Picturing Jane Austen (1775–1817) has never been easier. With her image set to grace the ten-pound note in 2017, millions will daily confront the face that launched a thousand sequels. The portrait chosen is largely a fantasy, but it doesn’t seem to matter. It is the face we recognize. Cheerfully redrawn long after her death, this is a more regular, youthful, and pensive version than the tiny pencil and watercolor on which it was based. That original likeness – a pinched-lipped, middle-aged visage sketched by her sister, now housed in the National Portrait Gallery – is apparently not how we want to imagine Austen, at least not when paying cash.
The name ‘Jane Austen’ also conjures up images beyond a face. You may envision your favourite copy of Pride and Prejudice, for instance. But chances are the picture in your mind’s eye is of an actor playing an Austen character, perhaps Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet or Billie Piper as Fanny Price, or, if you are of a certain age, Alan Rickman as Captain Wentworth, or, even more likely, Colin Firth as the iconic Mr. Darcy. It is difficult for most of us to read or reread Austen’s novels without sometimes seeing these faces as we turn the page.
The original mass medium for picturing Austen’s fiction in this manner was, of course, book illustration. Austen’s six novels, published between 1811 and 1818, first appeared unillustrated. Five years after her death, frontispieces emerged in unauthorized translated editions on the Continent. The first illustrated English edition waited until 1833. Over the next century and a half, more than 150 were published. This means that at least a third of editions printed before 1975 included some sort of illustration, exclusive of book covers and jackets, yet we have studied them only cursorily.
The few essays we have on the subject emphasize its heyday in the 1890s. It is certainly understandable. Once you’ve seen the so-called Peacock edition of Pride and Prejudice (1894), with Hugh Thomson’s 160 illustrations, everything else pales in comparison. Thomson, who might be called the Colin Firth of Austen illustration, eventually saw his own name, not Austen’s, gracing her novels’ covers. As Kathryn Sutherland writes, ‘these were his books, not Austen’s.’ Today Thomson’s illustrations are dismissed as dainty, quaint, and sentimental, but the Peacock edition created a sensation, selling 25,000 copies in a dozen years.
Venturing beyond Thomson, our knowledge of the illustrated Austen takes a nosedive, especially in the case of the pioneering 1833 edition. Sometimes mistakenly called the first illustrated Austen, Richard Bentley’s Standard Novels edition was rather the first British one. By the time the series ended in 1854, the Standard Novels would number 126 titles. Each volume featured two illustrations – a steel-engraved frontispiece and a title-page vignette, flanked by captions using quotations. Bentley, who had cannily purchased the copyright to Austen’s novels when her popularity was at its lowest ebb, brought them out one by one, later issuing them as a set. The republication of his five-volume Austen (Northanger Abbey and Persuasion shared one) meant that ten fictional scenes were put before reading audiences. These scenes delivered the first visual impressions that British readers would have of Austen’s fiction. Frequently reprinted until the 1890s, these illustrations enjoyed a reign almost as long as Queen Victoria’s.
The illustrations were designed, as signed, by ‘Pickering’ and engraved by ‘Greatbatch.’ Greatbatch was the noted engraver William Greatbatch (1802–72). Pickering has previously been described either as an unknown Mr. Pickering or as ‘probably George Pickering ca. 1794–1857.’ George is the only artist Pickering in the Dictionary of National Biography, which may be what led Austen scholar-bibliographer David Gilson to this provisional attribution. Unfortunately, Gilson’s ‘probably’ slid in many sources into a definitive identification. It is, however, in error.
The right Pickering—the first English illustrator of Jane Austen—was Ferdinand Pickering (1810–89). His identity has been hiding in plain sight. He completed designs for a fifth of Bentley’s Standard Novels, signing some as ‘F. Pickering.’ He illustrated fiction by William Beckford, James Fenimore Cooper, Elizabeth Inchbald, and Jane Porter, as well as Edward Bulwer Lytton’s bestseller Paul Clifford (1830), famous for its first line, ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’ Pickering’s designs are perfectly suited to that tempestuous ethos, depicting climactic moments of shock and terror. His human figures are so wide-eyed that they now seem almost comic. The same must be said of his penchant for small, elegantly placed feet.
