In May 1813 Jane Austen visited a retrospective exhibit of the works of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), England’s great portrait painter. That moment is now recreated in an online exhibition called What Jane Saw, one of the first great blockbuster museum shows.
It’s a great use of some new technology to give us insights into the past. The gallery, in a building that was subsequently demolished, was recreated using the 3-D modeling software SketchUp, based on precise measurements recorded in an 1860 book. This primary source material was a twenty page pamphlet that was sold during the exhibition, listing 141 painting. With this starting point, the researchers added narrative accounts in nineteenth-century newspapers and books, and precise architectural measurements of the British Institution’s exhibit space.
Now, what makes this so interesting? It provides relationships that a simple catalogue would not. For example, portraits of the prince regent and his mistress were discreetly kept apart. On the other hand, should we read anything into the portrait of George III hanging near the painting based on Shakespeare’s mentally unstable King Lear?
Of course, who can resist the Jane Austen connection? In a letter to her sister Cassandra, Austen joked how she would be searching for a portrait of Mrs. Darcy among these pictures.