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Saturday, October 20

An Interview With Jane Odiwe On Writing and Painting About Jane Austen

A few weeks ago Jane Odiwe, author and artist, contacted me about her new venture, Lydia Bennet's Journal. One email led to another and Jane graciously agreed to be interviewed. Here then is her interesting and insightful take on illustrating and writing about Jane's life and novels.

1. Jane, you have such a wonderful light and deft touch with watercolours, a difficult medium at best: Have you always painted? And were you schooled? Where, and for how long?

I have painted as long as I can remember, sitting with my mother at the kitchen table. It was also a love of hers which she passed on to me. I went to art school in Sutton Coldfield, studying at Foundation level and then at Degree level in Birmingham, England, five years all together. Mine was an unusual degree, I was able to indulge my love of History, Art History and Literature whilst specialising in Fine Art. Watercolour and oils are my favourite medium.

2. Have you always been a Jane Austen fan? When did you first encounter her works?
I remember seeing the old black and white version of Pride and Prejudice on television when I was very young and dressing up in my mother's nightgown. I was very taken with the dancing at the time and all the fashion which I loved. I read the book later but I was inspired to re-read all of Jane's works after the lovely Pride and Prejudice production starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. I think Jane and Elizabeth were my mother's favourites, as my first names are Jane Elizabeth!

3. In order to create these works, you've had to combine a working knowledge of anatomy, history, historical places, Jane's biography, and an intimate knowledge of her writings. That is quite a feat. Why did you decide to embark on such a difficult and exacting project?
I have always enjoyed reading the biographies written about Jane Austen but there never seemed to be enough pictures and of course, one of the reasons is, that they simply don't exist. There is the little watercolour painting of Jane Austen in the National Portrait Gallery, the silhouette that is said to be of her and Cassandra's other painting of Jane, sitting with her back to us but they do not give us a real idea of what she looked like. I was intrigued by her letters and her romance with Tom Lefroy and the first painting I did was of them dancing together. I painted it for the sheer pleasure of 'seeing' them together; I think it was an attempt to depict her happiness at being with the young man she seemed to like best. All the written descriptions of Jane seem to bear little resemblance to Cassandra's painting; I wanted to see a younger Jane at the time when she experienced her first love and was starting to enjoy balls and attention from young men. I based Jane Austen's portrait on Cassandra's painting but I admit I wanted to see her smile. She had such a wonderful sense of humour, I wanted to try and show a happier Jane. I never thought of my Effusions of Fancy paintings in terms of an exacting project. I didn't expect anyone else would ever see them and they were a purely personal tribute. However, when I thought about putting the pictures into a book, I did want to try and change people's idea that Jane was a quiet spinster in a mob cap and I thought one of the ways I could do that was to attempt a painting of a younger woman with her hair dressed as though she is about to go dancing.
4. Regarding this painting of the Austen family, tell me a bit about your working process. I can see that you studied the actual paintings of each family member. How did you incorporate so many likenesses in one composition? Did you sketch each portrait separately first? Or did you work from an overall composition?
Because we only ever see the portraits of the family members by themselves, I wanted to picture the Austens all together around the table, showing them as the close family I believe them to have been. I started with the silhouettes of Mr and Mrs Austen. Silhouettes give us such a tantalising glimpse of a person without revealing the whole; I had no other reference for Mrs Austen but there is a lovely portrait of Jane's father, with his white hair, which helped enormously. I used my knowledge of figure drawing and many painting references to find bodies for the heads and tried to bear in mind what I had read about their characters. Henry, for example, is depicted in the only portrait that exists of him as being a very sober looking clergyman with receding hair. Everything I have ever read about him illustrates quite a different character; handsome, fun loving, slightly reckless and witty. I painted another portrait of Henry to see if I could find the 'handsome' Henry and incorporated this into the painting. Edward's portraits at Chawton are wonderful and I have studied them many times. I imagine Edward resembled his mother in looks and also has those ruddy cheeks which Jane is supposed to have had. Edward did not really grow up with the other children as he was sent to live with his richer relations and I wanted to indicate this; he is slightly aloof, not sitting with the immediate family but protective of his mother. Lovely Frank, the seafaring brother who took his mother and sisters into his home after Mr Austen died, has his arms around Henry and his sisters. I imagine him to have been very dependable and loving and wanted to portray this aspect of his character. James, the poet, I think was probably quite earnest and serious. I think he looks lost in his own thoughts. Charles, another sailor looks very dashing in the portraits I
have seen of him, I wanted to show him with a bit of a smile, as though he is about to laugh at something his mother has just said. Jane and Cassandra are talking to each other and laughing at some shared amusement. I really wanted to show how close they were, two young girls having fun and chatting, nineteen to the dozen. I used a painting and a silhouette said to be of
Cassandra for my painting, I believe she was a pretty girl. I would like to do another family portrait one of the days which tells another story, perhaps illustrating a well known event in their lives.

5. Do you feel that all your hard work in this area is paying off? If you knew then what you know now, what would you do differently?
I've 'met' so many lovely people as a result of producing my little book and cards, (many through my web site and from different countries) and for me this is my greatest pleasure. If someone writes to tell me that they have enjoyed my work, that is the biggest payoff for me. Other people's lives are always interesting to me and I like to keep in touch and hear their news.

I wouldn't do anything differently, I've enjoyed the whole process of creating the paintings but perhaps I would like to add or do different versions of the same ideas. It's essential to keep striving to improve and continue to study, I think. I would like to do a larger version of Effusions of Fancy with more paintings, perhaps telling the story of all of Jane's life. More time to accomplish everything I would wish would be lovely, but time has a habit of running away!

6. Is this a full time career? Or are you squeezing this extraordinary passion into an already full schedule?
It is a full time career, but I also work with my husband to help earn our bread and butter! He is a graphic designer and he often needs an illustration to help with his work. At this time of year I am usually to be found drawing Christmas trees, baubles, popping champagne bottles etc. for restaurant menus, Christmas cards and invitations etc. After Christmas, it's Valentine's day and so it goes on. I really enjoy this type of work. I am very lucky to be able to work with my husband, doing illustrations that I enjoy working on. I get a huge thrill out of seeing my work out in public.

7. Any advice you would give to budding authors/illustrators?
You need to be passionate about your work and have a tough skin. You will face many rejections and possible hurtful comments as well as enjoy success. Try to remember why you started on this journey in the first place, believe in what you do and don't give up, which is easy to say but not always easy to put into practice!

8. Aside from Lydia Bennett's Journal, what other projects are you currently working on?
I've just completed a little map for Deirdre Le Faye's book, Jane Austen's Steventon, which was a lovely job to do and at present I am putting together menus for the wonderful Scottish Branch Jane Austen Birthday Lunch in December.

I'm having a great time writing a new novel, which of course is another Jane Austen sequel. It is another 'Story' of one of Jane's characters but this time inspired by Sense and Sensibility. I hope this will be ready in the spring. I'm off to Devon soon to do some research. This is one of my favourite reasons for writing, although I often find it takes over!

In addition to all her other plans and activities, Jane wrote, "I'm also very excited to tell you that my Jane Austen illustrations are to be used in a documentary feature on the DVD of the Jane Austen Book Club. They asked to use about 16 of them, so I can't wait to see what they've done with them." We can't either, Jane! Read more about Jane Odiwe and see more of her illustrations on her website, Austen Effusions.

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