The Rice Portrait of Jane Austen?

The Rice Portrait of Jane Austen?

How clearly I recall writing this blog post in March of 2011. I was six months pregnant with my daughter and spent the bulk of the morning at a lab getting my second glucose test for gestational diabetes. I whiled away the hungry hours devouring the new evidence that Jane Odiwe, author, artist, and friend, had brought to my attention concerning the authenticity of the Rice portrait. For decades, experts have debated whether the portrait is or is not of Jane Austen, the crux of the naysayers’ argument relying on both the date of the portrait and a lack of proof of provenance. Would Jane Austen have been young enough to be the sitter, and why, if it is Austen, is there no mention of the portrait by her descendants for almost 100 years after it was painted? Some of the biggest names in Austen scholarship stand on opposite sides of the fence on this issue, but I have always wanted so very much to believe it is a portrait of Jane. My complete bias now on the table, you can imagine my excitement (possibly aided by glucose overload – turns out I did have GD) that early spring morning in 2011, as I delightedly detailed the history of the controversy and presented the new evidence that the painter was Ozias Humphry and not Johan Zoffany, as previously believed. I was too busy with new parenthood to properly follow up a few years later when new, high image photographs revealed a date on the canvas of seventeen eighty something (Claudia Johnson had already said it was proof of authenticity in this article, so what more could I really add, anyway?). Happy to live in a world where I knew just what my favorite author looked like, I proceeded through the next several years content the matter was closed, even as the National Portrait Gallery continued to stubbornly refuse to authenticate the portrait. So it was with chagrin and abject disappointment that I read on another March morning in 2017 the Financial Times article that discredited the portrait. My emotions were something like Elizabeth Bennet’s in reaction to Mr. Darcy’s letter: at first I refused to believe it, but gradually the truth took hold. There was a stamp on the back of the Rice portrait that proved the canvass had to be made after 1800. I rushed over, where the Rice family keeps the world informed about their quest to authenticate the portrait, and saw their inability to reply to this blow with dismay. It was like a dear friend had died.

Since that day, I have come to accept that I love the portrait regardless of the sitter’s identity. It can still represent my idealized image of who Austen was, even if it isn’t actually her. Then yesterday I read this headline from The Guardian: Jane Austen? Family says note establishes disputed portrait’s identity. By the time I reached the end of the article, hope had blossomed anew.

Even without any relevance to the Rice portrait controversy, the discovery of a previously unknown note by Fanny Caroline Lefroy, Austen’s great-niece, would create buzz in the Janeite community, but the fact that this note explicitly establishes the provenance of the Rice Portrait makes it a bombshell. The handwriting matches Lefroy’s, of which there are many existent examples. It was somehow, seemingly miraculously, suddenly found in Austen’s writing desk.

Now, some of this feels just a bit too convenient. However was the note overlooked for so long? I’d like to see testing done on the paper to establish its age. There is a lot of information missing, but nevertheless, the claim is absolutely tantalizing. It certainly calls into question the dating of the stamp. Another explanation will need to be provided for its existence, but if it can be rationally accounted for, pressure for the National Gallery to finally recognize the portrait (and hopefully acquire it, saving it from its current fate in a storage locker) will certainly increase. What that would do to the value of the beloved but inadequate portrait by Cassandra Austen, currently the only verified portrait of her face, is an interesting question, as well as how that consideration might influence the NPG’s position.

Also worth noting is that the authentication of the Rice portrait may have implications for another, unverified portrait, the knowledge of which is confined to a photograph in a Christie’s catalog from an estate sale at Godmersham Park in 1983, its current whereabouts being unknown. You can read more about it in that original blog post from 2011, but the long and short of it is is that this could be a portrait of the Austen family. If so, Jane is the very young girl, positioned third from the left. Bears something of a resemblance to the girl in the Rice portrait, doesn’t she?

You can see a much better image of the restored Rice portrait at the family’s website: It’s gorgeous!

