“What Jane Saw” ~ Janine Barchas’s Tour of the 1813 Joshua Reynolds Exhibition …

…has launched today! – visit the website What Jane Saw and you can follow Jane Austen as she tours the exhibit!


The perfect time-travel adventure – it is May 24, 1813 –  what do you see?…


From the website: [ http://www.whatjanesaw.org/index.php ]

On 24 May 1813, Jane Austen visited an important and  much-talked-about art exhibit at the British Institution in Pall Mall, London. The show  was a retrospective of the works of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), England’s  celebrated portrait painter.

No visual record of this show is known to have survived, although it  attracted hundreds of daily visitors during its much-publicized three-month run.  However, many details of the exhibit can be reconstructed from the original 1813  “Catalogue of Pictures,” a one-shilling pamphlet purchased by visitors as a guide  through the three large rooms where hung 141 paintings by Reynolds. Armed with  surviving copies of this pamphlet, narrative accounts in nineteenth-century newspapers  and books, and precise architectural measurements of the British Institution’s exhibit  space, this website reconstructs the Reynolds show as Jane Austen (as well as any Jane  Doe) saw it.

I. Why reconstruct this museum exhibit from 1813?

In truth, even if Jane Austen had not attended this public  exhibit, it would still be well worth reconstructing. The British Institution’s show  was a star-studded “first” of great magnitude for the art community and a turning point  in the history of modern exhibit practices. The 1813 show amounted to the first  commemorative exhibition devoted to a single artist ever staged by an institution.  Although Reynolds, who had died a mere twenty-one years earlier, did not yet qualify as  an Old Master, he was already hailed as the founder of the British School and  celebrated as a model for contemporary artists to emulate. The preface to the exhibit  catalogue, written by Richard Payne Knight, treats the work of Sir Joshua Reynolds as a  national treasure in order “to call attention generally to British, in preference to  Foreign Art” (Knight, 9). Knight allows that some of Reynolds’ paintings are better  than others, likening the show to a pedagogical tool for artists and connoisseurs. He  also insists upon the show’s modernity, hailing “the genuine excellence of modern”  artists over the work of their forbearers (Knight, 9). In light of the coverage it  received in the popular press and the London crowds that attended, the British  Institution’s Reynolds exhibit presaged the modern museum blockbuster.

In the age before the photograph, portraits of the rich and famous were  often reproduced by engravers as inexpensive prints. These black and white  reproductions circulated Reynolds’ images of contemporary celebrities widely,  providing pinups to the middling consumer. In this manner, Reynolds’ works  functioned as the modern photographs of Annie Leibovitz do today, making it  hard to say whether he recorded or created celebrity with his art. Wherever  possible, the light-boxes in the e-exhibit therefore show an early engraving  as well as the original canvas. Reynolds’ portraits of “abnormally interesting  people” whom we now term celebrities offer concrete examples of just how  someone like Austen, who did not personally circulate among the social elite,  was nonetheless immersed in England’s vibrant celebrity culture (Roach,  1).

More questions are answered under the About WJS page:

  • Is there a connection between this exhibit and Jane Austen’s fiction?
  • Who, other than the Austens, attended this 1813 exhibit?
  • How did visitors in 1813 experience the British Institution?
  • Did the Catalogue function as a museum guide in 1813?
  • How historically accurate is this website?
  • Room for interpretation and improvement
  • Works Cited / Site Credits

It is a rainy weekend here in Vermont – what better way to spend a few hours but at such an exhibition as this!

Further reading:

reynolds - self-portrait detail - britannica

Sir Joshua Reynolds


Janine Barchas is Associate Professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin.  She is the author of  Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity (Johns Hopkins University Press, August 2012).  Her  first book, Graphic Design, Print Culture, and the Eighteenth-Century Novel (Cambridge UP, 2003), won the SHARP book prize for best work in the field of book history.  Her newest project is the website What Jane Saw (www.whatjanesaw.org).


c2013 Jane Austen in Vermont

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