Portrait miniature of Tom Lefroy

Object name: Portrait miniature of Tom Lefroy

Object number: CHWJA:JAH456

Category: Objects

Description: Portrait miniature of Tom Lefroy by George Engleheart, signed with the artist’s distinctive cursive ‘E’. The portrait is in watercolour on ivory, measuring 3 inches by 1¼ inches, set in a frame of the period. On the reverse of the frame are several locks of hair (not original).

In the portrait Tom is handsome, with powdered hair, deep blue eyes and a smile playing about his lips.

Only two versions of this painting are known to exist. The other (an unsigned version) is held by the Lefroy family.

Made: 1798

Context: Tom Lefroy was a young law student who visited Hampshire in 1795 to stay with his aunt and uncle in Ashe, near Steventon. He met Jane Austen at a ball in December 1795 and they began a flirtation, however their relationship lasted a matter of weeks as in January Tom returned to London to continue his studies.

Jane referred to Tom in two surviving letters to her sister Cassandra, who was staying at Kintbury:

‘You scold me so much in the nice long letter which I have this moment received from you, that I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. I can expose myself, however, only once more, because he leaves the country soon after next Friday, on which day we are to have a dance at Ashe after all. He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you. but as to our having ever met, except at the three last balls, I cannot say much; for he is so excessively laughed at about me at Ashe, that he is ashamed of coming to Steventon, and ran away when we called on Mrs. Lefroy a few days ago.’
Jane to Cassandra, Saturday 9 January 1796

‘At length the day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, and when you receive this it will be over. My tears flow as I write at the melancholy idea.’
Jane to Cassandra, Thursday 16 January 1796 (letter 49)

It has been argued that Jane was in love with Tom, and that he left her heartbrokenbut this seems unlikely. The tone of her letters to Cassandra is light and playful; she does not sound genuinely disappointed. Nevertheless, the relationship has fuelled speculation, and in 2007 the film Becoming Jane, based on the 2003 book Becoming Jane Austen by Jon Hunter Spence, portrayed the relationship as a full-blown love affair.

It has also been claimed that Tom Lefroy inspired Jane to create the character of Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, which she began writing (known at the time as First Impressions) around this time. However this seems unlikely. Whilst both men were handsome, clever and well read, there the similarities stop. Darcy is a famously wealthy landowner; Tom had to work – he came from a large Irish family who depended upon him to make his fortune. Darcy is notoriously proud: ‘above his company, and above being pleased’; Tom was a personable young man, perfectly comfortable in company.

Towards the end of his life, Tom admitted to his nephew that he had loved Jane Austen but qualified it as a “boyish love”.

Credit: This object is on private loan from Judy and Brian Harden.

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