Monday 1 February 2010

"the little bit(two inches wide)of Ivory on which I work...."

A portrait of Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen,now in the National Portrait Gallery.This particular drawing was drawn on paper but it serves a similar purpose to those painted on ivory that Jane refers to.

Here is my picture of Jane's portrait .

An example of a miniature portrait painted in watercolours on an oval of ivory at the Victoria and Albert.
Another example of watercolour on ivory.
These two pictures can be found at the Victoria and Albert. There is a whole gallery devoted to miniature portraiture there.

Jane Austen wrote to her nephew, James Edward Austen, on Monday 16th December 1816. She congratulated him on leaving Winchester College and commiserated with him about his time there. Jane writes to him in terms of an equal in novel writing.

“Uncle Henry writes very superior sermons-You and I must try and get hold of one or two and put them into our novels.”

She is an aunt encouraging,  her nephew’s efforts. Then she explains the difference between Uncle Henrys writing and her writing; his is,
“strong, manly , spirited Sketches full of Variety and Glow.”
Hers is comparable to a,
“ little bit(two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour?”

It was the practice, in 1816, to paint miniature portraits in fine detail on thin slivers of ivory cut from elephant tusks. They were intended to not only show the likeness of the sitter but also to try and capture their personality.

Thirty one years after Jane wrote her letter, in 1847, Charlotte Bronte has Jayne Eyre using the miniature portrait as a sort of talisman or voodoo to expurge her feelings for Mr Rochester and her thoughts and feelings about Blanche Ingram. She decides to draw a self portrait in chalks on a piece of glass and a portrait in watercolours of Blanche Ingram on , “a piece of smooth ivory.”

Susan Pearce,who has researched the meaning of artefacts, says that objects not only carry messages from their conception and creation, but gain messages as the years and centuries pass. They are handled and used in different contexts and so have new histories and meanings attached to them.
We could say the same of Jane Austen's novels.


Pearce, Susan, Objects as meaning; or narrating the past.
In: Interpreting objects and collections.
Routledge 1994

Bronte,Charlotte, Jayne Ayre
Penguin Classics, London 2006

Le Faye, Deirdre (Ed) Jane Austen’s Letter’s (New Edition)
Oxford University Press 1997

The National Portrait Gallery

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