Portrait miniatures of the Digweed Family

Text by Maureen Stiller, Honorary Secretary, Jane Austen Society

Members of the educated Digweed family get several mentions in Jane Austen’s letters. The family had rented Steventon Manor and its estate since 1758. In Jane Austen’s time there were five Digweed sons; John, Harry, James, William-Francis, and (confusingly) Francis-William and, as the Manor is directly opposite Steventon church where Jane’s father had been rector, they were some of the Austens’ nearest neighbours.

These portraits were painted in May 1811 and are watercolour, gouache and bodycolour on ivory. They depict Francis-William Digweed, James Digweed, and his wife, Mary-Susannah Lyford. James had become the curate at Steventon in 1798. Susannah was cousin to Giles-King Lyford, the surgeon in Winchester who attended Jane Austen in her last illness.

The artist is George Jackson, who appears to have been an itinerant painter, “cold-calling” in the neighbourhood. He seems also to have painted Mary, the wife of Jane’s brother James, who had become rector of Steventon and was living in the former family home there.  Jane’s mother, Mrs Austen, thought it made Mary look “sour and Cross” (sic)! Unfortunately Mary had facial smallpox scars.

On very close inspection of the portrait of James Digweed, there appears to be a deliberate smudge above his left brow.  In a letter from Jane to her sister Cassandra in 1798, she writes “James Digweed has had a very ugly cut…..it happened by a young horse which he had lately purchased….the Animal kicked him down with his forefeet & kicked a great hole in his head…..”.  Regrettably, she does not say what part of the head; but could that little smudge be the scar from a 13 year-old injury?