Can we ever really know what historical figures looked like?

What face do you see when you think of Jane Austen or Shakespeare? We might have images of these figures in our heads, derived from paintings, but what did they really look like, asks David Lister

Friday 06 August 2021 21:30
<p>Looks can be deceptive: Austen, Jesus and Shakespeare</p>

Looks can be deceptive: Austen, Jesus and Shakespeare

The Holburne Museum in Bath is this month mounting an exhibition around just one picture. The picture is a sketch of a woman who lived literally across the road from the museum, and it was drawn by her sister. OK, there’s a bit more to it than that. The picture is of Jane Austen, and the sketch by the novelist’s sister, Cassandra, is acknowledged to be the only accepted depiction of Austen. Arms folded and a little impatient-looking, the picture has adorned innumerable book covers, and when her name is mentioned, this is the image we immediately conjure up. And, of course, it is now the image on the £10 note.

But is this picture, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, a true likeness of Austen. The truth – whisper it softly around the museum and the NPG – is that we have no idea. For a start, Cassandra may have wished to flatter her sister and make her a little more attractive than she was. It’s equally possible that there was a bit of sibling rivalry at play, and Jane received a sterner persona than she displayed to the world. Also, was Cassandra even any good? Did she have the ability to sketch a true likeness? She has no real reputation as an artist beyond this one picture.

To add to the mystery, the sketch about to go on show in Bath, unsigned and unfinished, is also undated and unrecorded in the correspondence between the two sisters. After Austen’s death, her reputation grew, as did demand for a reliable portrait. Cassandra’s sketch was turned into an engraving, which Austen’s niece, Caroline, said depicted a “pleasing countenance”, crucially adding, “though the general resemblance is not strong”.

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