19 Responses to The Rice Portrait of Jane Austen?

  1. Dear Alexa ?
    I have just had the pleasure of reading your blog .I was put on to you be Ellie Bennett .
    I think that your very fair and measured points about my mum’s portrait were noteworthy , and I have to say that it was terrific to come across someone who has actually read the information
    We have been so lucky to have received help and support from a great group of individuals who like our family believe this portrait to be true .
    I would like to discuss this further with you and try and give you some additional background information that you might find interesting and is not in the public domain at the moment
    Also Jane is not far away in London at present ( she is not exactly in a vault but she is protected) as is the new envelope and note which the previous owner has just gifted to mum .Maybe you would find it interesting to see either one or both and find out more about how the note came to us .
    If you would like chat or communicate further my email is
    Thank you for your interest, I was lucky enough to have Jane on the wall in my previous house in Oxfordshire and You cannot help but fall for her .
    Best regards
    Johnnie Nettlefold

  2. I remember the article on Jane Odiwe’s website about the Rice portrait. Yes, it would be wonderful if this was her, but still so many questions remain. In the meantime, I will envision a young Jane, looking just like this. She has such ‘fine eyes’!

  3. What I found interesting was the controversy over who painted it. To me, the styles of each was very different, so I don’t understand how they could have been confused. It is a beautiful painting, and it would be wonderful if it is Jane Austen. Cassandra’s drawing was not spectacular and may have been done when Jane was beginning to have health issues. They do affect a person’s looks. Thank you for the information. It would be nice to know what she really looked like. Maybe one day…

    • My pleasure, Gianna! It is definitely odd that somewhere in the family lore, they became convinced it was Zoffany. Proving the artist was Humphry, who painted other members of the family, strengthened the Rice family’s claim.

  4. Alexa, we’d all like to believe, but it’s best to remain skeptical until all the facts are in. There’s a huge financial incentive for the Rice family to “prove” the portrait is of Jane. The painting’s value goes from a few thousand pounds to hundreds of thousands. If of JA, the value was estimated at between £400,000 and £800,000 in 2007 (it failed to sell at auction because of the uncertainties). Remember, Jane’s small, inexpensive ring sold for £152,450 ($232,836) a couple of years ago. The prim watercolor of JA (described below) sold for £164,500 a few years ago.

    Another consideration: Fanny Caroline was the daughter of Jane’s niece Anna. Anna helped her half-siblings James Edward Austen-Leigh (known to footnoters world over as JEAL) and Caroline create the first bio of Jane. From Cass’s clumsy sketch of Jane, they had an artist create the chubby, insipid image of Jane that has come down as “the” image of her—the one on most book covers, the 10-pound note, etc. Caroline talks about that portrait in a letter to JEAL of 16 Dec 1869 (Sutherland Memoir 192). This was in 1869, when Anna was elderly and Fanny Caroline was 49 and LIVED with her mother.

    Fanny Caroline must have known about the painting by then, as well as the Memoir project. If there were a beautiful portrait of Jane as a 12-year-old, wouldn’t Anna have also known about it? If not, wouldn’t Fanny have said something? Wouldn’t she have mentioned it to her mother, and then her mother mentioned it to her siblings while they were gathering info and recollections and looking for artwork for the book? Surely, at least, Fanny or Anna would have said something before the second edition came out two years later?

    Also, Anna wrote a family history, and Fanny collected all of her mother’s papers about Jane and the family. Wouldn’t she have put her “note to herself” with those papers, or otherwise documented this wonderful portrait?

    To quote an earlier Guardian story: “The debate has raised as many questions as it has answered. Why would the wealthy Kent Austens own (and presumably have commissioned) a painting of the younger daughter of an obscure branch of the family? And if Jane, why not Cassandra with her? Why is there no mention of such a portrait in any of the Hampshire Austens’ papers? Even if Jane’s family considered the painting beyond their control as a possession, it’s odd that no one remembered it when she was dead, and images of the author were being sought and discussed.”

    Still a lot of unanswered questions.

    • Hi Collins! Yes, many unanswered questions, amongst which I’d include why the Rice family would risk making such a claim if they did not believe it to be true. If the note is a forgery, it will certainly be proven as such. I find the entire saga fascinating. Regardless of the outcome, it’s wonderful drama.

      The argument you put forth is largely that of provenance, and it is certainly a good one. This note, if accepted as genuine, fills in a big gap in the portrait’s history. In regards to why this portrait would not be considered for the biography, I would suggest that an image of the author as a girl, especially one with a rather cheeky smile, would not mesh with James Edward Austen-Leigh’s portrayal of his famous aunt as a demure spinster.

