Monday, March 21, 2011

Is this a portrait of the Austen family in 1781?

The ‘Conversation Piece’.
Is this a portrait of the Austen Family?
Is this a portrait of the Austen Family in 1781?

Whilst conducting research into the ‘Rice’ portrait, Mr. Robin Roberts discovered a very interesting picture, which seems to have gone unnoticed in a Christie’s catalogue. The sale of the property of Mrs. Robert Tritton took place at Godmersham Park, Kent, between Monday, June 6th and Thursday, June 9th, 1983. Elsie Tritton and her husband had bought the estate in 1936, and the catalogue notes how she and her husband had lovingly rescued the house, and how Elsie, a New Yorker by birth, wished that after her death, their wonderful collection of furniture and clocks, English Conversation Pieces, objets d’art and textiles should be available for others to buy for their own collections. This is a fascinating catalogue to see, and I think the fact that the painting came out of the sale of Godmersham Park is most exciting! Click on the pictures to see a larger image.

The painting is described in the catalogue as belonging to the English School, circa 1780, pen, and black ink and watercolour, measuring 15½ by 19½ inches. It depicts a family sitting round a table, the adults at opposite ends, with four children beyond.
I think what’s so interesting about the picture is that the more you study it; the more the details become fascinating. It appears to be a wonderful allegorical puzzle, full of the humour and charade that the Austen family loved, reflecting so much of what we know about their family history, and finances, with all the literary symbolism they would have enjoyed so much. There are some significant allusions connected with the Austen family, and I am thrilled to share Mr. Roberts’ thoughts and discoveries with you.
Silhouette to commemorate Edward Austen's adoption 
He wonders if it could possibly be a work by Ozias Humphry painted to commemorate the adoption of Edward Austen by the Knight family who were childless relatives, and executed at a similar date as the commemorative silhouette.
 What could be the monogram symbols of Ozias Humphry appear to be scattered in several places about the painting, on the figures, in a curlicue above the mantelpiece, and there is a possible signature in the right hand corner, though it is difficult to be certain without seeing the original, and unfortunately, it is impossible to show all the small details on a blog.


If we assume that this is a painting of the Austen family, the central figure shows a young boy who is most likely to be Edward Austen. The family all have their attention turned towards him, and more importantly, their eyes are concentrated on the bunch of grapes, which he holds high up in the air, as if being presented to the viewer. You can almost hear him say, “Look at me, am I not the most fortunate boy in the world? Look what I have!”
Surely the grapes represent the good fortune and wealth that Edward is about to inherit, and the whole family who look as pleased as punch are celebrating with him.

George Herbert makes the connections between grapes, fruit, and inheritance in his poem, The Temple.

From The Temple by George Herbert, 1633
An extract from The Bunch of Grapes:

Then have we too our guardian fires and clouds;
                            Our Scripture-dew drops fast:
We have our sands and serpents, tents and shrowds;
        Alas! our murmurings come not last.
        But where’s the cluster?  where’s the taste
Of mine inheritance?  Lord, if I must borrow,
Let me as well take up their joy, as sorrow.

But can he want the grape, who hath the wine?
                            I have their fruit and more.
Blessed be God, who prosper’d Noahs vine,
        And made it bring forth grapes good store.
        But much more him I must adore,
Who of the Laws sowre juice sweet wine did make
Ev’n God himself being pressed for my sake.

The horseshoe nail at Edward's feet
As we observe the painting, the small girl with round cheeks to the left of Edward must be Jane Austen herself! This is also one of the most significant parts to the puzzle. She appears to be clutching what could be a horseshoe nail in her hand, which she points towards Edward, her arm held high in the same way as he holds his grapes aloft. This is where it gets most exciting, and where another connection to Edward Austen is made. On the painting of Edward Austen at Chawton House, there is most distinctly, a horseshoe nail on the ground pointing towards Edward’s feet. Mr. Roberts tells me that this little nail is a symbol, an allusion to the fact that the Knights adopted him. Most interestingly, Jane makes reference to the horseshoe nail in a letter dated Tuesday, 9th February, 1813. She is talking about Miss Clewes, a new governess that Edward has engaged to look after his children.

Miss Clewes seems the very Governess they have been looking for these ten years; - longer coming than J. Bond’s last Shock of Corn. – If she will but only keep Good and Amiable and Perfect!  Clewes & (sic) is better than Clowes. And is it not a name for Edward to pun on? – is not a Clew a nail?

Jane was punning on the word clew (or clue) and the Old French word, clou (de girofle), which in its turn was derived from the Latin, clavus, meaning nail (of the clove tree). The dried flower bud of the clove tree resembles a small nail or tack. Of course, it was a name for Edward to pun on because of his own associations with a small horseshoe nail. 

