Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Prince Regent and Crew: Room 17 of the National Portrait Gallery, London

George IV doesn't get a lot of credit. Quite frankly, he's not very deserving of it. However, he did set the tone for the final years in which Austen lived, and though she spent most of her life under his father's rule, it is the Regency period with which we associate her. His best legacy is his patronage of the arts, and as an early admirer of Austen "suggested" she dedicate Emma to him. George IV might have been a ghastly leader, but he and his times maintain a hold on the collective imagination, and while I was exploring the National Portrait Gallery in London earlier this month I took particular interest in portraits of him, his contemporaries, and his associates. Here is a quick tour of Room 17 of the gallery, dedicated to George IV's regency and reign (1811-1830).

by Richard Cosway
watercolor on ivory
by Richard Cosway
watercolor on ivory
circa 1780-1782
There are no less than four portraits of George IV in this room. I think that might be the most I saw of anyone in the entire museum. The two oldest are miniatures on display in a special case and date from the late 18th century. The first image portrays a younger, carefree prince, bright with promise of future mischief. He is about 20 years old, and it has been speculated that the miniature was commissioned for then-mistress Perdita Robinson. The second, in which he wears masquerade garb, was painted ten years later and is definitely a love token, as it is set in a locket with a a plait of hair on the back. The recipient might have been Maria Fitzherbert, the woman he illegally married in 1785, or another mistress. He officially parted with Mrs. Fitzherbert two years later (though they would later reconcile), that he might marry his cousin, Caroline of Brunswick, the following year. Desperately in debt, his father promised to bail him out if he went through with the marriage to a woman whom he had never met and came to despise.

Maria Anne Fitzherbert
by Sir Joshua Reynolds
oil on canvass, circa 1788

Caroline Amelia Elizabeth of Brunswick
by Sir Thomas Lawrence
oil on canvas, 1804
George IV and his legitimate wife had one child, Charlotte Augusta of Wales, within a year of their marriage before separating. Princess Charlotte, unlike her parents, had the sympathy of the people, and when she died after days of agonizing childbirth at the age of 21 a massive public mourning was observed.

Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales
by George Dawe, oil on canvas, 1817

by Sir Thomas Lawrenceoil on canvas, circa 1814
This flattering but unfinished portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence was originally intended for use on a medal that was never struck. Lawrence was forced to defend this unbelievable likeness. Three years into his regency at the time it was painted, George IV had already reached his famously large proportions, years of decadence taking their toll. Still, it's a gorgeous painting. I have a thing for unfinished portraits.

after Sir Thomas Lawrence, oil on canvas, 1815

Above find a work completed by Lawrence the following year. Again, it's very flattering (the Regent was well into his 50s), but I suppose that's what you have to do as portraitist to a monarch. I think this is how we often imagine George IV, in his elaborate military regalia. The Regency years saw Napoleons final defeat, but not because George IV was some sort of an awesome military leader, as portrayed in this portrait. He did, however, have a highly capable general and politician in Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington.

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington
by William Salter, 
oil on canvas, 1839
George III died in 1820, and the following year his son was finally coronated. Before he would ascend the throw, George IV attempted in vain to have his marriage to Queen Caroline annulled. Having been abroad for years, she hurriedly returned to England after George III's death and was greeted by exultant crowds. The matter was debated in the House of Lords, the painting below depicting the sixth day of the proceedings. When she was acquitted of adultery (of which she was most certainly guilty), George IV banned her from the coronation, on which day she fell ill. She died a few weeks later, claiming to have been poisoned.

The Trial of Queen Caroline 1820 by Sir George Hayter, oil on canvas, 1820-1823
Also displayed in Room 17 are portraits of George IV's brothers, busts of artists and politicians of the day, and a portrait of Horatio Nelson, whom I will address another day. I conclude with thoughts on why a tumultuous time period such as the Regency should have such romantic appeal to modern audiences. How much did George IV reflect and sculpt the times in which he lived? Is it the very chaos of his era that enthralls us? I could dwell on such questions forever, and this room of the gallery is the perfect place for such contemplations.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Jane Austen's Portrait

I'm home! I had a fabulous time with family in Scotland then on my own in Bath at the Jane Austen Festival. I learned so much, and my current intention is to reinvigorate my blog by sharing my adventure with you. What better place to start than with the lady who made it all happen?

