2017 marks the 200th anniversary of the death of the universally admired author Jane Austen – and Hampshire is holding a year long series of events to celebrate her creativity and talent.
The centrepiece of the celebrations will be the exhibition The Mysterious Miss Austen, which opens on May 13, and runs until July 24, at The Gallery in Winchester Discovery Centre. At its heart are five portraits of Jane – all together under one roof for the very first time.
Presented in partnership with Jane Austen’s House Museum, this landmark exhibition will explore Jane’s life, work and her relationship to Hampshire. The county was not only Jane Austen’s birthplace – as well as where you can visit her grave today – but its people, landscape and the society in which she moved provided inspiration for her novels, classics such as Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility.
The exhibition will include around 80 items, including paintings, watercolours, prints, illustrations, manuscripts, letters, clothing and other objects – all generously loaned from private and public collections in the UK and abroad. But it is the five portraits that is already attracting the headlines.
The pencil and watercolour sketch of Jane by her sister Cassandra Austen (circa 1810) and the hollow cut silhouette by an unknown artist from circa 1810-15 will be familiar to many from their usual home in the National Portrait Gallery, London. However, the three other portraits, all from private collections, will probably not be known to visitors: one has not been seen in public for more than 40 years; and another is the 1869 James Andrews watercolour over pencil portrait of the author, made famous after her nephew’s biography of his aunt, published in 1870.
Among other treasures on show in The Mysterious Miss Austen will be the manuscript of an alternative ending to her final novel Persuasion in her own hand, on loan from the British Library. Persuasion, which deals with love lost and second chances, was written in 1815/16 when Austen’s health was failing (it was published posthumously in 1818).
The two chapters which will be on display in Hampshire are the only surviving manuscript pages of a novel Jane Austen planned and completed for publication. She subsequently became dissatisfied with this first ending and rewrote the chapters in the published form we have them today. But this first ending offers visitors a chance to glimpse in intimate detail the novelist at work.
Another manuscript on loan from The British Library is a volume of teenage writings, entitled by Austen Volume the Second and written when she was just 16 years old. Among the items in Volume the Second is the spoof History of England, a comic account of England from Henry IV to Charles I as told by ‘a partial, prejudiced, & ignorant historian’. This parody of published history books includes coloured illustrations by Jane’s sister Cassandra.
The exhibition will feature her silk pelisse coat – a twill weave with a small repeated pattern of oak leaves in a golden straw colour on a warm brown background (the design dates it circa 1813-15). The Mysterious Miss Austen will also include her purse and her case for sewing materials.
Other fascinating loans include a rare, photo-illustrated copy of American writer Oscar Fay Adams Story of Jane Austen from 1897 which is travelling to Winchester from Goucher College, Baltimore, along with other items from its Jane Austen Memorabilia Collection.
First editions of her works and fascinating personal letters, early illustrations for her works and images of Winchester in the early 19th century, plus items of the kind Jane would have experienced in her day to day life will all complete this fascinating survey of the renowned writer.
Bringing a contemporary view, Grayson Perry’s Jane Austen in E17 ceramic vase (2009, Manchester City Art Gallery) is evidence of her lasting legacy and influence on the arts.
The Mysterious Miss Austen is jointly curated by Louise West, former curator of Jane Austen’s House Museum and chair of the Jane Austen 200 working group, and Professor Kathryn Sutherland from Oxford University, a leading Austen scholar.
Louise West says “The bringing together for the first time of 5 portraits of Jane Austen will, we hope, provoke reaction and excite argument, about the mysterious Miss Austen. This is a new way of exploring Austen’s identity and we are thrilled to be sharing this opportunity with the public”.
Professor Kathryn Sutherland says “If you think you know Jane Austen, think again! Jane Austen is our most intimate writer – the writer we each feel speaks to and for us – and yet we know so little about her. What we do know is built upon ambiguities, contradictions and paradox: even how she looked is something of a mystery. ‘The Mysterious Miss Austen’ will celebrate and challenge the reputation of our best-known, unknowable writer”.
The Mysterious Miss Austen at The Gallery in Winchester Discovery Centre runs from May 13 to July 24. Entrance is free.
During 2017 there will also be smaller scale, sister exhibitions on the life and works of Jane Austen in Hampshire at the Gallery at Gosport Discovery Centre The Navy at the Time of Jane Austen: Fighting, Flirting and Fortune, from July 15 to September 20), and the Sainsbury Gallery at Basingstoke’s Willis Museum (Jane Austen in Basingstoke: Retail and Romance, Jane Goes To The Ball from July 29 to October 7).
These exhibitions are just a small handful of the events taking place in Hampshire for ‘JaneAusten200’. For furtherinformation visit www.janeausten200.co.uk; and for all tourist information, visit www.visit-hampshire.co.uk.