      What do you think of the image from Christie’s? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thanks for engaging in the debate!

      • Alexa, you may be correct that the family might have quashed the portrait of Jane as a cheeky young teenager, though it strikes me that the worst that would have happened is that it would have been put inside rather than on the cover. But even if unused, it must have come up in the exchanges among Anna, Caroline, and James Edward as they were putting together the Memoir. Or in the separate reminiscences of Caroline and Anna, even if James Edward chose not to use that material in his compilation. The two ladies were the direct sources for all the interesting stuff in JEAL’s bio. All three were looking for as much info on JA as possible, including asking other family members.

        The Rice family clearly believes (and kudos for drawing a response from them). They’re emotionally and financially invested in the portrait being of Jane. But we somehow have to believe that a distant relative commissioned a painting of her for no apparent reason, that two generations of her closest family either did not know about it or hid their knowledge of it, and suddenly it appears on the world’s stage two generations after her death.

        As for the risk involved in making a possibly false claim, the art world for decades if not centuries has been riddled with mistakes and outright forgeries because of the amount of money (and prestige) involved. I’m not saying the Rice family has done anything wrong, only that they are, in my opinion, too eager to believe in whatever might prove their case. The rest of us should wait for independent confirmation, overseen by outsiders and vetted by outsiders.

    • Hello Collins,

      I would like to address some of the interesting points you raise, if I may.

      Of course the painting, if accepted, will increase in value. But this does not negate any of the evidence which has accumulated in its favour over the years. As Alexa has commented, the Rice family have campaigned for years for this picture because they 100% believe it to be correct. I personally have spent over five years researching it and I have so far found nothing to make be think it is not Austen – and this was from an initially sceptical position.

      It was almost certainly commissioned by Jane’s great-uncle Francis – he was not a distant relative, he acted in loco parentis to Jane Austen’s father George, paying for his schooling and buying him church livings. After Uncle Francis’ death there was apparently a distinct cooling in relations between his son Francis Motley-Austen (who was ‘never likely to set the Medway in fire’ according to Jane’s brother Henry Austen) and Jane’s family.

      There is also evidence that there was also a painting of Cassandra which is now lost. A Mrs Harrison wrote to Austen scholar Robert Chapman about a painting she owned in the 1950s which she thought might be of Jane Austen. Richard Austen-Leigh commented to Chapman that it was very like the ‘Zoffany’ as the Rice Portrait was then known. They sent her photo back to her and the painting’s whereabouts is unknown but I believe it may well have been Cassandra’s painting. Mrs Harrison was a direct descendant of Francis Motley-Austen. The painting of Edward Austen at Chawton House was probably also commissioned from Ozias Humphry, for his 21st birthday in 1788. According to Fanny Lefroy the date on the Rice Portrait was 1789. She mentions this on three separate occasions. Humphry also painted old Francis Austen himself, that painting is now in Sheffield. So it is not quite correct to say that only Jane’s portrait was commissioned.

      There are three things we know about the Austen family at that time. ,

      They burned an awful lot of letters;
      They kept many things secret;
      They different branches did not get along. Lord Brabourne, for example, offered Jane Austen’s letters he had inherited for auction at Sothebys instead of passing them back to the family. There was competition at that time between the different branches of the family to claim ownership of Jane’s legacy, so it would not be surprising that the picture, if it was known about by Anna Lefroy, would not have been mentioned.

      The fact remains that Ozias Humphry’s monogram is on the painting, as well has his signature which dates the painting to before 1797 when he stopped painting. Humphry’s brother was the vicar of Kemsing and Seal and a friend of the Kent Austens.

      Furthermore the Austen family accepted the painting was Jane Austen when it came to light. It was only after the National Portrait Gallery tried to buy it in the 1930s but were refused, that doubts were raised about it being Jane Austen. The provenance is extremely strong as even Chapman acknowledged.

      I wrote the article which was sent to the press about the discovery of this new evidence from Fanny Caroline Lefroy, The article has more background information about the letter and the Rice Portrait. You can read this on my blog here:

      You can also email me at

      Best wishes

      Ellie Bennett

      • Ellie (and Alexa), I would be as happy as anyone if the portrait turns out to be of JA. The expression certainly matches the intelligent, vivacious look we would expect, and it would explain why their cousin Philly considered her impudent at the age of 12. However, when we most want to believe is when we need to be the most skeptical. Otherwise, we see only the evidence that supports our claim.

