March 23, 2007 / 8:06 AM / 12 years ago

Only known painting of Jane Austen to go on sale

LONDON (Reuters) - What many believe to be the only painting of Jane Austen will be auctioned in New York in April by Christie’s, a relation of the English author and owner of the picture said.

"The Rice Portrait of Jane Austen" by English society artist Ozias Humphry in an image released by Christie's on March 23, 2007. The painting, which measures about five feet tall and three feet wide and widely believed to be the only known painting of Jane Austen, will be auctioned in New York in April by Christie's, a relation of the English author and owner of the picture said. REUTERS/Christie's/Handout

But Henry Rice, a “sixth generation descendant” of the writer of classics such as “Emma”, “Sense and Sensibility” and “Pride and Prejudice”, believes the sale of a picture that has divided experts will not be without controversy.

In 1948, a leading Austen scholar dismissed the authenticity of the portrait, saying the style of costume the subject wears does not match the date.

Rice and his family never doubted the lively girl wearing a long white dress and carrying a parasol was their ancestor. The painting is thought to have been made in 1788 or 1789 when Austen would have been about 14.

So he had the painting examined by a number of academics, including Austen scholar Professor Claudia Johnson at Princeton University in the United States, and they supported the original attribution and subject matter.

“The painting had rather fallen into the abyss,” Rice told Reuters. “So I decided to take up the challenge and found that many of the arguments against the painting (being of Austen) were extremely weak.

“Effectively they were calling us liars. Then we really started a bit of a crusade,” he added in a telephone interview.

“We were lucky in the people we met, including quite a lot of Americans, and the thing gathered strength, but there was fierce resistance and there probably still will be.”

He offered the painting to the National Portrait Gallery in London several times, but they turned it down because of doubts over the authenticity of its subject.

“So we decided to take it to America where it has more friends.”

CHRISTIE’S CONFIDENT

Christie’s auctioneers is sufficiently sure of recent research to go ahead with the sale of the painting, by English society artist Ozias Humphry.

“Christie’s supports the Rice portrait as a true depiction of Jane Austen and is honored to have been chosen by the family to organize a public auction,” the company said in a statement.

“The Rice Portrait of Jane Austen”, which measures about five feet tall and three feet wide, is expected to fetch between $400,000 and $800,000 when it goes under the hammer in New York on April 19 as part of the Important Old Master Paintings sale.

The auction house is also organizing a public exhibition of the picture in New York.

Its value is likely to be as much in its rarity as the quality of the painting. Rice, 78, said he knew of a sketch of Austen, but to his knowledge his was the only painting of her.

He believed the picture may have been commissioned by a wealthy great uncle to help improve her marriage prospects. Although only 14 at the time, girls married much earlier in the 18th century, he explained.

Rice said the painting captured Austen’s spirit.

“Her character was very much one of facing the world boldly and putting her best foot forward. She dressed very well and was fond of clothes.”

He decided to sell the painting in the hope that it could be seen by the public, instead of hanging in his home where it looked “out of place”.

“The big house it used to be in has gone, and we’ve finished our work and it needs a new home,” he said.

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