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3 Oct 2014
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Plain Jane?

There is no definitive portrait of Jane Austen. No one knows exactly what she looked like. Whilst much has been written about her character and attributes, her 'real' appearance remains unclear.

Jane Austen fans all carry their own mental picture of what she looked like. Perhaps plain and mumsy or spireted and enigmatic?

At 2pm on Monday 16 December 2002, at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, forensic artist Melissa Dring will unveil her definitive portrait of Jane Austen. The new portrait will hang 'pride of place' at the Centre.

Having seen her work on Vivaldi, Melissa Dring was commissioned by David Baldock, director of the Jane Austen Centre, to produce a new portrait of the author as she might have appeared during her time in Bath, from 1801-1806.

Combining the insights of the professional portrait painter with those of the police forensic artist, Melissa was uniquely qualified to accept this challenge.

The full account of how Melissa researched how Jane Austen looked in her mid-30s and then produced a final portrait is in the first issue of Jane Austen's Regency World which is to be published in January 2003.

Melissa Dring's Portrait of Jane Austen is the only 'forensic' attempt to recreate an accurate picture of Jane Austen as an adult during the Regency period.

There is a gap left by the paucity of authenticated representations of Jane Austen - just a tiny pencil and watercolour sketch of the author in the National Portrait Gallery in London, by her elder sister Cassandra, and a steel engraving made from that portrait years later.

Cassandra, somewhat unhelpfully, also painted a back view of Jane Austen, and there are two silhouettes, popular in her day, one of which is said to be a self-portrait. There are no other undisputed likenesses of Jane.

So a new portrait of 186 years after the author left Bath is timely.

Fortunately for Melissa, there are wealth of written eyewitness accounts of Jane Austen, mainly from relatives, that survive.

"In person she was very attractive; her figure was rather tall and slender, her step light and firm, and her whole appearance expressive of health and animation. In complexion she was a clear brunette with a rich colour; she had full round cheeks, with mouth and nose small and well formed bright hazel eyes, and brown hair forming natural curls close round her face."
James-Edward Austen Nephew.

"..certainly pretty-bright & a good deal of colour in her face-like a doll-no that would not give at all the idea for she had so much expression- she was like a child- quite a child very lively & full of humour."
Mr. Fowle Family friend

"..her’s was the first face that I can remember thinking pretty,... Her hair, a darkish brown, curled naturally- it was in short curls round her face... Her face was rather round than long- she had a bright, but not a pink colour- a clear brown complexion and very good hazel eyes - ...before she left Steventon (The family moved on to Bath) she was established as a very pretty girl, in the opinion of most of her neighbours."
Caroline Austen Niece

Artist Melissa Dring was trained at the Royal Academy Schools, London as a portrait painter, and as a Police Forensic artist by the FBI in Washington, USA. She is a member of the Pastel Society UK, showing her work in the annual spring exhibition at the Mall Galleries, London.

She has a BSc Hons in Psychology of Facial Indentification and works freelance for police forces throughout the United Kingdom. She has also worked as a courtroom artist for TV news programmes.


National Portrait Gallery
Jane Austen Centre in Bath
Melissa Dring's website

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Cassandra Austen's portrait of her sister Jane.
Cassandra Austen's portrait of her sister Jane,
© National Portrait Gallery
Listen - A fresh face for an old author: we unveil what Jane Austen really looked like
Jane Austen as imagined by Melissa Dring.
Jane Austen as painted by Melissa Dring.
Jane Austen and artist Melissa Dring.
Melissa Dring with her portrait of Jane.
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