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Ellie Bennett Interview - Images and Portraits of Jane Austen

Ellie Bennett
I'd like to welcome Ellie Bennett to my blog today (yes, that's her real name) - Ellie is a writer interested in portraits of Jane Austen, and as Jane's image is a particular interest of mine, I've been fascinated to read her new thoughts and discoveries on the subject. I recently interviewed her and it's made me keener than ever to read more! Luckily for us, Ellie not only has a fabulous blog, she is also writing a book, and I can't wait to read it.

1. You've started a blog writing about portraits of Jane Austen, Ellie. When did you first become interested in Jane Austen and what was it about her image that interested you?

I've enjoyed reading Jane Austen since I was a teenager, but my interest in her image and portraits really began when I watched the BBC documentary The Unseen Portrait, screened on Boxing Day in 2011, about the portrait now owned by Dr Paula Byrne. I found the programme fascinating and I was immediately hooked! 

2. You've been researching into two portraits which I find particularly interesting: the Rice Portrait and Paula Byrne's portrait that was bought for her at auction. Can you tell us a little about what new information you have unearthed on these pictures and what you found most fascinating in your own research?

Both of these portraits are so interesting and I have found out plenty of new information about both of them  - information which was previously unknown. With regard to the Rice Portrait, I have researched the identity of Eliza Hall who was given the portrait early in its history. I was curious as to why she was given the picture and was amazed to discover that her aunt was married to Sir Henry Hawley of Leybourne Grange for forty years. The Hawley daughters were known to Jane and are mentioned in her letters; two of them married into the Bridges family, also close friends of the Austens.

The Rice portrait of Jane Austen

I have also discovered a great deal about Ozias Humphry and his connections to the Tonbridge and Sevenoaks branches of the Austen family - it was a surprise to discover how many links there were between them. Humphry's brother William, vicar at Seal, was well-known to the Austens and Ozias Humphry spent a lot of time there. The evidence is now steadily mounting that he was the artist responsible for the Rice Portrait. 

The other big surprise with this portrait was to discover how fraught the history of it has been. When I began my research I had no idea what a thorny subject the image of Austen has become. I discovered that the case for the dress being dated to after 1800 is very far from being proven and that the National Portrait Gallery have not been as objective as they should have been. Having looked at the evidence in depth I do believe that the Rice Portrait is indeed a portrait of Jane Austen in her teenage years, painted by Ozias Humphry.  I am sure that one day, and hopefully soon, it will be accepted as such. It will not be the National Portrait Gallery's finest hour. 
Paula Byrne's portrait of Jane Austen

The Byrne Portrait is an intriguing newcomer to the story. I researched the Smedley family who were identified by Dr Byrne as being  occupants of the house whose view would have corresponded to the one in the portrait and found many links with Jane Austen. To name just a couple, Rev. Edward Smedley was a friend of Maria Edgeworth and was the curate at the church in Piccadilly which Jane attended when in London. His brother Henry Smedley was a good friend of artist and engraver J T Smith and I believe it was probably Henry Smedley who drew the portrait. Furthermore Edward Smedley always spelled Jane's name as Austin with an "i" - just like the name on the back of the portrait and his handwriting looks remarkably similar. 

The other fascinating information I discovered relates to the provenance of this portrait. It turned up in the possessions of Sir John Galway Foster and he had apparently acquired it from his ex-governess and lifelong friend Helen Carruthers. No-one knew how she came by it. I believe she was given the portrait by Foster's solicitors - Miss Carruthers acted as John Foster's personal secretary while he was abroad  - who were Guy Cholmeley and Philip Frere.  Cholmeley was a descendant of the family of Jane's aunt Jane Leigh-Perrot and Frere was a descendant of a family related by marriage to Edward Smedley's daughter Elizabeth Hart. Two earlier partners in the firm were also brothers-in-law to Catherine Austen, the niece of Colonel Thomas Austen who had given away the Rice Portrait. 

I believe the portrait ended up in the offices of these solicitors until the 1940s when they undertook a modernisation and gave the portrait to Miss Helen Carruthers. 

3. Do you think we have a satisfactory likeness of Jane amongst all the images we have of her, and if you could choose one to take home, which one would that be and why?

We have at least five possible likenesses of Jane Austen - they are the sketch by her sister Cassandra, the Rice Portrait, the Byrne Portrait, the portrait in Rev. James Stanier Clarke's friendship book and the silhouette owned by the National Portrait Gallery which they claim to be Jane Austen. (There is also, of course, the portrait of Jane Austen sitting with her back to us - but I am discounting this because as a possible likeness it is not much help to us!) I am doubtful about the latter two portraits - the Stanier Clarke painting and the silhouette, but the Cassandra sketch, the Rice Portrait and the Byrne Portrait are all, I believe, portraits of Jane Austen drawn from life. 

I love all three portraits - the Cassandra portrait for showing us rebellious Jane, the Rice Portrait for showing us the self-confident, slightly impudent, youthful Jane and the Byrne Portrait for showing us the older, mature Jane, as a poised and established author.  

I would dearly love to own any one of them but if I had to choose one I would take the Rice Portrait of Jane Austen as a young girl, so full of promise and confidence. Her sense of fun shines through in this picture  - I can easily imagine that the characters which would one day enchant us so much are already being formed in her head. It is a beautiful, exuberant portrait. 

4. I believe you're writing a book on the subject - please tell us about it and when it will be published.

I am writing a book about the Austen family and about the five portraits of Jane Austen I have mentioned here, each of which is a fascinating story in its own right. I examine the background and the evidence for each portrait - and some of my findings are surprising. The book investigates the manipulation of Austen's image which accompanied the creation of the myth of "Aunt Jane" and examines some of the less well-known aspects of Austen and her family - a family which was far more worldly and interesting than we are often led to believe. 

I hope to have my book published next year - but I am continually making new discoveries and having to update it! 

If you would like to read more about my research you can find my blog here:

Thank you very much for visiting, Ellie! I hope you'll visit Ellie's blog-it really is full of excellent material on the portraits as well as the Austen family and their connections.