I am posting this at the request of Jane Odiwe, author of Lydia Bennet’s Story, Willoughby’s Return, and most recently Mr. Darcy’s Secret. She has been involved in the interesting detective work of trying to locate the whereabouts of a painting that appears in a Christie’s catalogue from 1983, a “Conversation Piece” pen and watercolor drawing that might be a portrait of Jane Austen’s family. There are similarities to the silhouette illustration we are familiar with:
I append Jane Odiwe’s post in its entirety – you can also go to her blog for further information and read her posts on the artist Ozias Humphrey and his possible connection to the Austen family. [I suggest you print out the family portrait below and then follow along with Jane’s detailed commentary.]
The ‘Conversation Piece’: Is this a painting of the Austen Family in 1781? [by Jane Odiwe]
Whilst conducting research into the ‘Rice’ portrait, Mr. Robin Roberts discovered a very interesting picture, which seems to have gone unnoticed in a Christie’s catalogue. The sale of the property of Mrs. Robert Tritton took place at Godmersham Park, Kent, between Monday, June 6th and Thursday, June 9th, 1983. Elsie Tritton and her husband had bought the estate in 1936, and the catalogue notes how she and her husband had lovingly rescued the house, and how Elsie, a New Yorker by birth, wished that after her death, their wonderful collection of furniture and clocks, English Conversation Pieces, objets d’art and textiles should be available for others to buy for their own collections. This is a fascinating catalogue to see, and I think the fact that the painting came out of the sale of Godmersham Park is most exciting!
The painting is described in the catalogue as belonging to the English School, circa 1780, pen, and black ink and watercolour, measuring 15½ by 19½ inches. It depicts a family sitting round a table, the adults at opposite ends, with four children beyond.
I think what’s so interesting about the picture is that the more you study it; the more the details become fascinating. It appears to be a wonderful allegorical puzzle, full of the humour and charade that the Austen family loved, reflecting so much of what we know about their family history, finances, with all the literary symbolism they would have enjoyed so much. There are some significant allusions connected with the Austen family, and I am thrilled to share Mr. Roberts’ discoveries with you.
He wonders if it could possibly be by Ozias Humphry painted to commemorate the adoption of Edward Austen by the Knight family who were childless relatives, and there are striking similarities between this painting and the commemorative silhouette drawn up at a similar date. There are what could be the monogram symbols of Ozias Humphry scattered in several places about the painting, on the figures, in a curlicue above the mantelpiece, and a possible signature in the right hand corner, though it is difficult to be certain without seeing the original, and unfortunately, it is impossible to show all the small details on a blog.
If we assume that this is a painting of the Austen family, the central figure shows a young boy who is most likely to be Edward Austen. The family all have their attention turned towards him, and more importantly, their eyes are concentrated on the bunch of grapes, which he holds high up in the air, almost as if being presenting to the viewer. You can almost hear him say, “Look at me, am I not the most fortunate boy in the world? Look what I have!”
Surely the grapes represent the good fortune and wealth that Edward is about to inherit, and the whole family who look as pleased as punch are celebrating with him.
George Herbert makes the connections between grapes, fruit, and inheritance in his poem, The Temple. [see Jane’s blog for the complete poem]
As we observe the painting, the small girl with round cheeks to the left of Edward must be Jane Austen herself! This is also one of the most significant parts to the puzzle, I think. She appears to be clutching what could be a horseshoe nail in her hand, which she points towards Edward, her arm held high in the same way as he holds his grapes aloft. This is where it gets most exciting, and where another connection to Edward Austen is made. On the painting of Edward Austen at Chawton House, there is most distinctly, a horseshoe nail on the ground pointing towards Edward’s feet. This little nail is a symbol, an allusion to the fact that the Knights adopted him. Most interestingly, Jane makes a reference to the horseshoe nail in a letter dated Tuesday, 9th February, 1813. She is talking about Miss Clewes, a new governess that Edward has engaged to look after his children.
Miss Clewes seems the very Governess they have been looking for these ten years; – longer coming than J. Bond’s last Shock of Corn. – If she will but only keep Good and Amiable and Perfect! Clewes & (sic) is better than Clowes. And is it not a name for Edward to pun on? – is not a Clew a nail?
