On Wednesday (16th December), it’s Jane Austen’s 245th birthday. To commemorate, I’ve been exploring portraits of Austen at the National Portrait Gallery in London, and I have three to share! (This originally appeared on my Instagram in July, but I’m excited to share these beautiful portraits here too!)
Jane Austen, by Cassandra Austen, c.1810, NPG 3610 (c) National Portrait Gallery, London
I’m starting with this beautiful delicate pencil and watercolour sketch by Austen’s confidante and sister, Cassandra Austen, completed around 1810. This is the only portrait of Austen to show her likeness that was likely to have been completed from life.
It was never mentioned in the letters between the two sisters, and was the only portrait located by Austen’s nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, when he was gathering snippets for his 1869 “A Memoir of Jane Austen”. The NPG bought the portrait at a Sotheby’s auction on May 3rd, 1948.
I love this portrait mainly because it was sketched by Austen’s closest friend, her sister Cassandra, and also because it is a sketch – it’s not grand or fancy, and there is something special and tender about that.
This hollow-cut silhouette is actually only listed as “possibly” Austen, and was completed by an unknown artist.
It’s so interesting because it was found in the back of a copy of Mansfield Park, Austen’s third published novel from 1814. It was pasted into a copy of Volume II of the second edition. At the top, it is inscribed with “L’aimable Jane”, suggesting (particularly as it fits well with the Cassandra Austen portrait) that it is possibly a silhouette of the author herself.
It was purchased by the gallery trustees for ten guineas in June 1944 – using the National Archives Currency Converter (my favourite thing!), this was equal to £373.29 in 2017’s money, or 7 days’ work for a skilled tradesman in 1945. I think this is so fascinating, particularly as they weren’t sure it was of Austen, and that the Second World War was happening at the time!
James Edward Austen-Leigh wanted a portrait of his aunt for his Memoir of her, which was the first full biography of Austen. (Whether or not it accurately represented Austen and her writings is another matter!)
Austen-Leigh sent the portrait by Cassandra Austen off to a Mr Andrews of Maidenhead, who made a copy of it so that a print could be engraved for the frontispiece of the biography. The family still own the original copy made by Andrews.
The profits made from Austen-Leigh’s memoir of his aunt funded a brass plaque near to Austen’s grave in Winchester Cathedral which immortalised her as a writer – something her actual gravestone at the cathedral doesn’t mention. Read more about that here.