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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

The mysterious Rice portrait, again

One of the Janeite world’s most enduring mysteries/controversies concerns a charming eighteenth-century oil painting of a young girl in a white dress holding a green parasol.

It’s the so-called Rice Portrait, which is – depending on whom you ask – either an immensely valuable and important portrayal of one of the world’s greatest writers as a twelve-year-old, or a picture of some unknown young girl of no particular interest to posterity.

For years, the Rice family, descendants of Jane Austen’s older brother Edward Knight, have tried to persuade the world that their 1788 painting shows Jane Austen herself. (If it did, the painting’s value would rise exponentially; amid the current uncertainty, the painting failed to sell at auction in 2007.) For just as long, skeptics have disputed the Rices’ claim, variously questioning the identity of the artist, the style of the sitter’s dress, and the likelihood that anyone would have commissioned an expensive painting of an obscure and less-than-wealthy relative. (Claire Harman, author of Jane’s Fame, helpfully summarizes the issues here.)

The latest round in this ongoing battle became public last week, when the Guardian reported on new documentary evidence that the Rice family believes further bolsters their claim. The evidence in question is an unsigned note, apparently in the handwriting of Austen’s great-niece Fanny Caroline Lefroy, recounting the painting’s provenance.

I have no dog in this fight -- no settled opinion about the identity of the Rice portrait’s sitter. It would be fantastic to have another verifiable image of Jane Austen: as I’ve written before (here, here and here), the arguments that break out from time to time about the accuracy of various representations of her reveal more about contemporary views of her work than about what she actually looked like.

Still, elements of the latest story seem too good to be true. Supposedly, the Lefroy note came from Austen’s writing desk but “had been overlooked. . . until its current owner noticed the small brown envelope containing it was marked ‘history of the portrait of Jane Austen.’ ” It’s a little hard to believe that someone who owned authentic Austen family papers wouldn’t have looked at them rather closely before now – you know, just on the off-chance that what they had was a previously unknown Austen letter worth millions. And an envelope marked “history of the portrait of Jane Austen”? Puh-leeze. Kind of on the nose, don’t you think?

But OK: sometimes things that are too good to be true are nevertheless true. Even if genuine, however, all the note does is memorialize Lefroy’s understanding, c. 1883, of the portrait’s provenance nearly a century after it was painted. It doesn’t prove that what she thought she knew was correct. And a fascinating 2014 article in the TLS – co-authored by freelance filmmaker Henrietta Foster and Austen scholar Kathryn Sutherland – raises intriguing doubts about that provenance, showing that a key link in the painting’s chain of custody is a man known as an expert forger and inveterate practical joker.

The Rices have often argued that the family lore identifying the portrait’s subject as Jane Austen was passed down by people with no reason to lie. The Foster/Sutherland article suggests that a single liar was involved, and that his lies may have duped later generations of sincere, if self-deceiving, Austen descendants – possibly including Fanny Caroline Lefroy.

The truth? Who knows? For now, this mystery remains just that: a mystery.

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