Executed by Ozias Humphry R.A in 1788.
A portrait, its provenance and history...
Executed by Ozias Humphry R.A in 1788.
A portrait, its provenance and history...
The Rice Portrait of
Digital Proof of the Authenticity of the Rice Portrait
We believe this is the most important and revealing article we have yet put on our website. Professor Claudia Johnson of Princeton University has published an article in the TLS in which she states that the Rice Portrait of Jane Austen is now shown to be correct. We are reproducing this article here.
In addition, for the first time we are making available the complete report produced by Stephen Cole of Acume Forensics on copies of the photographs that he received directly from The Heinz Library, a division of the National Portrait Gallery.
Reprinted by kind permission of the Authoress Professor Claudia Johnson [ Murray professor of English literature at Princeton University ]. First published in the Times Literary Supplement on Friday 30th August 2013 .
The world is always interested in Jane Austen. This year alone, several continents have been abuzz with the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice (as though it were the first novel Austen published); a twelve-foot statue of Colin Firth/Mr Darcy now looms out of the Serpentine in Hyde
Park (as though it had any business being there); and after much fanfare, a ludicrously prettified Victorian image of Jane Austen is to appear on the new £10 note, along with a quotation about the pleasures of reading – words originally uttered, as many have observed, by one of her most despicable characters. In the midst of all this flummery, the emergence of new information about Jane Austen ought to be welcome. And it would now seem that there is decisive evidence that the “Rice Portrait” of Jane Austen (seen here in a photograph from 1910) is indeed an authentic likeness of the novelist, made in her lifetime.
This evidence consists of the three lines of script in the upper right-hand corner, in the area outlined in yellow. First, the artist’s signature: Ozia[s] Humphry, R.A. Second, the date of the portrait: 178* (that last digit is probably a nine). And third, the name of the sitter: Jane Austen.
The story of the Rice Portrait is long and complicated, and has been much discussed in these
pages. This widely reprinted portrait was regarded as authentic by different branches of the
Austen family. It first appeared in 1884 as the frontispiece to the first edition of Austen’s letters,
edited by her great-nephew Lord Brabourne, and then in later family biographies such as Jane
Austen: Her life and letters (1913) by William and R. W. Austen-Leigh and Personal Aspects
of Jane Austen (1920) by Mary Augusta Austen-Leigh. Nevertheless, it was delegitimated in 1948,
when the National Portrait Gallery acquired a faint, unsigned and undated sketch of Austen,
said to have been drawn by her sister Cassandra, and declared it to be the only authentic image
of Austen. Although the NPG itself had attempted to purchase the Rice Portrait in the 1930s, it
now dismissed the portrait on the grounds of dating: the high-waisted dress was allegedly not in
style until well into the first decade of the nineteenth century, when Jane Austen (b. 1775) was
twice the age of the young lady in the portrait.
For the past fifteen years or so, the Rice Portrait has been in and out of public attention, many
more debates have ensued (not infrequently in the TLS; see March 13, 1998, and Letters to the
Editor over the following weeks), and much more information about the painting has
surfaced – regarding family members, canvas suppliers, tax stamps, colourmen and
chandlers, to take only a few examples. But while all of this information was and still is
valuable, it was always disputable as well, and always on the grounds of dating. Even if the
portrait were proved to have been painted by Ozias Humphry (whose monogram on the portrait
was noted in 1984 by a Christie’s valuation conducted for insurance purposes), the identity of the
sitter could still be debated, as could its dating. Because the portrait was cleaned several times in
the twentieth century, the likelihood of finding further information on the artefact itself seemed
small, given that signatures, names and dates are the last elements to be applied, and therefore
the first to be removed by solvents.
We would still be at an impasse were it not for a singular stroke of luck. In 1910, Sir Ernest
Rice, then owner of the portrait, hired the prominent engraver, printer and photographer
Emery Walker to photograph the Rice Portrait at the request of his cousins William and R. W.