Painting from the Christie's catalogue of the Godmersham Sale
Now we turn to the gentleman on the left of the painting who is dressed exactly as Mr. Austen in the silhouette attributed to Wellings of Edward’s presentation to the Knight family. He is seated, hands clasped together as though offering up a grateful prayer for their good fortune. Within his grasp it appears he is holding a prayer book, or missal, the silk ribbon of which is draped over his fingers, an indication perhaps of his status as rector, and a man of the cloth. Interestingly, he is the only figure whose eyes are not concentrated on the bunch of grapes, but perhaps this is to indicate he is more concerned with offering grateful thanks in his role of clergyman.

In between Mr. Austen and Jane is Cassandra who rests her hand protectively on her sister’s shoulder, whilst also providing an excellent compositional device leading the eye along through to Jane’s arm to the tip of the Golden Triangle where the bunch of grapes are suspended. The painting follows the traditional composition based on a triangle for optimum placing of the main interest of the work. I also think it interesting to note that the girls’ dresses are of the simple muslin type usually worn by children at this time. Mostly white, they were worn with a ribbon sash, at waist height or higher as in Jane’s case.

On the other side of Edward, it is thought this child most likely to be Francis. James would have been at school at this time, and Henry could also have been away. Charles was too young to be depicted, and would still have been lodged with the family who looked after the infant Austens, as was the custom.

To the far right, as we look at the painting is the formidable figure of Mrs. Austen dressed for the occasion with a string of pearls and a ribbon choker around her neck, complete with more than one ‘feather in her cap’, which must represent her pride and pleasure at the whole event, and by extension, the symbols of nobility and glory. She is further emphasizing Edward’s importance by pointing in his direction, and I think it would be hard to imagine a more pleased mama, in her elegant air, and her smile.

On the table is a further connection with Mrs. Austen. The pineapple, a prized fruit, representing health and prosperity, was first introduced to England in 1772, and the Duke of Chandos, Mrs. Austen’s great uncle, was the first to grow them. The symbolism of the pineapple represents many things, not least the rank of the hostess, but was also associated with hospitality, good cheer, and family affection.
Other dishes of food illustrate further abundance, wealth, and the spiritual associations of Christian values. There is bread and wine on the table: Christian symbols, which represent not only life, and the Communion, but also show there is cause for thankfulness and celebration. The glasses are not yet filled, but there are glasses placed before the adults for a toast. Nearest to us in the foreground, there is another fruitful dish, perhaps plum pudding, representing not only the wealth to come, but also a plentiful future. Placed before Edward, another dish, which also appears to suggest the image of a spaniel dog, may be an allusion to Edward’s love of hunting.

The background to the painting holds its own clues. It’s been suggested that the painting above the mantelpiece could be Zeus abducting Ganymede to the Gods, another reference to the luck of young Edward who has been adopted by the Knight family, and on the opposite wall, could this be a reference to the miniature portrait of George Austen, the handsome proctor, even if this appears to be a larger portrait? In the carpet, the patterns suggest the date may again be replicated, and also an M to symbolize the fact that the couple in the painting are married. Above the looking glass is a crest with what appears to be the date. It would be lovely to have a look at the original to see everything in more detail!

Unfortunately, there appears to be no record of the sale of the painting, and I know that Mr. Roberts, and his sister, Mrs. Henry Rice, would be interested to learn more about the painting. They've asked me to make an appeal on their behalf for any information, and if anyone knows of the painting’s whereabouts or can tell us anything about it, please do get in touch with me or with Jane Austen’s House Museum.
My contact details are at the top left of the page.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog as much as I’ve enjoyed hearing all about this little painting from Mr. Roberts and Mrs. Rice, and I'd like to thank them for sharing their discovery. 
I’d love to hear your thoughts!








20 comments:

Raquel said...

Dear, Jane

what wonderful discovery! I hope you can be discover more about the painting.

lucy tartan said...

That's not Mrs. Austen's nose.

Janet Mullany said...

Wow, this is fascinating! Thanks so much for posting. I do have to agree about Mrs. Austen's nose, but wasn't the famous silhouette done later in life? This may have been meant to flatter, or possibly before she started her secret career as a female prizefighter.

Jane Odiwe said...

Raquel, it is wonderful, isn't it?
Lucy and Janet,
Thank you so much for your comments.
I have to agree about the nose - I think it should be more hooked, but I don't think this is a representational painting, and as Janet said it may well have been 'toned down' to flatter!

Laurel Ann (Austenprose) said...

Fascinating Jane. It is amazing that there is no record of the sale of the picture by Christies. They document everything. Maybe it did not sell? But that would have been noted too. They even keep records of the registered bidders.

The Rice portrait is a mystery just aching to be solved. I hope that these new discoveries come to a positive conclusion. The controversy over is if is Jane or not has certainly gone back and forth with experts for years. I am a romantic and like to think that it is her. Best of luck to all concerned.

Your involvement is be commended. I hope that it brings new information for the family.

Jane Odiwe said...

Laurel Ann, thank you for your comments!
I think it's a very interesting painting, and I'm not sure why the records are missing.

