Austen’s Face

Alice Spawls

I wonder if the Bank of England knew what they were letting themselves in for when they agreed to put Jane Austen on the £10 note. Janeites have been arguing over the authenticity of portraits for decades. The most settled on is the watercolour sketch held by the National Portrait Gallery and attributed to Austen’s sister, Cassandra. It was offered to James Edward Austen-Leigh (their nephew) by one of their great-nieces for inclusion in his 1869 Memoir.

Not thinking her pursed lips and crossed arms proper enough for the frontispiece, Austen-Leigh commissioned a new version, which softened her expression – and her features – and put her hands neatly on her lap. The artist, John Andrews, took a few liberties with her figure and dress too. Her shoulders are less broad, her waist tucked in and her chest shallowed so that her head looks enormous. He filled in the frills and ruffles that Cassandra hadn’t included: maybe Austen didn’t want to sit around all day having her picture done.

The image that will appear on the banknotes, though, is neither of these but an engraving made in 1870 from Andrews’s painting. The engraver made things still worse and the now most widely reproduced picture of Austen is of a diminutive, large-eyed, round-faced girl with trembling lips (and a very awkward figure), not the cross and impatient-looking woman of Cassandra’s sketch. One of her relatives said: ‘it is a very pleasing, sweet face, -tho’, I confess, to not thinking it much like the original;- but that, the public will not be able to detect.’

But as Claudia Johnson points out in Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, there’s no record of Cassandra’s sketch before 1869. She painted many watercolour miniatures, but this one isn’t mentioned in her will or letters, or in the list she made of Austenian keepsakes. The National Portrait Gallery decided to accept it as authentic – as many Janeites have – out of custom rather than evidence. The only undisputed image of Austen we have is another of Cassandra’s watercolours. Stolen hastily while she sat outside with her bonnet untied, it shows Austen with her back to us, her face obstinately hidden. I think that’s the image I’d like to see on the £10 note.


  • 12 November 2013 at 3:48pm
    kittentoast says:
    Fun post! I personally don't see the amended versions of Jane's portrait as any kind of whitewash. Cassandra was a mediocre artist, guilty of the standard amateur dodges in the face of portraiture difficulty - just leave it unfinished, it looks more arty that way. Just draw the clothes - faces are so pedestrian. Oh, please!

    I agree that the world craves an authentic Jane Austen likeness, and it's beyond tragic that we'll probably never see one. This doesn't mean Cassandra's awkward sketch should be held up as the platonic ideal of Jane's face. The problem isn't that Austen looks cross in it - it's that it's a terrible drawing. The facial proportions are way off, and the treatment is completely flat. It's not even an engaging example of naive art.

    Yes, the softened portraits by Andrews don't capture anything like the force of personality Jane Austen must have had. She was unusual in her talentss, her insights, her choice of mode of expression. Some aspects of her world view were unconventional, and others conformed closely to the assumptions of her milieu. She was a complex individual, and the "improved" portrait treatments don't express this complexity at all. But neither does the bizarre sketch produced by Cassandra.

    I want to like Cassandra, but everything I've learned about her makes me angry. She was the one who burned all those letters, for one. And, when faced with the difficult task of creating a likeness of a woman who was not only her sister, but one of the most interesting personalities and powerful talents of her age (or any age), what does she do? She paints her BACK. I'm sorry, but that just makes me want to scream.