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Zoomable Image of Mary (née Pearson) Higginson (later Mason), wearing white muslin dress, her dark brown hair curled and upswept, c. 1795

Mary (née Pearson) Higginson (later Mason), wearing white muslin dress, her dark brown hair curled and upswept, c. 1795

William Wood (1889-1982)

Mary (née Pearson) Higginson (later Mason), wearing white muslin dress, her dark brown hair curled and upswept, c. 1795

William Wood (1889-1982)

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Price:

£7,500

Materials:

Watercolour on ivory

Dimensions:

Oval, 3 ½ in (91 mm) high

Provenance:

By family descent

Exhibited:

Cardiff, National Museum of Wales, Cedric Morris Retrospective Exhibition, June - July 1968, no. 114.

Frame:

Gold frame, the reverse with plaited hair

In 1795 or 96 she became engaged to Henry Thomas Austen (1771-1850), brother of Jane Austen. It is probable that he met Mary while his regiment was camped at Sheerness.

Mary was the daughter of the distinguished naval officer Sir Richard Pearson (1731-1806) and his wife Margaret (bap. 1744). In 1795 or 96 she became engaged to Henry Thomas Austen (1771-1850), brother of Jane Austen. It is probable that he met Mary while his regiment was camped at Sheerness...

Jane Austen’s letters record how she met her brother’s fiancée at Rowling in Kent during the late summer of 1796, where her brother Edward Austen resided. Writing to Cassandra in September 1796, from Rowling, Jane noted ‘If Miss Pearson should return with me, pray be careful not to expect too much Beauty. I will not pretend to say that on first view she quite answered the opinion I had formed of her. My Mother I am sure will be disappointed. From what I remember of her picture, it is of no great resemblance’.[1] It is quite possible that this portrait miniature by William Wood is the very one to which she refers in her letter.[2]

It was around this time that Jane began her militia novel First Impressions, later to be renamed Pride and Prejudice – in it she notes the attraction of military men to vulnerable young women like Mary Pearson. The brief engagement to Mary, and the subsequent breaking of it was badly handled by her brother Henry. He moved his affections swiftly to their cousin, the widowed Eliza Hancock, who had commented on Mary’s appearance with some partiality;‘She is a pretty wicked looking girl, with bright black eyes which pierce through and through’.[3] It is probable that the present miniature was returned the Pearson family once the engagement was broken off, Jane also being responsible for returning the letters exchanged between the couple. She continued to stay in touch with Mary up until 1799, but in 1807, when Mary was living with her sisters in Southampton, Jane described their home as ‘the only Family in the place we cannot visit’.[4]

Mary did eventually marry - firstly, Richard Higginson of the Royal Marines (listed as being a Captain on half pay in 1821).[5] She was evidently widowed and in 1837, she married for the second time The Reverend Richard Mason, of Petersfield, Hants, (described on the marriage certificate as a clerk).

William Wood can be considered one of the most accomplished miniaturists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. His portrait miniatures can be compared to the ‘greats’ of the age, including works by John Smart, Richard Cosway and George Engleheart, whilst always maintaining a unique and distinctive style.

Wood entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1785 and is known to have been working from Bristol in 1791 and 1803 and from Gloucester in 1798. Wood became an active member of the Associated Artists in Watercolour and held the position of president between 1808 and 1809, exhibiting frequently with the group. His interests in the arts lay not just in miniature painting, and in 1808 he published An Essay on National and Sepuchral Monuments as well as reputedly displaying a keen interest in landscape gardening.

In contrast to the delicate hand of John Smart, Wood’s style was broader and more confident, bestowing on his sitters a greater sense of movement, a quality not all dissimilar to the Regency portraitist Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1835). As well as portraits, Wood also painted subject and eye miniatures, larger watercolours and drawings. An acute technician, as well as a clever draughtsman, Wood experimented and managed to stabilise his colours on ivory, thus preserving the subtlest of chiaroscuro.


[1] Ed. By D Le Faye, Jane Austen’s Letters, 4th Edition, Oxford, 2011, p.12

[2] Ibid. Le Faye notes that this ‘picture’ was a miniature in the index. Nokes (D. Nokes, Jane Austen; a Life, p.162), states that Henry ‘obtained a miniature of Miss Pearson and showed it proudly to his parents’

[3] Ibid, p. 162

[4] J. Spence, Becoming Jane Austen, 2003

[5] A List of the Officers of the Army and of the Corps of Royal Marines (Great Britain; War Office)

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