On the Block! ~ An Imaginary Jane Austen

Up for auction on March 29, 2011 – Papers and Portraits, Bonham’s London, an imaginary portrait of Jane Austen.  

From the catalogue:

Lot No: 6 – A Portrait of Jane Austen BY AN UNKNOWN ARTIST, half-length, wash and pencil, highlighted with chalk, on vellum, inscribed on the verso in a small contemporary hand ‘Miss Jane Austin’ (sic) and with the location or inventory number ‘A76’, contemporary gilt frame with attached identification label ‘Jane Austen B. 1775 – D. 1817’, chalk numbers on verso of frame ‘166 8234’ and inscribed on the old backing board in an early nineteenth-century hand ‘Price £3-3s 0d Frame £0 5s 0d.’ and with chalk mark ‘A68’, size of image 5¾ x c. 4½ inches (14. 5 x c. 12 cm), overall size 11¾ x 10½ inches (30 x 27 cm), no date [but ?1818]

Estimate: £1,000 – 2,000, € 1,200 – 2,400

Footnote: THIS IS THE EARLIEST OF THE SO-CALLED ‘IMAGINARY’ PORTRAITS OF JANE AUSTEN, thus listed by Deirdre Le Faye in her article ‘Imaginary Portraits of Jane Austen’ in Jane Austen Society Report, 2007, pp. 42-52 (a copy of which is included with the lot).

Le Faye suggests that the portrait ‘could be as early as 1818’, one year after Austen’s death. Le Faye comments: ‘This might well be a creation by the Revd William Jones (1777-1821), curate and vicar of Broxbourne and Hoddesdon – or if not him, someone with very similar interests. On 17th April 1818 Mr Jones confided to his diary: “Whenever I am much ‘taken with’ an author, I generally draw his or her likeness in my own fancy…” The artist, whoever he/she may have been, seems to have read Henry’s “Biographical Notice [of the Author”, by Jane Austen’s brother Henry in the four-volumes of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in 1817] and invented the portrait accordingly, depicting a thin, large-nosed, well-dressed middle-aged lady set against a background of a swagged curtain, classical columns, and cathedral tower. She is sitting at a small round table, quill and notebook in hand and with eyes upraised apparently seeking literary inspiration from the heavens. The elements of the portrait are symbolic – her closely-fitting long-sleeved dress suggests sober respectability; and her various rings and necklaces demonstrate likewise that she was well off, not a poor hack writer starving in a garret. The sleeping cat on the table beside her implies spinsterhood – a pet instead of a child – and the cathedral tower in the background, vaguely reminiscent of Canterbury, harks back to Henry’s statement in his last paragraph that “She was thoroughly religious and devout.”‘

Jane Austen was noted for wearing caps, largely out of fashion by the time of this portrait, as her niece Caroline Austen noted: ‘She always wore a cap – Such was the custom with ladies who were not quite young…I never saw her without one…either morning or evening’ (G.H. Tucker, Jane Austen the Woman, 1994, p. 10). Jane Austen herself commented that wearing a cap ‘saves me a world of torment as to hair-dressing’.

There is no professional portrait of Jane Austen and the only authentic representation of her is a watercolour sketch drawn by her sister Cassandra, probably about 1810, which is now in the National Portrait Gallery; it was described by R.W. Chapman as a ‘disappointing scratch’ (Jane Austen: Facts and Problems, 1946, p. 212).

In this cataloguer’s view the present portrait goes beyond Henry Austen’s description of his sister in catching Austen family characteristics, including the somewhat elongated large nose and somewhat pointed chin. The sitter is clearly above middle height (Henry said ‘It could not have been increased without exceeding the middle height’) and thin, as was Jane Austen. Despite what is stated above by Deirdre Le Faye, Henry Austen did not mention in his account that his sister was thin and large-nosed. Mrs Beckford, a friend of Jane’s, however, described her in a letter as ‘a tall thin spare person…the face by no means so broad & plump as represented…’ (Tucker, op. cit., pp. 11-12).

[An image of the Portrait can be found in the JAS Report 2007, opp. p 64, as well as the Bonham’s catalogue linked above; the text is from Bonhams catalogue] 

With thanks to Marsha and Kerri for the information.

Copyright @2011, by Deb Barnum at Jane Austen in Vermont

6 thoughts on “On the Block! ~ An Imaginary Jane Austen

    • Hi Laurel Ann, this little gem has been quietly sitting between the covers of the Jane Austen Society Report for 2007. Le Faye describes, with accompanying illustrations, twenty known images of Austen. This particular image is now coming to light because it is up for auction – I had just sort of skimmed past it before – will have to content myself with this repoduction rather than the real thing!


  1. How fascinating! I’ve never seen or heard of this one before. Can we be sure that the painter never met Jane Austen in his lifetime? And if he did, this could have been the most accurate of her portraits?

    She does look quite different here, with a less round face and a larger nose that she is usually represented to have. But who knows…?


    • Yes, Anna, no one knows who drew this, though Le Faye has her theory – the artist likely didn’t know her but certainly knew Henry’s description – will be interesting to see how much it sells for.
      Thanks for stopping by!


  2. Pingback: A Portrait of Jane Austen – right here in Vermont! « Jane Austen in Vermont

  3. Pingback: Jane Austen’s Imaginary Portrait ~ Coming to BBC Two « Jane Austen in Vermont

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