Jane Austen is a central figure in the literary psyche of the UK (and the English speaking world). It seems a gross omission that there is no official portrait statue or monument to Jane Austen in Britain. I was a latecomer to the delights of the Austen books due to a misguided antipathy to the seemingly frivolous, ornate language of the Bennetts and Bingleys. I stand corrected and have unequivocally joined the horde of fans, made pilgrimage to Chawton and read biographies of Jane. The chance to make a sculpture of her for Winchester Cathedral, where Austen is buried, was too good to miss.
My intention was to extrapolate from Cassandra Austen’s miniature watercolour drawing in the National Portrait Gallery to make a sculpture. The drawing by Austen’s sister is the only known direct image of her face that can be authenticated. While it has the hallmarks of an amateur artist’s lack of skill, it contains a real impression of the author. I wanted the sculpture to be recognisable from it, even at the risk of leaving stiff amateur elements in.
I searched for information of detailed forms to use from family resemblances in the good portraits and profiles of her immediate family. There are also contemporary descriptions of Jane: ‘a tall thin spare person, with high cheekbones great colour – sparkling Eyes not large but joyous and intelligent’. Some texture on the cheeks alludes to the ‘high colour’ described by several.
I started modelling a small head of Austen at my kitchen table whilst abroad in Italy, carving the Sydney statues. I was forced to tip the head backwards to read the forms of the face in the light. It soon became apparent that the head was far too small and should be monumental. The title came into being because somehow the tipping back reminded me of the title of a painting by Stanley Spencer called John Donne Arriving in Heaven. The thought of what Jane Austen, a perceptive observer, might see in Heaven was delicious. Also exhibited at Winchester Cathedral, the sculpture would be looking up at the heavenly ceiling.
An image of the head of Jane Austen is the frontispiece in the American scholar Juliette Wells’ book ‘Everybody’s Jane’. She first saw the sculpture exhibited at Winchester Cathedral.