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The mind’s construction…

25 July 2013

Peter Brooks Jane AustenPeter Brookes’s delightful cartoon in today’s Times sends up so many of the recent themes in this blog that I cannot resist including it. Of course it is sensible for the Bank of England to include famous women on the banknotes it issues, although I wasn’t sure that the omission needed to be rectified with quite the urgency that Mark Carney evidently thought it deserved. I was intrigued that Mr Carney, in interview, thought the bank “published” its notes. Perhaps he attached importance to the information it included (the promise to pay is after all part of his job description, but its appearance is too well known to constitute publication). If so he may have been referring to the quotation that is to appear below Austen’s portrait, “I declare after all that there is no enjoyment like reading.” One wonders if this was plucked from a dictionary of quotations, as no one at the Bank seems to have realised that it was used ironically. Here is the passage, from Pride and Prejudice (chapter 11):

Miss Bingley’s attention was quite as much engaged in watching Mr Darcy’s progress through his book, as in reading her own; and she was perpetually either making some inquiry, or looking at his page. At length, quite exhausted by the attempt to be amused with her own book, which she had only chosen because it was the second volume of his, she gave a great yawn and said, “How pleasant it is to spend an evening in this way! I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! – When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.” No one made any reply. She then yawned again, threw aside her book, and cast her eyes round the room in quest for some amusement…

One hopes that the Bank of England’s new-found support for women’s rights will be more profound than Caroline Bingley’s interest in literature, but their concern may well outlast the attention span of many they are anxious to appease in this gesture.

Peter Brookes’s cartoon of course reminds us of the Taliban view of female literacy and education. It is unfortunate that Vince Cable chose to use so silly a label to apply to the regulators attempting to do the job he and his colleagues have so spectacularly failed to complete. He would have had more mileage with the Cavalier/Roundhead analogy.

You have already heard enough from me on the government’s failure to enact real protection from the banking sector. But there is one thing the Brookes cartoon does tell us – about the difference between portraiture and iconography. A detail, of just the eyes and a curl of hair, are quite sufficient to identify the sitter, not because we know what Jane Austen looked like, but because we are familiar with the only authentic portrait of her, the sketch by her sister Cassandra, now one of the treasures of the National Portrait Gallery.

As an art historian specialising in portraiture, I find something quite discomfiting in the lack of correlation between the importance of sitters and the quality of their representation. My view is simple: a portrait is of interest (to me, at least) in proportion to its aesthetic merit. That doesn’t mean that knowledge of the sitter (and in particular his or her relationship with the artist) isn’t of interest – on the contrary I often find that attention to these aspects (too often neglected in some academic circles) can greatly inform our aesthetic response to the object. But I am a long way from the position of a national portrait gallery that has to select its acquisitions (and organise its catalogue) according to the sitter’s achievements in public life – or, worse, simple celebrity. To me that is only one step removed from those nineteenth century loan exhibitions where the catalogue was arranged by the social precedence of the lender. And what do you do if there is no portrait at all?

Nor should we confuse the aesthetic merit of a work of art with the pulchritude of the sitter: the cynical may well wonder what are George Eliot’s chances of appearing on the next banknote.

Let me leave the last word on Cassandra’s sketch to the author’s niece, Caroline Austen, writing much later (in a letter to her brother – after 1869):

The portrait is better than I expected – as considering its early date, and that it has lately passed through the hands of printer and engraver – I did not reckon on finding any likeness – but there is a look which I recognise as hers – and though the general resemblance is not strong, yet as it represents a pleasing countenance it is so far a truth.

And now of course, one universally…

From → Art history, Finance

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