Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

"There She Is at Last": The Byrne Portrait Controversy

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

"There She Is at Last": The Byrne Portrait Controversy

Article excerpt

JANE AUSTEN'S FAMILY MEMBERS bequeathed few visual images of the novelist to subsequent generations of her admirers. The only picture whose provenance is clear is also ironic. Drawn by her sister, Cassandra, in 1804, this portrait gives no glimpse of Austen's features, depicting her from the back, seated and bonneted. But around 1810 Cassandra probably produced another drawing, this one of Austen from the front, unsmiling with her arms crossed, (1) and Britain's National Portrait Gallery placed its considerable authority behind claims for this sketch's genuineness by buying it in 1948. The rest--prettiffed versions of the 1810 drawing commissioned by one of Austen's nephews much later in the nineteenth century--are widely recognized today as idealized Victorian images. (2) The dearth of reliable representations of Jane Austen has set the stage for impassioned controversies about her appearance and the portraits said to convey it.

The object of the most recent controversy is a small pencil and ink drawing on vellum, which can be called the Byrne portrait. (3) This representation and a heated disagreement about its authenticity have attracted widespread attention, due primarily to a BBC documentary about them, broadcast during the Christmas season of 2011. (4) I will be examining that television special closely because, while it explores whether the Byrne portrait is a genuine depiction of the novelist, it also considers why there has been so much investment in what Austen looked like. This is not to say that Jane Austen: The Unseen Portrait? is a particularly good program. Its explicit organization is crude. Seeking to build dramatic tension, the special's creators gave the investigation of the Byrne portrait the shape of a quest, one that culminates in a mock trial. And yet, along with this overblown structure and the cliched and hyperbolic narrative leading the television audience through it, the BBC program also intermittently airs quieter, evocative moments. These moments turn the act of seeing into an implicit theme of the program by showing the responses of several variously-trained specialists as they look at the portrait for the first time. Those keen and sensitive observers, particularly the Austen scholars and the staff of her museum house, help us understand why the novelist's admirers want so much not only to know what Austen looked like but also to confirm the existence of the elusive physical object itself, an authentic portrait. At the same time they enable us to see why the Byrne portrait--or any portrait--is unlikely to fulfill those desires.

Early in Jane Austen: The Unseen Portrait? we learn how its present owner came to possess the picture. In Spring 2011, Paula Byrne, an acclaimed biographer, received it as a gift from her husband, Jonathan Bate. On the back of the drawing the name "Miss Jane Austin" is quite legible. The picture had already attracted attention. Austen scholar and editor Deirdre Le Faye mentioned it in an article on imaginary portraits of the novelist, published in the Jane Austen Society Report in 2007. Le Faye hypothesized that the artist based the picture on the description of her physical appearance that her brother Henry offered in his 1818 "Biographical Notice of the Author." Without evidence to counter Le Faye's view--almost nothing was known about the portrait's provenance--the portrait's market value remained modest, and Bate was able to buy it at auction for 2,000 [pounds sterling]. (5)

Byrne, at work on her own biography of Jane Austen, says that she felt "this moment of recognition" as soon as she saw the portrait. (6) But she would need to prove that the image was genuine. We can infer that her collaboration with the BBC offered a mutually satisfying solution, enabling her to get quick access to a group of highly trained professionals who might provide information about the portrait and enabling the BBC to produce a show that, with its focus on Jane Austen, might attract a lot of viewers. …

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