Family says 'overlooked' note confirms portrait is of Jane Austen

The identity of a woman painted by Ozias Humphry has long been disputed. But a note has surfaced that the current owners say proves the artwork is the only known professional painting of Jane Austen.

The owner says a note found in Austen’s writing desk proves the painting is of the novelist

The Rice Portait of Jane Austen by British painter Ozias Humphry is believed to be the only known oil painting of Jane Austen. (Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)
Listen5:54

It's a painting of a young girl — and the family who owns the portrait says that girl's smile belongs to beloved author Jane Austen. 

For decades, there have been disagreements about the subject of the painting. But now, the family says a note believed to be written by her great-niece proves it's Austen. And if that's true, it would be the only professional portrait of the author. 

According to the Guardian, Kelly M. McDonald, an independent scholar who is researching the letters and diaries of the Austen family has confirmed the handwriting is consistent with other letters from Austen's great-niece.

Johnnie Nettlefold now owns the painting. His late stepfather was a direct descendent of Austen's brother and his mother Anne Rice.  

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke to Nettlefold about why he believes the note confirms the portrait is of Jane Austen.

Here is part of their conversation.

Johnnie, why is it so difficult to get this painting authenticated as Jane Austen?

I think there's a number of issues surrounding that. I think the main one was the misattribution by Harding Newman to Zoffany rather than Ozias  Humphrey — who was a much more likely candidate having already painted her great-uncle Francis. 

Some have argued the muslin dress in the portrait dates later than 1800 and therefore couldn't be Jane Austen. (Christie's/Associated Press)

Now, what's surfaced, though, is interesting. There's this letter. Can you tell us about that?

It's a wonderful thing. It came completely out of the blue. It came through an extended familial connection from a very brave lady who I think found it. I think it perhaps was slightly overlooked.

She got in touch with a third party who she knew was an Oxford scholar and that person got in touch with our family. 

And the letter inside describes how and when and where the painting was done, right?

Absolutely. And the most important thing for me was the first paragraph, which says, "The history of the portrait of Jane Austen now in the possession of Morland Rice her Gt nephew." It seems to be quite unequivocal really. 

English novelist Jane Austen (1775 - 1817). (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Isn't one of the issues though, that the dress that she is wearing, this beautiful white muslin dress, actually dates later than 1800 and so it couldn't be a painting that was done in the late 1700s?

That was a very valid point. But one of the people who has done a lot of research for us, Ellie Bennett, has discovered a number of dresses on pictures of children of that time, which are almost identical to the one that Jane is wearing.

But does this new information, what's described in this letter, doesn't that contradict the arguments you had as to why this was Jane Austen before? There was a whole different story — that it was done in Kent and not in Bath, and it was done by a different artist and she was 12. I mean, aren't you contradicting yourself at this point?

I don't think so. This lady said it was done in Bath; well again, it's difficult to tell exactly what the locale was.

Funnily enough, somebody said to us the other day that they think they might recognize the background to the picture. They think that background still exists. It's something that Ellie and I are still going to look into because we might actually be able to identify the background, which would be great fun. 

You love this painting, obviously. You believe it to be Jane Austen. Why does it matter that you get this validation?

As a school boy, I've always been a keen reader. And I have to say that when I was originally presented with Jane Austen's work, it seemed such a silly thing, but it was the picture on the back rather put me off.

Like so many others, I adore her work and it seems to me that this wonderful picture with this vivacious young face, and again, she was pretty much writing at the time that this was painted, just gives a much better picture of what this lady, this extraordinary lady, was all about.

But is it not the intention of your family to sell this painting if you can identify its provenance?

I think yes, eventually that would be our intention. But on the other hand, that, I think, is a very good thing. Because it seems sad that something as wonderful as this is limited to a relatively small audience.

And I actually think it would be so great if she was in a great gallery and she was looking down. I think it would be standing room only, frankly, to get into the room to see her.

Written by Sarah Jackson and John McGill. Interview produced by Sarah Jackson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.