by Cassandra Austen, pencil and watercolor, circa 1810

I flew into London the day before the festival began and spent the night there, so I might have time to visit the National Portrait Gallery. I had missed this museum on my two previous visits because no one else in my traveling party was particularly interested. Other sights always took priority. As it turns out, it was a very good thing for me to go alone, because it allowed me to get lost in the collection for three, undisrupted hours. It was fabulous! Unsurprisingly, I was particularly excited by the many portraits of writers whose works have shaped my life and mind. I am putting together a virtual "scribblers tour" of the gallery for my next Austen Authors post (I'll crosspost here), but I want to use this forum to take a more in depth look at Jane alone.

by James Andrews, watercolor, 1869
published by Richard Bentley, stipple engraving, 1870

Let's be clear up front: the portrait of Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen is easily the most unsatisfying likenesses displayed in the entire gallery. It's really awful, and that is precisely what makes it so intriguing. As the plaque inserted beneath the glass box which contains the portrait so accurately states: "Few English novelists have commanded such popular affection and critical respect as Jane Austen." And this is the best we can do for her portrait? For over a century, artists have used this sketch as the premise for more "satisfying" renditions of Austen. It is this legacy which helps authenticate the portrait: James Edward Austen-Leigh used it as the basis for the watercolor he commissioned in 1869 for use as the frontispiece to his biography, A Memoir of Jane Austen. Painted by James Andrews, it is his watercolor from which the varied engravings of her image are derived. However, there is still dispute over the portraits authenticity. As Claudia Johnson notes in Jane Austen's Cults and Cultures, there is no recorded mention of Cassandra's portrait prior to 1869. The NPG's website states:
This frank sketch by her sister and closest confidante Cassandra is the only reasonably certain portrait from life. Even so, Jane's relatives were not entirely convinced by it: 'there is a look which I recognise as hers', her niece wrote, 'though the general resemblance is not strong, yet as it represents a pleasing countenance it is so far a truth.'
So is this Jane? If so, she appears almost surly in it, as if she can little spare the patience to sit for her sister. Austen-Leigh's biography, which he wrote was conceived "in a spirit of censorship as well as communication," clearly tried to remold his literary aunt into something acceptable to the family's Victorian sensibilities. He gave the public an image of a demure spinster, which does not mesh well with the acerbic nature of the novelist's voice. For this reason I much prefer Cassandra's drawing, even with all its deficiencies, than the prettied up version. I can more easily imagine Jane as an unwilling sitter than a wallflower.  

by Ozias Humphry, oil on canvas, 1788 

There is another portrait: one that fulfills all the expectations that Cassandra sketch so sadly disappoints. The Rice Portrait is the subject of hot debate. I admit: I am biased in its favor, and not just because it would be absolutely glorious were it her! First there is the fact the National Portrait Gallery, in its early days, attempted to acquire the portrait, at the time describing it as a portrait of Austen. It was only after the purchase fell through that the gallery cast dispersions on its authenticity. Next is the fact that while the portrait was long believed to be the work of Johan Zoffany, high definition images of the portrait have recently revealed the signature of Ozias Humphry (who had a history of painting portraits of the Austen family) as well as a date: 1788. The date is important for a variety of reasons but primarily because scholars had previously argued that the portrait, based on the clothing, had to have been painted in the early 19th century, when Jane would have been too old to be the sitter. Elite art historians and scholars are still reluctant to validate the portrait, maybe because it would place such a priceless object in private hands? I watch the debate eagerly for resolution, but there seems to be none in near sight. For more information, please visit

by Cassandra Austen, watercolor, 1804

The only image we have of Austen that is positively, indisputably her is only of her back. As beautiful as Cassandra's other portrait is homely, it is perhaps my favorite of them all. How appropriate that we cannot see her disputed face! The author remains enigmatic, which is just as it should be. After all, every reader of Jane Austen has their own Jane. We hear her narrative voice. She speaks to us with an intimacy few other writers capture. We each have our own vision of who she is, from proper gentlewoman to devilish wit. Perhaps if we were certain what she looked like, our imaginations would not be so free to view her in the guise we choose. 

(Note: I have not discussed the "Byrne Portrait" in this post as I have yet to hear anyone but Paula Byrne insist on it's authenticity. Still, it offer another interesting possibility. I suggest this article for the full details: