Admiral Sir Francis Austen drawings

One of a selection of drawings from an album from Admiral Sir Francis Austen bought by Jane Austen’s House museum.

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Just one problem: the spidery handwriting, that of her older brother Admiral Sir Francis (‘Frank’ to the family) Austen, is rather difficult to decipher as a whole.

The buyer, Jane Austen’s House museum in Chawton, Hampshire, had appealed to the public to help transcribe the text with the hope of discovering fresh information on Jane. Its plea came as it marked the 250th anniversary of Frank’s birth with a new exhibition, Travels with Frank Austen, running until July 7 (and available to view online).

The response has been so phenomenal, however, attracting thousands of responses in just 24 hours, that the museum is “no longer able to receive applications”.

Sir Francis Austen memoir

A detail from the Admiral Sir Francis Austen memoir bought by Jane Austen’s House museum for £2200 at Bonhams, now going on display at a new exhibition.

The manuscript is Frank’s memoir which was offered at a London sale on June 21, 2023, estimated at £2000-3000 and selling for a hammer price of £2200. Although unpublished, short extracts have featured in various biographies of the Austens.

The memoir will be displayed in the exhibition along with an album of watercolours and drawings from his global travels during his long career in the Royal Navy also acquired by the museum at the same auction, for £2800 against a guide of £2000-3000.

Francis Austen drawing

One of a selection of drawings from an album from Admiral Sir Francis Austen bought by Jane Austen’s House museum.

At Bonhams the provenance of both was given as Admiral Sir Francis William Austen (1774-1865); his son Rev Edward Thomas Austen (1820- 1908); then by descent to the present owner.

The purchases were supported by Friends of the National Libraries and the V&A Beecroft Bequest.

Never before seen outside of family ownership, these objects go on public display for the first time.

Long years at sea

The biography of Frank covers his life and family relations as well as observations on hi storical events and impressions of the countries he visited during his 79 years at sea.

He was born on April 23, 1774 – a year before his celebrated sister.

The museum says: “We know that it contains an account of Frank Austen’s life from his childhood in Chawton to entering the navy, carrying despatches to Lord Nelson at Palermo, the blockade of Genoa and service in Egypt, a stay with his family in Bath in 1802, further travels in the West Indies with Nelson’s fleet as captain of the Canopus and the death of Nelson, Frank’s marriage and settling in Southampton with his mother and sisters, a sojourn on St Helena on East India company business, on the China station, and finally retirement to Chawton.”

The album offers a visual record of his global travels, containing 73 watercolours and drawings, predominantly of the West Indies and Canada, created by Frank and his daughter Cassandra Eliza Austen in the 1840s (she and other family members often travelled with him).

Regular purchaser

Jane Austen’s House is a regular buyer at auctions and from dealers.

In March last year it acquired a rare early example of a handwritten letter by the novelist after its sale was negotiated by Cambridge auction house Cheffins via the Acceptance in Lieu scheme, settling £140,000 in tax.

The letter to her sister Cassandra, dated 1798, came to Cheffins from the estate of a Cambridge collector who had acquired it 22 years ago from London dealer Bernard Quaritch. On show at the museum now, it is one of only around 160 Jane Austen letters to survive and is among the earliest in existence.

Other recent purchases by the museum include a rare first edition of Poems by Jane’s favourite poet, William Cowper, which was once owned by her brother. It was offered for £8000 by book dealer Bernard Quaritch.

A year earlier a portrait miniature of the woman who inspired a classic Pride and Prejudice character was bought from dealer Philip Mould, offered for £7500.

In 2019 the museum successfully raised the £35,000 required to buy a fragment of a letter written by the great novelist in 1814. The rare manuscript was being sold on behalf of its private owner by London dealer Maggs.