'New' Jane Austen portrait unearthed by author

Image from Jane Austen: The Unseen Portrait? Austen died in 1817 at at the age of 41

A British author is claiming to have unearthed a previously unseen portrait of Pride And Prejudice writer Jane Austen.

Dr Paula Byrne, the author of a new book on Austen, was given the portrait by her husband and recognised the long, straight "Austen nose".

There are currently just two recognised portraits of Austen - one sketched by her sister Cassandra in 1810.

The find is the subject of a BBC Two documentary scheduled for Boxing Day.

Byrne - who has previously written books on poet Mary Robinson and author Evelyn Waugh - was presented with the portrait by her husband, Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate, who had bought it at auction.

The pencil drawing on vellum is inscribed "Miss Jane Austin" on the back. Byrne insists that "apart from the striking family resemblance", this was the first clue as to the identity of the sitter.

It remains a mystery why the picture, which is thought to have been drawn around 1815, has not been authenticated before.

This pencil portrait of a stern-looking regency woman was given to Dr Paula Byrne by her husband on April Fools Day.

He had purchased it from a well-known specialist, who was selling because an Austen expert had told him the image was not authentic. Dr Byrne thought differently and her efforts have led to several eminent experts concurring with her view, that it is a genuine portrait of Jane Austen.

The fact of the matter is that we will never know. There is only one portrait of Jane Austen that has never been contested, which was produced by her sister Cassandra, and shows the author with her back to us and her head hidden by a bonnet.

Speaking to the BBC, Byrne said: "When Jane Austen was writing, she wrote her novels anonymously. People didn't really know who she was at all and even after her death, when her name appears in print for the first time, she's not at all popular."

The first image recognised as Austen was a watercolour painted by her sister. That sketch was then adapted for the front cover of her 1870 biography by artist James Andrews.

The portrait is described by Byrne as "very Victorian, sentimentalised and saccharine".

With a book on Austen ready for release, sceptics may suggest that the timing of the new find is beneficial publicity for Byrne.

However, she told the BBC's arts editor Will Gompertz: "We wanted to open up all possibilities and open all angles.

"We consulted various experts from art historians to fashion experts to forensic analysts and then we put our findings to three of the top Austen scholars in the world."

"Two out of the three do believe that this could be Jane Austen and it presents a very professional woman writer at the height of her creative powers.

"They believe it dates to about 1815, before Austen died in 1817."

Janice Hadlow, controller of BBC Two said the documentary "will be a fascinating chance for the audience to delve deeper into the life of one of Britain's best-loved authors".

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