Life in the country

Book review: Life in the country, with quotations by Jane Austen [and] Silhouettes by her Nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh

For Austen fans, this book comes with some impressive credentials: published by The British Library in 2008 (first published in 2005 by A Room of One’s Own Press); edited by Freydis Jane Welland, the book’s creator and great, great, great, grandniece of Jane Austen; and Eileen Sutherland, former President of JASNA.  It has contributions by Maggie Lane, distinguished author and former Secretary of the Jane Austen Society; and Dr Joan Klingel Ray, first academic President of JASNA.  There is also an afterword by Joan Austen-Leigh, the co-founder of JASNA, who has published works based on the life, letters and literature of Jane Austen.

Maggie Lane provides a brief overview of Jane Austen and her family, covering familiar ground.  More interesting is Joan Klingel Ray’s “The Silhouette Art of James Edward Austen-Leigh”.  She notes “this exquisite art form, requiring considerable manual dexterity, is named after Etienne de Silhouette (1709-1767), French author and politician noted for his tight-fisted financial policies, whose hobby was cutting shadow portraits.  Although Monsieur de Silhouette would be an Austen character in the vein of General Tilney or John Dashwood, the art form named after him is known for its delicate and simple beauty.”  An irony, Ray suggests, that would not have been lost on Jane Austen.

Jane Austen silhouette

'L'amiable Jane' silhouette (identity unproven), attributed to Mrs Collins of Bath (Public domain, via Wikipedia)

Shadow portraits were cut in Europe as early as 600BC.  However, from the Regency period to the mid-1800s silhouettes were the height of fashion, until supplanted by the advent of photography.  Simple silhouettes were created by having the subject pose in light to form a shadow and then tracing the profile – e.g. ‘the popular silhouette of Jane Austen known as ‘L’aimable Jane’ is a hollow-cut silhouette made in this way.’  Cutting delicate silhouettes with scissors however is a true art form.

James Edward Austen-Leigh, always known as Edward, the only son of Jane Austen’s eldest brother James, showed early artistic talent.  He would amuse his sisters, and later his children, by cutting out and painting true-to-life packs of hounds, printing their names on the blank side.  The first time his little sister Caroline saw a real pack of hounds “she ran around to look for their names on the other side.”

Edward was an avid hunter and sportsman, immersed in country pursuits from an early age.  The Chutes of The Vyne, Hampshire were close neighbours of his parents and grandparents.  William Chute was Master of The Vyne Hunt, with which Edward often hunted when he was a curate at Newton.  In 1828 Edward married Emma Smith, one of Mrs Chute’s nieces.  In the mid-1830s he was forced into inactivity, having to remain indoors for a lengthy period with a throat ailment.  Unable to participate in his beloved clerical life and sporting pastimes he turned to a new occupation, “which he carried to perfection.  This was cutting out figures and scenes from natural life in black paper.”

Edward’s daughter, Mary Augusta, in a Memoir of her father, recalls “He never drew his pictures, but cut them out by eye, and they are wonderful for their accuracy, grace, variety and observation of nature.  I never saw or heard of anything like them.  ……. He used special scissors, the points being about an inch long, and the curved handles about three inches.  These and a sheet of black paper were his only tools.”

Familiar Jane Austen quotations, well chosen by Eileen Sutherland, accompany each illustration, but Edward’s talent is the real star here.  Edward’s silhouettes are preserved in a fine hand-tooled leather album.  In this charming, albeit lightweight coffee-table book, 120 beautiful miniature art works are reproduced for all to enjoy.  The list of acknowledgements includes an appreciation “to Janeites everywhere for their enjoyment of all things Jane, including the ‘light, bright and sparkling’”.

All very well, but I do think in this case Edward’s artistic talent deserves top billing in the title.

[Note on image: This silhouette was found pasted in volume 2, of a second edition of Mansfield Park, with the inscription ‘L’amiable Jane’. It is now held by the National Portrait Gallery. Its identity is “absolutely not proven” (Robert Walker, Regency portraits, 1985). For more discussion on images of Jane Austen, see Margaret Kirkham’s essay “Portraits” in Cambridge University Press’s Jane Austen in Context]

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