Pickering illustrates decisive moments of looming crisis in Austen, such as Northanger Abbey’s heroine Catherine Morland caught snooping in off-limits apartments by hero Henry Tilney. The focus is on two or three figures, never larger groups or crowds. Pickering represents Austen’s heroines alongside other women, rarely heroes. Just two illustrations feature romantic couples, and only one, Emma’s vignette, shows a declaration of love. Pickering’s designs for Sense and Sensibility, for example, focus solely on female characters’ difficulties. The frontispiece depicts Lucy Steele’s flaunting her miniature portrait of Edward Ferrars to Elinor Dashwood. It is one of the novel’s moments of greatest surprise and pain. The title-page vignette depicts another agonizing moment, Marianne Dashwood’s life-threatening fever. Her bedclothes and cap are draped as carefully as the curtains and counterpane, but the focal point is her raving, wide eyes. One hand is wildly outstretched, as Elinor restrains her. The quotation is ‘Marianne, suddenly awakened by some accidental noise in the house, started hastily up and with feverish wildness, cried out, “Is mamma coming?”’ Pickering’s Marianne looks every inch the stereotype of someone who has seen a ghost.
A couple of Pickering’s designs also capture Austen’s humour. In the frontispiece to Emma, heroine Emma Woodhouse draws her protégée Harriet Smith’s portrait. Suitor Mr. Elton hovers over Emma’s shoulder, Emma studies Harriet, and Harriet – doing her best Sarah Siddons as Tragic Muse – looks either vacuously out the window or surreptitiously over at Mr. Elton. For those familiar with Austen’s plot, Pickering’s image dramatizes the absurdity of their love triangle, all three mistaking the others’ feelings and intentions.
Pickering’s illustrations provide a window onto what early readers might have had in their heads on first looking into Austen’s novels. The illustrations prime readers for stories of young women, female rivals, and family conflict, especially in intimate settings, not necessarily stories of marriageable heroes or the wider social scene. This set of expectations seems a world away from today’s preconceptions of a novelist who writes about suitors rising out of lakes in wet shirts. Pickering’s Austen illustrations also cemented her fiction to the fashions and hairstyles of the 1830s, rather than the 1810s or earlier. Scholars often deride nineteenth-century illustrators for putting characters into the clothing of the artist’s day, but this was perfectly common practice. In Austen’s case, however, such costuming may have set the stage for generations of readers linking her with the likes of Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot. Pickering’s widely circulating images, by projecting Austen’s characters into the 1830s, may have done their part to shape her image as a Victorian.
After his commission for Bentley, for which he was paid very modestly, Pickering left little further imprint on art history. Dictionaries of Victorian painting mention him briefly, noting that he flourished at mid-century in genre and historical subjects. He also dabbled in portraiture. The newly famous Charles Dickens sat for him, in a work lost or never completed. Dickens mentions Pickering in an 1838 letter, telling his correspondent he’s ‘writing under the soothing influence of Mr. Pickering, the author of that meek portrait still unfinished.’ A year later, things are less sanguine, with Dickens disparaging him as ‘Pickering the snobbish’ and the portrait-in-progress as ‘his practical joke against me.’
A late nineteenth-century Notes and Queries paragraph describes Pickering as ‘a life student at the Royal Academy and artist of divers frontispieces and vignettes to some of the novels of half a century ago, who came from an old Yorkshire family.’ The ‘life student’ part deserves unpacking first. In 1840, his Bentley Standard Novels assignments at an end, twenty-nine-year-old Pickering entered the Royal Academy Schools, and, it is said, never left them. He did not have to. Training, which lasted for ten years, involved no fees, only one’s own art materials. If a student were awarded two medals in annual competitions – as Pickering was in 1847 and 1849 – he then won the right to a ‘life studentship,’ a category abolished by the 1880s.
The life of a proto-Van Wilder at the Royal Academy Schools had its privileges and pains. Later in life, Pickering became a focal point for pranks. George Dunlop Leslie’s memoir mentions fellow students’ cruelty, admitting, ‘We were, I fear, rather unkind to him, playing off jokes of all sorts and setting booby traps for him.’ The Schools, before the admission of women in the 1860s, fostered a lad-culture environment. Students were ‘left entirely without control or supervision’ and ‘quarrels ending in stand-up fights would not infrequently take place,’ according to Richard Ormond. Visiting teachers were paraded in and out and made little impact. Pickering spent his entire adult life in this atmosphere, while sharing a home in High Street, Camden Town, with his military widow mother and various siblings.
