George Eliot: is this a new portrait of the author as a young woman?
Source:theguardian Author:Kathryn Hughes Date: 2017-05-12 Size:
In February last year a London picture dealer called Andrew……

The pastel sketch is thought to show Mary Ann Evans aged 25.

In February last year a London picture dealer called Andrew Sim was clicking through the online auction catalogue for a saleroom in South Oxfordshire, hoping that something might turn up while knowing that it probably wouldn’t. In among the wavy mirrors and scuffed-up sofas, his attention was caught by a chalk pastel portrait of a young woman. “My first thought was that it was from the 1840s – a period that interests me because it is so undervalued,” says Sim. More specifically it looked a bit like the work of George Richmond, the pre-eminent portrait painter of the period who did everyone from Charlotte Brontë to Charles Darwin. Richmond, though, was always more than a mere memorialist. Drawing on the grammar of physiognomy, his talent was for producing portraits in which the inner life of a sitter might be read from the cast of a glance, the bulge of a nose or tilt of the chin.

It was this psychological attention that flared off the picture that had caught Sim’s eye. The young woman in it is revealed as an individual, not a type. Her long face, big nose and flinty grey eyes are the opposite of the generic dolliness that passed for beauty in the early Victorian period. And then there is her kinetic vitality: hair slightly dishevelled, she appears to be perched on the edge of the sofa, as if she has just this moment sat down and might jump up again at any moment. And while her glance veers off to one side, you get the feeling that she is perfectly aware of the artist’s appreciative eyes resting on her. Portrait “taking” was the only occasion on which a respectable man might stare with impunity at a respectable woman and, in return, the respectable woman might feel pleased to be the object of his gaze. This woman looks pleased.

So it was with reluctance that Sim concluded that the picture wasn’t by Richmond after all. The technique was good but not good enough and the youth of the female sitter, not to mention her plain dress, made her an unlikely subject for a painter who charged £50 a go. But if the identity of the artist remained unclear, what about the sitter? Sim found himself tugged back again to that singular young woman with her sheeny intelligence. “My facial recognition software kicked in and I said to myself in a flash: “that’s a young George Eliot”. Convinced of his hunch, and hardly daring to believe that no other bidder had spotted the likeness to the author of Middlemarch, Sim bought the picture for £50, exactly what Richmond was charging 170 years earlier.

A drawing of Mary Ann Evans made by a friend who traced her profile.

Long-lost likenesses of 19th-century novelists have a habit of turning up in a fizz of excitement, only to fade away again when someone points out just why the thing is impossible. In 2012 and again in 2015 photographs of “the Brontë sisters” surfaced, quickly followed by a cacophony of commentators saying it couldn’t be them (the bonnets were wrong, the women looked French, one of them was far too old). Then, earlier this year, the so‑called “Rice portrait” of a young Jane Austen was declared to be of someone else entirely (something which the present owners dispute). In cases like these, the enthusiasts risk looking gushy and gullible and museum curators appear like spoilsports, refusing to venture an opinion unless there is a paper trail, showing an unbroken chain of custodianship back to the sitter or their family.

And that is something that Sim doesn’t have. Despite his best efforts, he has been unable to plot the provenance of his Eliot picture back before 2014 when it popped up on a market stall in Thame. From there it was bought by an elderly man in the hope it might be a Richmond. Realising it wasn’t, the disappointed owner consigned it to a local saleroom to take its chances amid the chipped china and exhausted sideboards.

Still, several Eliot scholars, myself included, think that there’s a good chance that this portrait is the real deal. For Nancy Henry, professor of English literature at the University of Tennessee and author The Life of George Eliot and The Cambridge Introduction to George Eliot, the picture “shows a remarkable resemblance to the famous photograph of Eliot, taken in 1858 when she was approaching 40, as well as to other portraits”. For me the clincher is how strikingly similar this saleroom portrait is to a drawing of the 28-year-old Eliot made by a friend who traced her shadowed profile, a technique popular with amateur artists who worried about their ability to catch a proper likeness. Here is the same long nose, generous mouth and jutting jaw. If the woman in Sim’s picture turned 90 degrees, you would say it was a match.

