thank you so much all your kindness, all your sweetness, all your friendship in this difficult moment me and my dear family are living! You're really a special kind of soul and I'm so honored for your friendship, my dear! I'd like too to wish you and your dear family a so Happy and Wonderful New Year full of so much blessings and love! Thanks so much, my dear, for everything! With love and lots of kisses, Rachel :)))))) PS: I'll write an email as soon as I can, ok?

Rose West said...

How very cool! So exciting that it might actually be her :)

Maria Grazia said...

Dear @Anne Shirley,
they discuss about the nose pretty much in this programme. I hope you come to see it, so that you can decide yourself if what Dr Byrne has discovered is a genuine portrait of Jane or not.
Thanks for reading and commenting.
Hello @Rachel,
thanks for your kind words and your wishes. I'm sad to hear you're going through hard times but I hope everything will turn better soon . A big hug.
Dear @Rose West,
I agree with you. I am so intrigued by this story.Isn't it like a good literary mystery to be solved? Thanks for dropping by and commenting.

Anonymous said...

You can find an interesting discussion of this programme here:
Apparently Dr. Byrne hasn't "discovered" this picture.


Maria Grazia said...

Thanks a lot, Monica!

Debra Brown said...

Thanks for the piece!

Maria Grazia said...

You are welcome, Deb. Glad you like it :-)

Anne Shirley said...

Hi, me again =).
I'm watching the programme! ... and I'm thinking: what about the silhouette of Jane Austen??? Is it real? And if it is so, it isn't show a picky nose. Ahhh!!! I don't know. I'm desperate =)

Anne Shirley said...

*it doesn't show...

Anne Shirley said...

Besides that, this "new J.A." has sad eyes. If we see her brothers and her father pictures, these eyes are not familiar. In the video, I mean, in the programme women talk about the familiarity of her nose, but a %90 of English people have that nose! =)

Sara said...

Wow, I really appreciate you wrote this! I didn't know absolutely anythign about the portrait and now you've just made me feel so curious! I will go into this deeper, you can be sure! As a matter of fact, I'm reading "Sense and Sensibility" and I've already read "Emma", so, as you can imagine, and a sort of fan of Austen's works! I love this blog!

Lily said...

Ah, this is too intruguing... so many doubts... I still don't see how it can ever be proven. Whether it is her or not, it won't change anything for me, nor my opinion of JA. The more I think about it the more I am convinced that Jane would call these debates ridiculous. It is just pointless. All the attention to such "mystery"... After all, the only thing that matters is her literary legacy.

Anna-Karin S said...

Interesting story about the portrait. How is the case stnding now 8 years later ??
it is always difficult to say if a portrait is really of a person since it always through the artists interpretation.

Jane Austen died before the invention of photography but some of her siblings and surely many of her nieces and nephews ived well into the time of photography !! Are there any known photos of any of her sibling or nieces and nephews ??