Although he did not go on to make a great name for himself in the art world, Pickering ended up with a greater number of authenticated portraits than Austen. That is because when historical painter and academician Charles West Cope took a visiting teaching rotation at the Schools in the 1860s, he completed sketches of students at work. Pickering appears in them as an exceptionally eye-catching figure—an intense, dishevelled person, near-sighted, hair wild. One drawing suggests he was not quiet as he worked, as fellow students give a side-eye or turn to stare. Pickering seems tall, awkward, and uncertain how to manage his elbows and knees, which almost touch each other as he looks through his glass onto his canvas.
Pickering may have had good reason to hold tightly onto his life studentship. In 1850, London newspapers reported the lurid story of a well-dressed, thirty-six-year-old man, a linguist, accused of stabbing his mother in the neck and face. The alleged assailant was Richard Pickering, son of Josephine Pickering. Offering evidence about the assault was another son, ‘Frederick’ Pickering, of High Street, Camden Town, an artist. This was certainly Ferdinand. ‘Frederick’ reports that just after his mother called him down to breakfast, he heard her scream, ‘Murder!’ Richard had come after her with a table knife, inflicting deep head and throat wounds, reputedly because she had accused him of indolence. ‘Frederick’ found his mother on the stairs and called for help. She survived, and it doesn’t appear Richard was sentenced.
Younger brother Charles Pickering was not so lucky in his own run-in with the law. Newspapers record ‘a gentlemanly looking young man, an artist and author’ pleading guilty to bigamy and doing six months’ hard labour in 1867. It was alleged that he had previously been in the court for assaulting his unlawful second wife. With these details in mind, we might wonder if Ferdinand Pickering had biographical reasons for illustrating literary characters in scenes dark and stormy. His depictions of intimate conflict in Austen’s novels may have been informed by and filtered through the torrid lives closest to his own.
Perhaps it is only fitting that after he died, Pickering would become a fictional character. William de Morgan, a pre-Raphaelite ceramicist, turned late in life to fiction writing, publishing the loosely autobiographical Alice-for-Short in 1907. His eccentric character, J. W. Verrinder, is described as an ‘Art-student of sixty-odd,’ ‘a strange connecting link with the past . . .dating back almost if not quite to the days of Fuseli.’ ‘His name,’ de Morgan writes, ‘occurs at the corner of copperplate illustrations of the days of our Grandmothers. . . Instances of female beauty called invariably Belinda, Zoe, Fanny . . . By what slow decadence the unhappy artist had dwindled to his present position, Heaven only knew!’
The extent to which Pickering’s life was mirrored in Verrinder is impossible to determine. De Morgan’s sister-in-law and biographer acknowledges that the novel featured fictional composites of real people, pointing directly to parts of Verrinder as derived from Pickering. De Morgan and Pickering knew each other as students at the Royal Academy Schools, but the novel suggests even greater intimacy. Alice-for-Short opens with a mother who is assaulted with a hammer on her head and neck. She screams ‘murder’ and is assisted by an artist who lives upstairs. It may be more than a coincidence that De Morgan’s wife, the noted pre-Raphaelite painter Evelyn De Morgan, was née Pickering, although I have yet to establish a degree of relationship.
Pickering’s Austen illustrations were surprisingly enduring, despite the fact that long before his death, he had become an unknown Mr. Pickering. Rediscovering his signature compels us to revise our understandings of Austen’s early reputation and how it took root. Pickering’s designs were informed by later fiction, preparing audiences for a sensational and subtly humorous Victorian Austen. Resurrecting him and his illustrations turns our attention to an aspect of Austen-image making too haphazardly considered in previous studies of her afterlife: how nineteenth-century popular media shaped, and even enhanced, her legacy in ways that anticipate the zombies, vampires, and – next up – guinea pigs of today’s Austen.
When Ferdinand Pickering died a bachelor in 1889, at age seventy-nine, his estate totalled just over £1200, a puzzlingly large figure for a man whose death certificate shows he passed away in the workhouse. His money was left to his only next of kin, a sister Caroline, wife of François Monnerat of Vevey, Switzerland. She must have been well off. Unless there was more than one man by that name in Vevey, Caroline’s husband was a successful businessman. He had already launched a venture with a Swiss entrepreneur named Henri Nestlé, a connection that links Jane Austen’s legacy – however elliptically – to infant formula and chocolate chips. You can almost picture her on the advertisements.
By Devoney Looser