December 11, 2013

Rare portrait of Jane Austen sells for $270,000


This rare portrait of Jane Austen was auctioned to an anonymous private collector.

This rare portrait of Jane Austen was auctioned to an anonymous private collector.

Sotheby’s in London has auctioned a rare portrait of Jane Austen; the watercolor was sold to an anonymous private collector for $270,6000. According to The Guardian, the portrait dates from 1869, and “was originally commissioned by Jane Austen’s nephew, Rev James Edward Austen-Leigh, to accompany his biography of the novelist.” The painter, James Andrews, based his watercolor on an 1817 pencil drawing done by her sister Cassandra Austen, the only confirmed portrait of Austen, that is now owned by the National Gallery.

Jennifer Schuessler at The New York Times writes that it’s not clear whether the painting will be available for public viewing.

But it’s unclear where, or if, ordinary Austen lovers will be able to view the painting. The Jane Austen’s House Museum in Hampshire, said in a statement that it did not bid on the painting because it could not raise sufficient money so soon after a crowd-funding appeal to pay $236,000 for a turquoise ring that once belonged to Austen. That ring, also retained by the Austen family, had been purchased at auction last year by the singer Kelly Clarkson, who agreed to sell it to the museum after the British government forbade its export on the grounds that it was a national treasure.

Andrews’ painting is the basis for the picture that will appear on the British 10 pound bank note, due to start circulation in 2017. When the image of the bank note was released, there were cries of “airbrushing,” with protests that the bank note had prettied up the iconic author. The Jane Austen Society, which was consulted on the choice, pointed to Andrews’ portrait as proof of the picture’s accuracy.

Elizabeth Proudman, chairman of the Jane Austen Society, said the Bank of England had done the best it could.

There is only one authentic image available of Jane Austen and that is the pencil sketching by her sister that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

“It’s an amateur portrait and, at the time, nobody particularly liked it.

“But, Jane Austen’s fame and popularity grew after her death and an engraving of Cassandra’s portrait was produced by [William Home] Lizars to go inside her memoirs.

“The family chose it, feeling it was a strong resemblance and that is more or less the image which has been chosen.”

The announcement earlier this year that the Bank of England was replacing Charles Darwin‘s face with Austen’s was cause for celebration—Austen is only the third woman to be featured on a bank note — but turned inexplicably sour almost immediately. In addition to complaints over the image, there was grumbling about the accompanying quote, “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!” which was, of course, uttered by Pride and Prejudice‘s despised Caroline Bingley. But most upsetting was the reaction on social media to the woman who spearheaded the bank note campaign, which we wrote about here. She received rape and death threats, and the police had to get involved, eventually arresting some of the offenders.

Dr. Gabriel Heaton of Sotheby’s was quoted as saying, “Seeing the most famous image of Jane Austen, for the first time, in a domestic sitting room was an astonishing experience. This delicate watercolour is so much more than a piece of literary portraiture – it is part of our cultural history.”


Julia Fleischaker is the director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.