From time to time the Rice family, descendants of Jane Austen’s brother Edward Knight, make press statements publicizing their latest theories by which they try to authenticate the portrait they own and which they claim shows Jane Austen (1775-1817) in her childhood. Click here to see the portrait. I was able to see the portrait in person, when I visited the Rices at their house in East Ilsley, Berkshire, on 28 January 1984, where it was hanging in the drawing-room, and naturally I wanted to know if the attribution could be correct since, despite what the owners say, it is neither titled, signed, nor dated.
It soon became clear that there were three aspects to consider when identifying the sitter and dating the portrait: Austen family biography, costume history, and art history. I have researched the Austen family since the mid-1970s, research which has enabled me to publish two new editions of Jane’s letters (1995, 2011), the definitive factual biography Jane Austen, a Family Record (1989, 2004), and to compile A Chronology of Jane Austen and her Family 1600–2000 (2006, 2013), a compilation that brings together some 15,000 fully documented facts about the whole family group for several generations. In all these years, I have never found a scrap of genuine contemporary documentary evidence to substantiate the claims made for the portrait by its owners; instead, as far back as 1996 I identified the sitter as being Mary Anne Campion (1797–1825), eldest daughter of Jane Austen’s second cousin, namesake, and almost exact contemporary, Jane Austen (1776–1857) of Kippington near Sevenoaks in Kent, who married William John Campion of Danny, Sussex, in 1797. From other family evidence I suggested a date of 1805–1806 for the painting of the portrait, a suggestion now confirmed by the National Portrait Gallery’s researches (Le Faye).
Over several decades, many fully experienced professional costume historians, curators of costume collections in museums and galleries, have agreed that the sitter’s dress points to a date post-1800. Her bare head, with hair close-cropped and shaped to the skull leaving only a small fringe in front, is itself a significant indication of date, since this style for little girls only became fashionable after 1800. Before then, in the 1780s–1790s, the hair was left long and loose and made to look voluminous, and it was usually shown hanging in curls or ringlets from beneath a large hat or mob-cap.
Most recently, further study of the portrait shows that it has in fact provided its own answer as to whether or not the sitter is Jane Austen. In line with the taxation laws of the period, artists’ canvases had to bear a “canvas stamp,” the name and address of the retailer and the fabric from which it was made. On the back of the Rice Portrait is the canvas stamp Wm Legg / High-Holborn / LINEN. Research by the National Portrait Gallery in London trade directories has shown that William Legg was working at 163 High Holborn from, at the very earliest, 1801 and had definitely left these premises by 1806 (“John and William Legg”). The canvas upon which this portrait is painted therefore could only have been sold to the artist between these years 1801 and 1806. As the sitter is a little girl, who is past infancy but has not yet approached puberty, say aged 5–11, she cannot possibly be Jane Austen, who in 1801–1806 was aged 25–30.
Marilyn Butler’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004 online edition) also rejects the claims made for the authenticity of the Rice Portrait.