The immediate sense of recognition we feel looking at a pastel portrait by Melissa Dring (featured in the June 2016 issue of Pastel Journal) may well be influenced by another side of the English artist’s life: her work as a police forensic artist. And one part of Dring’s art-making in which she has been able to combine her skills in forensic drawing and portraiture to intriguing effect is when she has undertaken to make a likeness of a historical figure of whom no portrait exists: English novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817).
Her first foray into this field was when she was asked to produce a portrait of the Italian composer, Vivaldi (1678-1741). Since there are no reliable portraits of the composer, a filmmaker preparing a documentary on him asked Dring to work up an image. Using one quick sketch made during the composer’s lifetime, augmented with written accounts of his appearance, the artist produced a painting that was embraced by the filmmaker and his backers. This work led to a commission to make a portrait of Austen, which has received considerable acclaim. The painting has all the lively immediacy of a Dring fine art pastel portrait made from life, but its construction was the result of meticulous research and much thought.
“David Baldock, director of the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, approached Scotland Yard, who recommended me,” says Dring. “Dave had already heard of my work on Vivaldi and asked me to take on the commission. He needed me to apply my police forensic methods and my portrait skills to making a new Austen portrait, as she might have looked in her late 20s, during her time in Bath from 1801 to 1806.”
As was the case with Vivaldi, there are no undisputed likenesses of Jane Austen. “In both cases sketches survive, as well as a wealth of character and personality eyewitness accounts,” the artist says. “In 1810, Jane, perhaps a little reluctantly, allowed her adored elder sister Cassandra, an amateur artist, to make a tiny pencil and watercolor drawing of her.”
Unfortunately this sketch was never considered a true likeness. “The family never liked it and I always think it makes her look as if she’s been sucking lemons. It hardly represents the image one associates with Jane, the lively and witty young woman who gave us stuck-up Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice and the air-brained Mrs. Bennett. However, Jane, unlike the rest of her large family, never let anyone else draw or paint her, and apart from a tiny black-and-white silhouette, and a back view, that’s all we have to go on.”
Dring launched into considerable research to refine her sense of Austen’s appearance. “I searched for likenesses of the other Austens, starting with her parents with their long distinguishing noses,” she says. “Luckily we have images of all her siblings and there’s a silhouette of Cassandra.”
The artist was also mindful of the social class and practical qualities of the author. “Jane grew up in a country parsonage, before her years in Bath, and though she was a romantic, she wasn’t at all sentimental. She knew all about killing the family pig, brewing beer for the household—much safer than drinking water—and coping with her nieces’ fleas in her bed when they visited. All mentioned in her letters.”
Dring carefully researched Austen’s dress for the pastel portrait, choosing a red-spotted muslin that Jane herself mentioned buying in a letter to her sister. She then visited the National Trust collection of historic costumes to ensure that the dress style and construction were authentic. But perhaps, in the end, the most authentic feature of the Austen portrait is the expression of the sitter.
“Above all else, I wanted to bring out something of Jane’s lively and humorous character so evident in her writing,” says Dring. “Her expression is a complex one of delightful private amusement. She’s going to poke fun at some pomposity somewhere, or she’s planning to send Marianne off with Willoughby or some other mischievous plot. She’s still, but underneath that cap she’s seething with ideas.”
By John A. Parks (johnaparks.com)
Read more about Melissa Dring in the June issue of Pastel Journal, which is available now at northlightshop.com in print or as an instant download, and on newsstands May 10.
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