Previous Posts: January 2012

Jane Austen?

January 4 2012

Image of Jane Austen?

Picture: Guardian/Dr Paula Byrne

A number of readers have asked what I thought of the 'Jane Austen' drawing which featured in a BBC2 programme on boxing day. It was an intriguing bit of telly. But I wasn't wholly convinced by the claims made for the drawing being Jane the novelist. Here's why;

  • There is no evidence for the sitter being Jane outside the drawing itself. That is, there are no documentary references to it, and no enticing hints of provenance.
  • We have no idea who made the drawing, and thus whether they can be connected to Jane. 
  • The main clue in the drawing, the very obviously placed background showing Westminster Abbey and St Margaret's, Westminster, bears no relation to anything in Jane's life. [update, new evidence means this is incorrect, see above post]
  • The clothing argument, that a dress worn by Jane revealed similar dimensions to the sitter, is flawed. The early provenance of the dress used in the programme is far from certain - it may well not be Jane's. Here's the early history of the dress from Hampshire County Council's website:

The pelisse was given to Hampshire Museums Service in 1993. The donors' great, great, great grandfather was Jane Austen's elder brother James (1765-1819), who got it from their grandmother, who had received it from Eleanor Steele (nee Glubbe, b1857). She had visited the Knight family as a young lady of eighteen, and was given the dress by Miss Marianne Knight, sister of Captain John Knight, around 1875. At the age of seventy three she eventually felt that the pelisse should return to the Austen family, and sent it to James's great granddaughter Mrs Winifred Jenkyns. Her note accompanying the parcel reads: "I missed the little coat for a long time but lately it turned up. I cannot remember if it was 'Jane's' but it seems probable"

  • The 'isn't her nose similar to her those of her brothers' argument doesn't hold water, sadly. One cannot rely on those kind of claims when identifying sitters in portraits, especially when comparing a rubbed drawing by an amateur. The sequence in the programme where a modern forensic expert was used to give his view on the sitter in the drawing was a touch misleading. If only it really was that easy to identify sitters. Furthermore, the programme didn't deal convincingly with the written description from Jane's nephew that her nose was 'small' - the nose in the drawing is enormous - and nor did the programme touch on the possible Jane Austen silhouette, also in the NPG, which, if genuine, would be our best guide to Jane's nose. The programme omitted to discuss the nose of Jane's sister, Cassandra, which apears beautifully rendered in a silhouette, and is not like the large thing seen in the drawing of 'Jane'. 
  • The 'the cat denotes spinsterhood' argument. Well, perhaps. But a pet in a portrait could mean just about anything, if you want it to. And would an amateur artist be familiar with the cat-as-indicator-of-spinsterhood tradition, if it existed? And would Jane herself want to be defined as a spinster, even in her thirties? Incidentally, the sitter was wearing a lot of jewellery; there are lines of pearls in the cap, apparently three necklaces, a brooch at her waist, and a number of rings - all of which may not accord well with our idea of a relatively poor spinster up from the country. 
  • The best evidence for the drawing remains the 'Miss Jane Austin' inscription on the back. I thought the programme dealt well with the Austen/Austin argument. But I would liked to have seen some more rigorous analysis of the inscription; what type of script was it, and when was it added? If, for example, the word 'Miss' had been spelt with an old-fashioned long first 's' (which looked like an 'f', so 'Mifs'), as Jane herself used, then that would have suggested the inscription was more likely to be nice and early. I know the long 's' was falling out of use in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but it still would have been good to have some discussion on the handwriting used in the inscription, which to my unexpert eye looked later than the drawing.
  • Finally, no effort was made to preclude any other 'Jane Austins' out there. I know this is a tangential argument, but a quick look through Family Search highlights what a common name 'Jane Austin' was in early 18thC England (and I presume still is!). It seems there are even some 'Jane Austins' who got married in Westminster at about the time the drawing could have been made.  

So, on balance, the evidence for the identification of this anonymous and not particularly good drawing seems to me to be a little thin. I note that the National Portrait Gallery curators were conspicuous by their absence. But we certainly can't rule it out - and hopefully more research and analysis will help us to solve the mystery. In the meantime, I'll stick with Cassandra Austen's undisputed drawing of Jane. 

Second time lucky for another Bolton deaccession

January 4 2012

Image of Second time lucky for another Bolton deaccession

Picture: Bonhams

Last year, Bolton Council decided to fund the construction of a new art storage facility by selling 36 paintings from Bolton Museum's collection. The pictures included works by Millais, Romney, Burne-Jones and Sickert. They hoped to raise £500,000, but have fallen short with £395,816, according to This is Lancashire.

Regular readers will know that many of the works have sold below their lower estimate, and some have failed to sell at all. The latest casualty is Charles Napier Hemy's The Riverside, which failed at £30-£50,000 at Bonhams in September. It will now appear again in January at £20-£30,000. The whole charade (lack of transparency, consigning with only one auction house, ill-advised sales etc.) should serve as an example to other councils in how not to conduct future deaccessions. 