        For example, you say that the family has always believed the painting was of JA. Beyond Anna Lefroy and others of her generation, none of that family ever saw Jane. Their vouching for it has no more relevance than my vouching for it. But of course they want it to be of JA. It’s too easy for an artifact to be “of Jane’s time,” then “possibly Jane’s,” then “Jane’s.” Especially w/in a family. Recently, there was a dustup over JA’s glasses; turns out at least one pair was from after her time. The Martha Lloyd photo–which everyone in the family thought was of ML and is proudly displayed at the JA House Museum–was produced w/a technique that didn’t exist until after her time. That info not only canceled the provenance of the photo but also the topaz cross believed to be Jane’s. (That is, which of the two crosses was Jane’s vs. Cass’s.)

        Look at your own notes re: the possible missing portrait of Cass: Mrs Harrison told Chapman she had a painting which she thought might be of Jane Austen. Why Jane and not Cass? Because Jane was the one we all care about. And how did THAT painting go missing if the owner thought it was of JA?

        And of course how did a note in a writing desk go unfound for how many years? I’d love to hear more details about that discovery. This is where the concept of “chain of evidence” needs to be followed very closely.

        There’s also the imputation that the National Portrait Gallery started dissing the portrait only after the family declined to sell it to them. But the gallery must approach dozens of people a year about donations or purchases. No doubt, it often takes repeated approaches to get people to let go of their prized possessions. If they trashed people who said “no” the first time, they’d never get any new paintings. And 90 years later, all the original people are long gone. Why would the current curators refuse the painting unless they genuinely disagree with the provenance?

        Of course, proved/disproved provenance works both ways. Independent experts might well certify that the letter is by Caroline Fanny and it proves beyond a doubt the validity of the painting. In which case, Yahoo! But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to wait until the “proof” is vetted by people w/no emotional or financial stake in the outcome.

        • Hi Collins,

          The questions you raise are pertinent and I agree that we must be careful that we do not allow wishful thinking to cloud our judgement. I would repeat that I came to this picture as an independent researcher and was very sceptical because, like you no doubt, I assumed the National Portrait Gallery had taken an objective view. But when I visited the archives there it became evident that there has been a concerted campaign against this picture by the National Portrait Gallery. They have not been even handed in this. That is incontrovertible. I can give you plenty of examples if you wish!

          The new letter comes from an impeccable source but the owner wishes to remain anonymous. Perhaps that might change in the future. I am sure it can be verified if necessary but the handwriting is undoubtedly that of Fanny Caroline Lefroy.

          As for what the family discussed, as I’ve mentioned, we have no idea what they talked about, all we know is they didn’t use the picture. But we do know The Memoir was a whitewash and the true Austen story very different to the close happy family portrayed by James Edward Austen Leigh.

          There are five documents now which support this picture being Austen including a very clear account of its provenance from Dr Thomas Harding-Newman. Are we to assume they are all mistaken or lying? I can think of no other picture where so much evidence is routinely ignored.

          Out of interest – there are two issues here – the identity of the artist and the identity of the sitter. Do you think the artist is Ozias Humphry? And if the picture is not of Jane Austen, then who is it?

          • Ellie, I think we need to stop taking over Alexa’s blog!

            I don’t claim to be an expert on the painting. I have read a fair amount of the debate on and off over the years. This includes many of your posts, as well as articles by other experts who disagree with you. They also find other readings of your five points that make them less than conclusive to me. You and Alexa find the Rice arguments persuasive; I do not. That’s all.

            As for who the painting might be, other experts offer up a second cousin of Jane–also named Jane Austen and nearly the same age–or possibly that other Jane’s daughter (not named Jane). These were the direct descendants of the Francis Austen who was most likely to have commissioned the painting.

            Or maybe it’s our Jane. We all hope so.

            I have nothing new or independent to offer. I’m just an unpersuaded observer. You, Alexa, and many others are convinced. Viva la difference!

    • Of course she was, and those of us who love her will always think so, no matter what portraits we have to prove it.

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