Mary Ann Evans is known to have fallen briefly and deliriously in love in the spring of 1845

So let’s set aside caution for a moment and imagine that this really is a portrait of Eliot. How and where could it have been made? The most promising hypothesis is that it is the work of the nameless young “picture restorer” with whom the young Mary Ann Evans – still years away from becoming George Eliot – is known to have fallen briefly and deliriously in love in the spring of 1845. We know from family letters that in March that year the young man had been staying at Baginton, a country estate just outside Coventry. Something about his “simple, earnest, unstudied” manner caught the eye of a local farmer’s wife, Fanny Houghton who wondered if the visiting artist might make a possible suitor for her half-sister Mary Ann, who was still worryingly and conspicuously single at the age of 25.

Mary Ann was duly summoned from her home in Coventry for a blind date. The result was a coup de foudre. Miss Evans breathlessly declared the picture restorer to be “the most interesting young man … and superior to all the rest of mankind”. The young picture restorer was equally “smitten”, describing Mary Ann as “the most fascinating creature he had ever beheld … a person of such superior excellent and powers of mind”. He asked permission to write to Evans as a formal suitor and she agreed, returning home to the suburban villa she shared with her retired father “brimful of happiness”.

The only problem, everyone agreed, was that picture restoring was “not lucrative or over-honourable” as jobs went. The young man was not what you would call a catch for the daughter of a self-made businessman. This discrepancy in social standing became even more apparent the following week when the young picture restorer went to visit Evans in Coventry for a second date and, like a fish out of water, suddenly appeared nervous, clumsy and shy. On the spot Mary Ann made up her mind that she “could never love or respect him enough to marry him” and wrote to break it off. It wasn’t easy though. Potential husbands were thin on the ground, and almost immediately, Evans wondered if she had been too rash. She toyed with the idea of starting the whole thing up again, fretting herself into a series of excruciating headaches.

A photograph of George Eliot taken in 1858.

The identity of the picture restorer has always puzzled scholars. Even Gordon Haight, the Yale professor and pioneering biographer who amassed all the key Eliot letters and journals in the mid 20th century, never got further than drawing up a shortlist of 15 possible names. But in 2009 Jacob Simon, chief curator at the National Portrait Gallery, went public with a new theory. Writing in the Times Literary Supplement he explained that he had a candidate for the role of Eliot’s lost lover, one whose name had not been previously been in the frame. George Barker, a picture restorer from Leamington, was exactly Evans’s contemporary. What’s more, he was employed on restoration projects in many of the great houses of England: Simon could show that Barker stayed at Baginton in 1841 and again in 1844, a few months before Evans was summoned to meet what she hoped would be her romantic destiny.

Since Simon first floated the idea that Barker was the young picture restorer who wanted to marry the young Eliot, more biographical information has come to light. Barker was christened in the strict Calvinistic branch of the Methodist church, yet by the time he was an adult he seems to have left behind the sect’s constricting straitjacket. Certainly his siblings regarded him as something of a black sheep, and on the 1881 census he is not recorded as living with his wife and daughter, suggesting a separation. This makes an intriguing parallel to Evans’s own spiritual and romantic career (in the context of the Victorian period the two things were inseparable). She too was disowned by her siblings when, having given up formal religion, at the age of 35 she went to live with George Henry Lewes, an author who had recently separated from his wife and children. Her proposed match with the free-thinking Barker sounds like a match made in an unbeliever’s heaven.

The possibility of the young picture restorer being responsible for the newly discovered portrait makes sense to me. This, after all, is not a full-blown oil painting but a chalk pastel sketch, the sort of thing easily completed within the adrenaline-driven two days that the tentative couple spent together. The technique, suggests Sim, is professional though not expert, exactly the kind of thing that a picture restorer employed to touch up old masters might manage. This also explains the debt to the acclaimed Richmond, whom a competent copyist might automatically take as his guide.

There is one last thing which, for those of us who want the portrait to be of Eliot, is a clincher. When Sim got it home and took it off its mount for cleaning he found that the painting extended further than he had initially realised. In its newly borderless state you can see the back of the sofa on which the young woman sits. On this rests an open book, which she has temporarily thrown down but has been careful to keep close enough so that it can be snatched up again at any moment. Books often appear in portraits of young women at this period, but they are mostly there as props or accessories, something to occupy slack hands or fill an awkward corner. Here, by contrast, it is presented almost as a sentient being, an essential companion. If this really is Evans, then the artist, whoever he is, has found the perfect object to place next to the woman who, as George Eliot, would one day change the reach and shape of English literature.

[Editor] 张艳

    Artintern