What Jane Saw Back

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice attests to the alluring potential of portraiture. Upon visiting Pemberley, Elizabeth Bennet is “arrested” by a “striking resemblance” of the house’s owner, Fitzwilliam Darcy, who is painted “with such a smile over the face, as she remembered to have sometimes seen, when he looked at her. She stood several minutes before the picture in earnest contemplation, and returned to it again before they quitted the gallery.” (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice [1813], ed. by James Kinsley [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004], p. 189.) Four months after the publication of Pride and Prejudice, Austen visited the British Institution in Pall Mall to see a retrospective exhibition of works by the nation’s most celebrated painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds. Austen left no record of whether the portraits she saw inspired the kind of rapt contemplation felt by Elizabeth Bennet. However, we can now gain an insight into what she and the hundreds of other visitors to the exhibition may have experienced as they perused the 141 canvases on display. This is thanks to “What Jane Saw”: an online reconstruction of the exhibition, created by Professor Janine Barchas and a team from the University of Texas at Austin.

Drawing upon contemporary accounts of the exhibition, as well as pictorial representations and architectural records of the building that housed it, the makers of “What Jane Saw” have meticulously created a digital version of the exhibition as it would have appeared when Austen visited it two centuries ago. The paintings are hung according to the numerical sequence of the original 1813 Catalogue of Pictures, which also provides the physical dimensions of the canvases. The website’s creators have found images of all but three of the works originally displayed (a considerable success, given that changes in ownership have, in some cases, resulted in paintings being re-titled). Where good quality images were unavailable, early print reproductions have been substituted. This diligent electronic-curatorship is complemented by the site’s appealing visual aesthetic. Its styling and colour palette is based upon Thomas Rowlandson’s 1808 depiction of the Institute: the pink and grey walls lend the virtual space a warmth that softens the underlying digital precision.

When entering the site, visitors are presented with the North End of the North Room: there, royal authority is pitched against the power of celebrity, as full length portraits of George III and Sarah Siddons compete for the viewer’s attention. The recreation of such juxtapositions is one of the most intriguing aspects of the site. As the helpful “About WJS” section notes, the original positioning of the paintings was informed by a range of “hidden narratives”: “burdened by rumour and politics” the curators of the 1813 show “arranged the prominent sitters on the walls so as to maximise the celebrity appeal for visitors while minimizing any irritation for the paintings’ actual owners”. While these underlying narratives might have been obvious to the audience of 1813, they may be less apparent to users of “What Jane Saw”. However, simply clicking on each picture opens a virtual label, which contains an enlarged version of the image accompanied by information about the sitter and, in many cases, suggested further reading. These labels are also available by clicking on the titles of paintings within the original Catalogue of Pictures, which has helpfully been made available as a hypertext. The Catalogue also lists the owners of the paintings (giving their names equal billing with the titles of their paintings); it is perhaps a shame that the owners’ names are not similarly hyperlinked to further information about the individuals who were lucky (and wealthy) enough to possess these canvases. Nevertheless, the immediate accessibility of such a depth of information is one of the site’s major strengths. Moreover, while it has the potential to be a valuable educational resource, exploring the easily navigable virtual gallery is a genuinely engaging and enjoyable experience.

While the site is manifestly Austen-orientated, the creators of the project admit that “even if Jane Austen had not attended this public exhibit, it would still be well worth reconstructing”. Not only did the exhibition bring together the work of Britain’s most prominent painter, it attracted a range of prestigious visitors, including the Prince Regent, Lord Byron and Sarah Siddons (who would have experienced the uncanny sensation of coming face to face with a portrait of her younger self as the “Tragic Muse”, painted some thirty years earlier). When the original exhibition opened in 1813, it drew up to 800 visitors a day; two centuries later, “What Jane Saw” attracted some 30,000 unique visitors from 100 different countries in its first week. This popularity attests to the enduring desire to understand, and perhaps to inhabit temporarily, the world of Jane Austen. The original exhibition enjoyed a three-month run; “What Jane Saw” will surely have a longer life. It is an excellent example of how the digital humanities can provide us with imaginative and creative ways of engaging with the past.