Sitting with over one hundred individually-wrapped printing blocks before me aching to be emancipated from their brown paper prisons (or old encyclopaedia page prisons, in some cases), I realised that the thrill of opening presents is solely contained in the element of surprise. These blocks, however, despite their uniform structure, were all completely unique. The crumbling tape illustrated the many years since these objects had been handled – most had probably been wrapped upon the completion of printing which might have been as far back as 1949.
The printing blocks belong to the Jane Austen Society and were created and used to produce images in their annual reports before the practice of digital imaging. The definition of each image is variable: some are deep engravings where the image contains little detail; some are delicately etched, the image only revealing itself when the correct light catches its surface. The latter type formed the majority of the collection and one in particular sparked my curiosity. This was a reproduction of the only certain portrait showing Jane’s face – an unfinished watercolour by her sister, Cassandra.
Austen herself was not concerned with illustrating her works, nor especially with aesthetics in her writing. It is therefore unsurprising that the interest in the authoress as an art object arises out of a twenty-first century culture, one which places little value on anonymity. Today, the notion of an accurate portrait of Austen herself vivifies her literary legacy – her texts are rendered with greater vividness and zeal in the imagination when we are able to attribute the penned words to a face. As such, Cassandra’s likeness of her sister has become the epicentre of all authority on Jane’s appearance.
Despite the enthusiastic employment of this portrait on covers of her novels, biographies of her life, recreations of the pose for TV drama trailers and the like, what we see is often at several removes from Cassandra’s original sketch. In 1869, Jane’s nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, commissioned a portrait from the artist James Andrews, which served as the frontispiece for the former’s biography of his aunt. Just three years ago, the picture fetched £164,500 at auction where it was sold to an anonymous private collector. The portrait was based on Cassandra’s and from this, several other depictions of the authoress have ensued, including the 1870 stipple engraving used in Richard Bentley’s publication of Austen-Leigh’s A Memoir of Jane Austen.
Probably the most recent production of this image will be in wide circulation from next year as Jane will serve as the newest face of the £10 note. However, it can be seen that the face that will appear is yet another version based on the engraving, a noticeably prettified copy. This does indeed suggest that the modern quest to know what Jane Austen looked like has caused us to subject her image to the values of contemporary society – somewhat ridiculously, the expectations of beauty that accompany fame today have been applied to an author who did not even live within the same period as a camera.
To discover more about portraits of Jane Austen watch out for news of the Jane Austen 200 exhibition at Winchester Discovery Centre in 2017. See www.JaneAusten200.co.uk for more details.