It’s known as the Rice Portrait, and for years the Rice family who own the portrait have been fighting to prove that it is in fact a portrait of a young Jane Austen. Now, an overlooked note has come to light which may help to prove once and for all in the Rice family’s favour that the portrait is a genuine original portrait of Jane.
Of the Rice Portrait, the Rices have always explained that it was commissioned from the portrait painter Ozias Humphry in 1788, when 12-year-old Jane and her sister Cassandra were taken to visit their great-uncle Francis in Kent. According to the Rice family, Humphry’s 1788 accounts (held at the British Library) show a bill to Francis Austen for 13 guineas. However, experts in the art world, especially some of those at the National Portrait Gallery, say that it could not be of Austen. They have said that the style of the dress dates it to later than 1800.
The unsigned note which has recently be rediscovered, and which helps to support the Rice family’s claim of authenticity, is believed to have been written by Jane Austen’s great-niece Fanny Caroline Lefroy. Kept in Austen’s writing desk, it had been overlooked, said John Nettlefold, son of the painting’s owner Anne Rice, until its current owner noticed the small brown envelope containing it was marked “history of the portrait of Jane Austen”.
The note reads as follows:
“The history of the portrait of Jane Austen now in the possession of Morland Rice her Gt nephew. Old Dr Newman, fellow of Magdalen years ago told him that he had a portrait of Jane Austen the novelist, that had been in his family many years. He stated that it was done at Bath when she was about 15 & he promised to leave him (Morland Rice) the picture.
A few months before Dr Newman died, he wrote to a friend of his (a Dr Bloxam) sending him a picture as a farewell present & added ‘I have another picture that I wish to go to your neighbour Morland Rice. This a portrait of Jane Austen the novelist by Zoffany. Her picture was given to my step-mother by her friend Colonel Austen of Kippendon [sic], Kent because she was a great admirer of her works.’”
The note names the artist of the painting as being Johann Zoffany, to whom the painting has been attributed in the past. The note is unsigned, but after looking at it next to other documents held in the Hampshire Record Office, the Rices and independent scholar Kelly M McDonald (who is researching the letters and diaries of Emma Austen-Leigh, who was the wife of Jane Austen’s nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh) are sure it is written by Fanny Caroline Lefroy.
John Nettlefold said that the letter “is written before there was any kind of issue. The problems only started in the 1930s … Unfortunately, there was then an institutional enmity towards it and it just got worse and worse.” He says that the letter is enough evidence to officially establish the painting as being an authentic portrait of Jane Austen.
So what next? Going forward, the Rice family wish to sell the portrait once/if it is officially certified as being of Austen. The family hopes that the portrait will come to be loves by Jane Austen fans and scholars worldwide.