A Saenredam discovery, and the power of the web

January 3 2012

Image of A Saenredam discovery, and the power of the web

Picture: BG

Here's a very satisfying discovery with which to begin the year - a rare exterior landscape by Pieter Saenredam. You may remember that I recently posted an article on the picture when it was at auction last year, catalogued as 'follower of Saenredam' at Christie's South Kensington. It was estimated at £3-5,000. It looked to me a little better than 'follower of' (I wrote that 'it shone out at the viewing') and I was hoping to bid on it myself.

Sadly, it was withdrawn (perhaps another dealer paid too much attention to it), and the picture was expunged from the online catalogue. But happily Saenredam scholar and noted art historian Gary Schwartz saw the picture here on AHN. And now he has written a fascinating entry on his own blog about the picture. His conclusion, along with that of his colleague Marten Jan Bok (co-author of Schwartz's 1989 book on Saenredam), is that there is little doubt the painting is indeed by Saenredam.

How then, if they have only seen the image on Art History News, can they be so sure about the attribution? Through excellent research. Read their analysis in full here, but the crucial facts are these:

  • The scene shows the town of Assendelft, where Saenredam lived. The main building is the town hall. In front of it is the scourge post to which local villains were tied. The church is that of St Odulphus.
  • The house in which Saenredam grew up can be seen in the painting, to the left of the church. 
  • The picture is dated 1634, when Saenredam is documented as returning to the town, and making a series of drawings that relate to the painting. 

Obviously, this is not only a fantastically rare work by Saenredam, but a highly important document in relation to the artist's life. While it will always be a shame I couldn't buy it for £3,000 (tho' I suspect it would have made far more), it is wonderful that the full story behind the picture has now come to light.

The story is also an example of how the internet is driving art history forward at an unprecedented rate. Further proof of this can be found at the end of Gary Schwartz's blog post, for after reading Gary's post, a reader got in touch with news of some early provenance for the picture - dating to 1784. Sounds like the auction houses need to start their own blog...

PS - top AHN tip, if you think you've seen a sleeper at auction, don't stare at it for too long. It may get withdrawn.

PPS - curious coincidence: my post on the picture being withdrawn from CSK was made on 8th December, exactly one year after the last Saenredam sleeper sold for over a million pounds at Bonhams.  

Taxing success

January 3 2012

Image of Taxing success

Picture: TAN

Over in the US, the mayor of Boston, one Thomas Menino, has come up with a typically bonkers political response to a succesful arts institution: tax it. He wants to massively increase the 'fees' paid by the Museum of Fine Arts to the city in lieu of taxation. As a charity, the museum is exempt from city taxes. But the city gets round this by asking for a seperate 'pilot fee'. Now, Mayor Menino, wants to raise the fee from the current $55,000 to $1,025,000 in four years time. 

In The Art Newspaper, the director of the MFA, Malcolm Rogers (above), points out that the museum brings untold benefits to the city, all for free:

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), is one of the world’s great cultural institutions, whose impact on the quality of life of its city is immeasurable. But the generosity of spirit that built this great museum is being buffeted by a surprising entity—the City of Boston itself—which has put in motion a plan to drastically increase the “voluntary” contributions cultural institutions make through its payment in lieu of taxes (Pilot) programme. When civic leaders look to cultural organisations as a source of revenue, rather than as an invaluable resource for the communities they serve, it has dire implications nationwide.

Since the MFA opened its doors on 4 July 1876, it has been almost entirely privately funded. Unlike our peer museums—the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago, which receive millions of dollars in financing from their cities—we are not funded by our municipality.

Rogers speaks with some modesty, for it is largely under his 17 year directorship that the museum has become one of the world's great cultural institutions. Oddly enough, Mayor Menino is a trustee of the MFA. He must be the only museum trustee in the States proposing to make his museum a million dollars worse off. 

Last year I had to fly to New York, a city I dislike, to look at a possible Van Dyck. Thanks the MFA, I chose instead to fly to the US via Boston where I stayed for a couple of days, and then took the early morning flight to NY for the day. 

"All the works here were made by the artist himself, personally."

January 3 2012

In a riposte to those artists who rely on others to make their work for them (Koons, Hirst et al), David Hockney has ensured that his forthcoming exhibition at the Royal Academy is preceded by the above statement. He also said, in The Guardian;

"I used to point out, at art school you can teach the craft; it's the poetry you can't teach. But now they try to teach the poetry and not the craft."

Sounds like a pretty accurate summary of what's wrong with art schools these days.


January 3 2012

Happy new year everyone!

I must begin 2012 with an error. An 'avid reader from Belgium' writes:

May I point out to you that Dendermonde [see below post] is definitely not a town in Holland, but securely situated in Flanders on the confluence of Scheldt and Dender. 

Our Lady's Church was heavily damaged in WW I but is still a magnificent city church, well worth a visit - not in the least because of its two fine Van Dyck altar pieces.

Here's hoping for less mistakes this year... Or should that be 'fewer'.

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