In time for holiday giving, Life in the Country should find a pleasant reception. Pairing the prose and letters of Jane Austen (in quotation format) with the fine artistic narrative of her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, Life in the Country provides visuals and words that both entertain and entrance. Accompanying essays provide nice overviews of Jane Austen; silhouettes in general and Austen-Leigh’s work within the genre; and a concise discourse on Austen-Leigh by his great-granddaughter Joan Austen-Leigh. Serious scholars will be able to delve deeper into various topics thanks to the short bibliography. (Though heavily centered on Austen scholarship, the list does include such as Sue McKechnie’s British Silhouette Artists, a must-have reference for those interested in this art form.)
Most reviews of Life in the Country focus on its Jane Austen connection; while her name will create media coverage and open consumer wallets, it is the silhouettes themselves that will keep this book at hand. Although noted a bit late, there is acknowledgement at the back that virtually all the silhouettes are presented in their original size. The level of intricacy, especially in the more complicated scenery pieces, is astounding and the skill necessary to have produced them freehand is truly amazing. Anyone who thought silhouettes only portrayed profile views of anonymous faces will thrill over the comical scenes and mysterious panoramas Austen-Leigh invented in the mid-1830s. In landscapes, he created trees imbued with tremendous movement, the branches and tufts of leaves becoming bonsai-like in their undulations; a less talented artist might have employed them as flat framing devices. While haymaking and hunting obviously really did occupy his summers and autumns, what other than Austen-Leigh’s imagination prompted scenes such as the one featuring palm trees and camels? An avid huntsman, his paper dogs have character – a fact reflected in the reaction of his younger sister Caroline, who, as a child, reportedly ran to view the backside of a pack of hounds because that was where her brother’s silhouettes of them had had their names written! Caught ‘in action,’ his foxes stalk, his quails prepare for rapid flight, his fishermen reel in their catch, and his horses cavort. Again and again we experience the artistry of this young man, who undertook these cut-outs to amuse his children and to occupy his time when a persistent throat ailment long curtained his ability to preach.
To help evaluate Austen-Leigh’s work Joan Klingel Ray hints at the background of this popular artform. She places him firmly within the rise of English silhouette making during the early decades of the nineteenth century. The Chute family silhouettes (no artist attribution) not only furnish faces to these relatives-by-marriage, they suggest one type of silhouette embellishment that could sometimes be found. The silhouette from the scissors of Miss Clinton, a relation to Austen-Leigh’s great friend and fellow clergyman Henry Majendie, reveals that silhouette-making was a well-practiced pursuit in his social circle. In fact, the unpublished diaries of Austen-Leigh’s wife Emma categorize her eldest sister Augusta as an accomplished ‘shade-taker,’ and much in demand among their family and friends. James Edward Austen-Leigh, in good company, obviously had silhouettists as well as an audience at his elbow.
Maggie Lane’s essay opens the book and gives a well-thought-out summary of Jane Austen’s life, her immediate family, and her travails as an author. Even if feeling randomly chosen at times, most Austen quotations do enjoy an ability to balance and illuminate their accompanying pictures. Readers familiar with Austen and her novels will appreciate the connection, while those who know Austen only through television or film may be induced to pick up one of her novels. Other than the paper and handmade production of the 2005 limited edition by A Room of One’s Own Press, this trade edition Life in the Country reproduces the content and layout of that expensive volume at a reasonable cover price. Well recommended for the art- or Austen-lover.
Four full inkwells.