I've always admired the Rice portrait as a lovely example of its time. I wonder if we'd be having the same arguments about the authenticity of the National Portrait Gallery paintings of Jane if they hadn't been purchased when they were- I've always thought the provenance for L'aimable Jane to be sketchy, and Anna considered the watercolor assumed to be by Cassandra to be “hideously unlike” her aunt’s true appearance.

I think it would be a real shame if the Rice portrait finds a home abroad instead of being here in the NPG.

Alexa Adams said...

I'm wondering why the second boy is thought to be Frank and not Henry. It seems strange to be that Henry would have been traveling on his own at such a young age, when he was maybe only ten years old. I would love to embrace this without being skeptical, as it is a thrilling notion, but I cannot help but feel a little doubtful, especially as the search for portraits of Jane has been so exhaustive and conducted over so many years. It seems astounding that such a piece could possibly have been overlooked. Still, I find the argument very compelling, especially the good fortune suggested by the composition and the presence of the nail. Do we understand the significance of what this nail represents? Why is it linked with adoption? I do hope it turns out to be authentic, and that the Rices manage to locate it, but I still have so many questions!

Jane Odiwe said...

Alexa, Thank you so much for your input and thought provoking comments.
I think there are lots of questions, and so do Mrs. Rice and her brother, which is why they asked me to post about it to see what other people might think.

I think the other boy could well be Henry,-I imagine Francis too busy riding round the country on his pony, Squirrel, to want to sit for a painting, but we can't really be sure about either.

I didn't mean to imply that Henry would have been travelling on his own, simply that he might have been staying elsewhere.

I do think it's strange that no one has noticed this before, but then the catalogue isn't that easily available, and would have to been noticed by someone with an interest in the Austen family. I imagine the majority of people at the sale would have been art and antique collectors, not necessarily Janeites.

I understand your questions completely, but there is something so right about the picture- but it may be another of those enigmas we will never completely solve!

Diana Birchall said...

This is possibly the most fascinating set of posts I've ever read since blogging began. Where is the actual painting now? If it is the Austen family, why is it thought that the boy on the right is Frank? He isn't much shorter than the probable Edward, and certainly looks more like 10 years old (which Henry was) than 7 (Frank). I really like the way Cassandra is holding Jane down *repressively* - I don't see that as "protective," but like the stern big sister bothered by her irrespressible younger sister not behaving properly. The younger girl is exuberant, which is in line with she of the Juvenilia! I await any and all fascinating details. You are the Perfect One for this job, Jane!

Jane Odiwe said...

Yes, I do agree that Henry makes a better case- and I love your idea of Jane being 'repressed' by her sister!
I'm so glad you're enjoying this, Diana-I thought it was fascinating!

Arnie Perlstein said...

My comment is too long for this little box, so I am posting a link to my own blog, and would welcome an answer either here or in my blog!

http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2011/03/bunch-of-grapes-alleged-1781-austen.html

Thanks,
Arnie Perlstein

Vera Nazarian said...

This is absolutely fascinating, Jane! Thanks so much for posting this insightful entry! So much new to me here, I had no idea about many of these details!

Jane Odiwe said...

Well, I can't really take any of the credit for this - it's the discovery of Mr. Roberts and Mrs. Rice, but I agree wholeheartedly-it's fascinating!

Anonymous said...

I think this is a most fascinating article, I love mysteries. I don't know much about Jane's family history. So I searched for photos on the internet. If you look at George Austen photos he looks like Cassandra's picture of Jane. In this newly revealed photo. The little girl (Jane) looks like the father! Just abit more rounder, could be the artist's rendering.

Juliet Archer said...

Wonderful article, Jane - I look forward to hearing how this story develops!

Anna said...

Like I commented on Deb's blog, yours is a fascinating article and has given a lot of food for thought for all of us Janeites. There does seem to be a lot of evidence to prove that this is a portrait of the Austen family, though I personally don't find the faces that much like the ones we are used to seeing in the other portraits. But perhaps, like you said, the faces are not particularly realistic but they seem to follow a certain style of painting. What's more important is the situation that the painting portrays than the likenesses themselves.

Jane Odiwe said...

Thank you for your comments everyone - I agree, it's a most fascinating and intriguing portrait, which I'd love to know more about!

Anonymous said...

This is fascinating, but I tend to be very skeptical -- or would be interested to see more analysis comparing the individuals' features to known portraits of the family members. Edward in particular has a very distinctive jawline and mouth that is evident in both a juvenile portrait at Chawton House Library and the grand tour portrait there -- the central boy here seems to have a very different face.

Jane Odiwe said...

I do take your point, but I'm not sure if it's meant to be a representational painting. Certainly, if someone had shown me the silhouette by Wellings without explaining who it was I wouldn't have recognised George Austen or Edward from other pictures. It is a mystery!

Haze Mills said...

Wow, Jane! I am beyond excited! I don't care if there are problems with this, to bring a really new debate to us is fantastic! Love reading your article and the comments! I have followed the Rice portrait for so long, having met Henry Rice and been friends with their great chum and advocate, Margaret Hammond. This just adds extra spice!