Austen-Leigh, who would use it as the frontispiece to their biography. This photograph, which
seems unremarkable, not to mention a bit unfocused, is thus extremely valuable in preserving an
image of the portrait as it existed before its twentieth-century cleanings. The original glass plate
negatives of Walker’s photograph are in the Heinz Archive of the National Portrait Gallery, listed
under the title “Unknown girl formerly known as Jane Austen”. Last year, the Heinz supplied an
adequately high resolution digital scan of these negatives to Acumé Forensics, a firm in Leeds specializing in, among other things, the analysis of digital images for evidentiary purposes in courts of law. The images printed here are reproduced from Acume’s report.
In one sense this isn’t news. Last summer, Ed Butler published substantially the same information in the Guardian, but at that time no full-scale, independent, professional analysis of Walker’s photograph had been issued, and certainly no images of its results were reproduced for the public. But those results allow us to say with some certainty that the names – Ozias Humphry and Jane Austen - and the numbers 178* are present on the 1910 photograph. They are not the effects of wishful hallucination. They are not the result of high-powered, twentyfirst- digital “enhancement”. Given a sufficiently high-definition scan, nothing more than inversion, and gentle, blanket adjustments to brightness and contrast are necessary to sharpen figures already discernible, if faintly, to the naked eye.
Obviously this information, while it settles some questions, raises others. Why did Humphry sign his name twice? Without knowing exactly what sort of emulsion Walker used in processing his photograph, it is impossible to know exactly what his camera picked up on the canvas or why the first signature appears light and the second dark. Both signatures on the canvas match Humphry’s known signature, even granting
the wayward-looking H on the second. Did Humphry use the end of his brush to scratch on his signature and other notes in the first case, and then paint his signature after finishing the portrait, in the second case? And then again, why did Humphry place his name in the upper right corner, instead of along the bottom, certainly the customary place?
What bears emphasis here is that the information provided by this long overlooked photograph was not visible to Victorian and early twentieth-century viewers of the portrait itself. Before using the portrait as a frontispiece to his 1884 edition of Austen’s letters, Lord Brabourne went out of his way to contact his Austenian cousins in order to confirm its authenticity, an effort he could have spared himself had he been able to make out Jane Austen’s name in the first place. Furthermore, Victorian and early twentiethcentury Austenians were unanimous in attributing the portrait to Johann Zoffany, as the caption to William and R. W. Austen- Leigh’s frontispiece confirms. Zoffany was famous at this time, while Ozias Humphry was virtually unknown. On this very account, it is surely inconceivable that some crafty, fraudulent hand introduced Humphry’s name onto the canvas at a later date.
On the contrary, its very invisibility, along with Humphry’s obscurity, suggests that these inscriptions are contemporaneous with the execution of the portrait itself. In short, in 1910, Walker’s camera saw something that ordinary people looking at the portrait did not see, in part because the writing was difficult to detect beneath a century’s worth of grime, and in part, confident (though mistaken) about artist and sitter as people
already were, no one looked for signatures, names and dates where they were placed.
There is much still to to be learnt about this portrait and about Jane Austen. But the important matter for now is that substantive questions about it are settled. Jane Austen’s portrait has spoken for itself.
Proof of the Authenticity of the Rice Portrait
Website Design by Aimee Bell at at www.authordesignstudio.com.
Stephen Cole, Director of Acume Forensics
Stephen Cole has an international reputation and his firm, Acume, has long experience and trusted expertise in the highly specialized field of photographic imaging. Acume regularly undertakes far more important work than this on the international stage, whose significance so dwarfs our own concerns that we hesitate to compare them. See the 'Enquiry Link' below.
As a world leader in the identification and analysis of photographic images, Stephen Cole himself is valued as a distinguished witness and collaborator by three of the most eminent advocates in the United Kingdom, not to mention the Secretary General of the United Nations.