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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Bunch of Grapes: the alleged 1781 Austen family portrait

The following is my first reaction to the following interesting blogpost:

Let me start by saying that I would love to think that this portrait is of the Austen family. However, I have a couple of problems. First, I’ve zoomed in on the portrait image, and I see nothing in the little girl’s left hand, just the five fingers of her open hand grasping toward the bunch of grapes (but as previously noted by someone in this current thread, being restrained by her elder sister). And the little girl’s right hand is on the table, next to something that vaguely resembles an actual horseshoe, but surely is not.

So where is the horseshoe nail supposed to be?

Second, I see nothing on the ground pointing to Edward Austen’s feet in his famous portrait (which I saw myself at Chawton House). I looked at the closeup on his feet, and I don’t see any nail. What am I missing?

As for the symbolism of the bunch of grapes held aloft by the boy, I strongly agree with the symbolic interpretation made by Mr. Roberts, whoever that boy is, the portrait does seem to be an allegorical depiction of his good fortune.

To that interpretation I add the following:

In Numbers, Chapter 13,prior to the entry by the Israelites into Canaan, Moses, as commanded by God, sends spies from every one of the tribes to go into Canaan and check it out in every way, including to see where good food might be found. In verses 23 & 24, we then read:

“And they came unto the brook of Eshcol, and cut down from thence a branch with one cluster of grapes, and they bare it between two upon a staff; and they brought of the pomegranates, and of the figs. The place was called the brook Eshcol, because of the cluster of grapes which the children of Israel cut down from thence.”

So there is in those Biblical verses, as in Herbert’s 16^th century pre-Shakespeare poem, the notion of abundance being discovered. In that same vein we might see Edward Austen as the “spy” sent by Moses, i.e., Revd. Austen, into “Canaan”, i.e., the world of English aristocratic wealth, which for Edward certainly (and eventually and much lessremuneratively, for the Austen women) was a promised land of milk and honey.

Of course, I think that JA saw Edward as a grown man as a Pharoah, and herself as one of the enslaved Israelites, but that is another story.

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S.: And I am sure it is just a very curious coincidence that in the completion of Sanditon by “Another lady”, we find the following passage right after JA’s fragment ends:

“[Charlotte, the heroine] moved her eyes to Clara [Brereton, the mysterious Jane Fairfaxian character] and saw that, with an air of indifference towards Sir Edward [Denham, the Frank Churchillian character], she was entertaining little Mary and helping her to a bunch of /grapes/. Charlotte had observed this studied lack of interest in Sir Edward….”

P.P.S:And for the heck of it, I mention also that The Bunch of Grapes is the name of Mistress Overdone’s brothel in Measure for Measure, which is the subject of conversation in the drolly comic scene in which a complaint is made to the local magistrate against a man named Froth by a goofy guy named Elbow, alleging that Froth had committed some sort of assault against the very pregnant Mrs. Elbow, in a fracas arising out of a dispute over some stewed prunes. Does this suggest that the painting also carries _that_ allegorical significance, e.g., raising a question as to the boy's legitimacy? That is another question entirely.

1 comment:

Jane Odiwe said...

Hi Arnie,
I've been an admirer of your blog for a long time- thank you for stopping at my blog to add a link to your thoughts.
I'm really sorry you can't see the nail at Edward's feet-at the point where his feet touch-you should be able to see it a little way ahead on the ground. I'd be happy to send you a larger jpg. if you could contact me at the top left of my page by email. It is very clear in the portrait, and I have been given the close up by the people who were partly responsible for its recent restoration.
It is possible to see that 'Jane' is holding something, which Mr. Roberts believes could be a horseshoe nail, but I'm sure as in any puzzle-solving whether artistic or literary, this is open to interpretation.
If you look to the right of the girl's thumb, you will see what could be the head of the nail. He wanted to share the picture, and see what anyone else thought about it, and I think his allusions and ideas are very thought-provoking. I'm not sure it's going to answer all our questions, and I'm sure it will start much debate, but I, for one, am so glad he chose to share it with us all.
Please do let me know if you'd like larger pictures-I'd be very happy to send them, and then you can decide for yourself.