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Sotheby's London to offer the definitive portrait of Jane Austen by James Andrews
James Andrews, Jane Austen, watercolour over pencil, 1869, est. £150,000-200,000. Photo: Sotheby's.

LONDON.- On 10th December 2013, Sotheby’s London will offer one of the most instantly recognizable images in British cultural history – James Andrews’ portrait of Jane Austen - probably the best-loved novelist in the English language. Reproduced innumerable times, it has become the defining image of Austen, an engraving of which will appear on the new Bank of England £10 note from 2017 (the author’s bicentenary). The watercolour, which has rarely been seen in public, and has remained in the Austen family since it was painted, will be the centrepiece of Sotheby’s English Literature & History Sale, carrying an estimate of £150,000-200,000.

Dr Gabriel Heaton, Specialist in Sotheby’s Books and Manuscripts Department commented: “Seeing the most famous image of Jane Austen, for the first time, in a domestic sitting room was an astonishing experience. This delicate watercolour is so much more than a piece of literary portraiture: it is part of our cultural history. The painting was commissioned for the first full-length biography of Austen, which was crucial in transforming her from a novelist into a national figure. The portrait gave readers an image with which they could identify and which even seemed to embody the character of her work. This is the most important likeness of Jane Austen ever likely to appear on the open market.”

The portrait was commissioned by Jane Austen’s nephew, Rev. James Edward Austen Leigh in 1869 to accompany Memoir of Jane Austen, his hugely influential first full-length biography of the novelist. The painting was based on the only confirmed portrait of Jane Austen made during her lifetime – a study by her sister Cassandra, (now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery). Austen-Leigh, who was very close to his aunt, (her surviving letters to him are deeply affectionate) did not believe this depiction did her justice and wanted a truer likeness created for posterity. He realized that he and others of his generation who had known Austen were now elderly and their shared recollections would soon be lost, so tasked a local artist, James Andrews of Maidenhead, with producing a more satisfying version based on Cassandra’s sketch and his own distinctive memories.

“In person she was very attractive; her figure was rather tall and slender, her step light and firm, and her whole appearance expressive of health and animation. In complexion she was a clear brunette with a rich colour; she had full round cheeks, with mouth and nose small and well formed, bright hazel eyes, and brown hair forming natural curls close round her face … At the time of which I am now writing, she never was seen, either morning or evening, without a cap; I believe that she and her sister were generally thought to have taken to the garb of middle age earlier than their years or their looks required[.]” (Memoir, p.70)

The presence of a series of pin-marks on the portrait together with a series of similar marks on the Cassandra sketch show that Andrews used it directly as the basis of his image, probably by pinning tracing paper over the sketch and then transferring this tracing onto the card. A stipple engraving taken from Andrews’ watercolour was then used as the frontispiece to the first edition of Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of Jane Austen, which was published in December 1869. The great sympathy and love for his aunt that permeates the Memoir was key to the work’s success and the transformative effect it had on Jane Austen’s reputation. It rapidly went into a second expanded edition and in an early example of the deeply personal and passionate response that Austen continues to elicit from her readers, Austen-Leigh was surprised and delighted to become the recipient of wide-ranging correspondence from Austen’s growing ranks of admirers. Through their letters he began to realise that his own much-loved aunt had become, to thousands of strangers “a living, though an unseen friend”.

Reviews of the Memoir showed just how widely appreciation of Austen’s novels had spread and how easily this affection had been transferred to their author. The Spectator commented specifically on the power of the frontispiece portrait: “It is a great comfort to us to have so complete a verification of the theory we have always cherished – that Miss Austen’s personal character was a sort of medium between the heroine of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet, and the heroine of Persuasion, Anne Elliott … The portrait prefixed to the volume – a very remarkable portrait – entirely bears out this double likeness to Anne Elliot and Elizabeth Bennet. It is a small head, with very sweet lively eyes, and a fullness about the face which seems to speak of health and spirit, but the air of high breeding and gentleness of nature is deeply impressed upon it. It is refinement, playfulness, and alertness, rather than depth of intellect, which the face seems to express.”

James Andrews’ portrait immediately became the accepted image of Jane Austen and an endless sequence of reproductions and re-imaginings began as early as 1873 with Evert A. Duyckink’s Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women of Europe and America. This work included an engraving based on Andrews’ portrait, extended to three-quarters length and with props added, including an ink-well, a manuscript, and perhaps most incongruously, a wedding band on the unmarried Austen’s ring finger.

Nearly 150 years since the portrait was commissioned by her prescient nephew, Sotheby’s is honoured to present for sale, the definitive image of the author – a simple and unpretentious watercolour - through which subsequent generations around the world have continued to reimagine the great Jane Austen.

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