Jane was punning on the word clew (or clue) and the Old French word, clou (de girofle), which in its turn was derived from the Latin, clavus, meaning nail (of the clove tree). The dried flower bud of the clove tree resembles a small nail or tack. Of course, it was a name for Edward to pun on because of his own associations with a small horseshoe nail. This seems to be one of the most significant pieces of the puzzle in the painting!
Now we turn to the gentleman on the left of the painting who is dressed exactly as Mr. Austen in the silhouette attributed to Wellings of Edward’s presentation to the Knight family. He is seated, hands clasped together as though offering up a grateful prayer for their good fortune. Within his grasp it appears he is holding a prayer book, or missal, the silk ribbon of which is draped over his fingers, an indication perhaps of his status as rector, and a man of the cloth. Interestingly, he is the only figure whose eyes are not concentrated on the bunch of grapes, but perhaps this is to indicate he is more concerned with offering grateful thanks in his role of clergyman.
In between Mr. Austen and Jane is Cassandra who rests her hand protectively on her sister’s shoulder, whilst also providing an excellent compositional device leading the eye along through to Jane’s arm to the tip of the Golden Triangle where the bunch of grapes are suspended. The painting follows the traditional composition based on a triangle for optimum placing of the main interest of the work. I also think it interesting to note that the girls’ dresses are of the simple muslin type usually worn by children at this time. Mostly white, they were worn with a ribbon sash, at waist height or higher as in Jane’s case.
On the other side of Edward, it is thought this child most likely to be Francis. James would have been at school at this time, and Henry could also have been away. Charles was too young to be depicted, and would still have been lodged with the family who looked after the infant Austens, as was the custom.
To the far right, as we look at the painting is the formidable figure of Mrs. Austen dressed for the occasion with a string of pearls and a ribbon choker around her neck, complete with more than one ‘feather in her cap’, which must represent her pride and pleasure at the whole event, and by extension, the symbols of nobility and glory. She is further emphasizing Edward’s importance by pointing in his direction, and I think it would be hard to imagine a more pleased mama, in her elegant air, and her smile.
On the table is a further connection with Mrs. Austen. The pineapple, a prized fruit, representing health and prosperity, was first introduced to England in 1772, and the Duke of Chandos, Mrs. Austen’s great uncle, was the first to grow them. The symbolism of the pineapple represents many things, not least the rank of the hostess, but was also associated with hospitality, good cheer, and family affection.
Other dishes of food illustrate further abundance, wealth, and the spiritual associations of Christian values. There is bread and wine on the table; Christian symbols, which represent not only life, and the Communion, but also show there is cause for thankfulness and celebration. The glasses are not yet filled, but there are glasses placed before the adults for a toast. Nearest to us in the foreground, there is another fruitful dish, perhaps plum pudding, representing not only the wealth to come, but also a plentiful future. Placed before Edward, another dish, which also appears to suggest the image of a spaniel dog, may be an allusion to Edward’s love of hunting.
The background to the painting holds its own clues. It’s been suggested that the painting above the mantelpiece could be Zeus abducting Ganymede to the Gods, another reference to the luck of young Edward who has been adopted by the Knight family, and on the opposite wall, could this be a reference to the miniature portrait of George Austen, the handsome proctor, even if this appears to be a larger portrait? In the carpet, the patterns suggest the date may again be replicated, and also an M to symbolize the fact that the couple in the painting are married. Above the looking glass is a crest with what appears to be the date. It would be lovely to have a look at the original to see everything in more detail!
Unfortunately, there appears to be no record of the sale of the painting, and I know that Mr. Roberts, and his sister, Mrs. Henry Rice, would be interested to learn more about the painting. I’d like to make an appeal on their behalf for any information, and if anyone knows of the painting’s whereabouts or can tell us anything about it, please do get in touch with me or with Jane Austen’s House Museum.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog as much as I’ve enjoyed hearing all about this little painting. Don’t you think the Austen family would have enjoyed this allegorical puzzle? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
All very interesting! – and as with any detective work, one has more questions than can be currently answered. If the original drawing could be located it would certainly help! There is also more information soon to be released about the controversial Rice ‘Jane Austen’ Portrait. Stay tuned! And in the meantime if you have any knowledge of the whereabouts of the “conversation piece” that Jane Odiwe writes about, please contact her via her Jane Austen Sequels Blog.
Copyright @2100, by Deb Barnum, at Jane Austen in Vermont