Jane Austen in her cottage garden at Chawton.

I have for many years been a Jane Austen devotee. Although I now live in Northfield, Vermont, I lived for many years in Winchester, not far from Jane's home at Chawton, in Hampshire.  The following is an outline of some of the research that went into that painting.

Jane Austen ­ A picture taken...

From Pride and Prejudice- Mr.Darcy contemplates the idea of a portrait of Elizabeth Bennet.


Jane Austen writes, "As for your Elizabeth's picture, you must not attempt to have it taken, for what painter could do justice to those beautiful eyes? It would not be easy to catch their expression, but their colour and shape, and the eye-lashes, so remarkably fine, might be copied."


Indeed, what modern painter could do justice to a portrait of Jane Austen? What did Jane Austen really look like? This we shall never truly know, but not to attempt to" have it taken," not to catch the expression in her eyes, the shape of her mouth, or the freshness of her complexion, not to... would be lamentable indeed!


There are only two first-hand views of Jane, both done by her sister Cassandra. One shows a view of her seated, alas, with no view of her face. The other, a very small drawing about the size of a playing card, can be found today in the National Portrait Gallery, London.


The small drawing that Cassandra produced in 1810 of her sister is the only visual information we have of Jane. It is this drawing,manipulated in various ways, that has become the icon accepted

today by many of Miss Austen.

There are many who say that Jane's sister, Cassandra, was not an accomplished artist, and her depiction of Jane was not flattering or reliable. This may explain the many attempts by publishers and others to apply cosmetic treatment to Cassendra's innocent portrait

I suggest that Cassandra had some considerable artistic talent. We have only to look at examples of her other work (such as the drawing of her niece Fanny Knight) to give credence to this belief.

It is, therefore, this honest drawing of one sister by another that I looked to first in my quest to develop a closer perception of the likeness of Miss Austen.

In addition to the scant visual reference we have of Jane Austen, there are numerous

written accounts of her appearance.

An early description of young Jane at Steventon by Sir Egerton Brydges said, "Her hair was dark brown and curled naturally, her large dark eyes were widely opened and expressive. She had clear brown skin and blushed so brightly and so readily."

Recollections of Aunt Jane by Caroline Austen. "As to my aunt's personal appearance, hers was the first face I can remember thinking pretty. Her face was rather round than long, she had a bright, but not a pink colour­ a clear brown complexion, and very good hazel eyes. Her hair, a darkish brown, curled naturally, it was in short curls around her face. She always wore a cap."

Henry Austen said of his sister, " Her stature rather exceeded the middle height; her carriage and deportment were quiet but graceful; her complexion of the finest texture, it might with truth be said that her eloquent blood spoke through her modest cheek." Henry applied these lines to Jane: " Her pure and eloquent blood spake in her cheeks and so distinctly wrought that you had almost said her body thought."

 


Edward Austen Leigh wrote down this description of Jane's appearance

in the years just after the family left Southampton.

"She was tall and slender; her face was rounded with a clear brunette complexion and bright hazel eyes.

Her curly brown hair escaped all round her forehead, but from the time of her coming to live at Chawton she always wore a cap, except when her nieces had her in London and forbade it."

In addition to these and other written descriptions of Miss Austen, I have looked closely at the surviving portraits and silhouette renderings of the immediate family members.


Henry Austen.

George Austen,

Jane's father.

Mr. George Austen, on the night Jane was born, noticed a likeness to her brother Henry.

On a visit to Jane's cousin, Phila Walter, in Kent, when Jane was only twelve "Jane," said Phila, "decidedly, was not pretty at all, very much like her brother Henry."

However, Henry,who was thought by most people to be a very handsome man, would have been sixteen at that time.

A closer look at many of the characteristics of her brothers, Frank and Henry, and those of her father may afford us some insight into Jane's appearance.

In particular, this requires a closer look and a comparison to the Cassandra drawing of the nose, mouth, and chin... strong family characteristics.


Frank Austen.


Additional factors may also have played a role in Jane's appearance, particularly toward the end of her life. Jane had Addison's Disease, a disorder of the adrenal gland.

Addison's is known to have as some of its signs and symptoms, increased pigmentation characterized by diffuse tanning both exposed and unexposed portions of the body.


" A clear brown complexion" and "Her face was rounded with a clear brunette complexion" these references may or

may not be attributable to her disease,

as Jane loved to be out-of- doors and go for long walks. However, I think we can assume that Miss Austen did not possess a pale constitution or complexion.


I have tried to take all these factors into consideration while working on this modern impression of what I feel Jane Austen may have looked like. I have placed her in the west garden at her home in Chawton, near Alton, in Hampshire. Several descriptions of the cottage and garden survive. Edward Austen-Leigh wrote an early description of the garden."and another (window) opened at the side which gave to view only turf and trees, as a high wooden fence and hornbeam hedge shut out the Winchester Road, which skirted the whole length of the little domain. Trees were planted each side to form a shrubbery walk, carried round the enclosure, which gave sufficient space for the ladies' exercise." Jane also writes to Cassandra, visiting at Godmersham, a report of the Chawton garden "but our young peony at the foot of the fir tree has just blown and looks very handsome, and the whole of the shrubbery border will soon be gay with pinks and sweet-williams, in addition to the columbine already in bloom." I rather think that, as the years passed, the "ladies' sufficient space for exercise"

was improved upon.


Would I recognize Miss Austen if we were to meet in a crowd today? I would like to think so. I have tried to be true to her likeness, true to Jane...I also hope that I have been able to add to the information that we have about Jane,that I have been able to add sparkle and dimension to the visual images we have of her.



All images of paintings are copyright by Tom Clifford and may not to be reproduced without the written consent from the artist.

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