Three beautiful portrait miniatures of Jane’s childhood friends went up for auction in July 2019. They were purchased by the Jane Austen’s House Museum and are now on display.
They were delicately painted by by George Jackson in May 1811, and feature James Digweed, his wife Mary Susannah (née Lyford) and the youngest brother Francis-William Digweed.
They show the Digweeds in their thirties, and were painted around the same time as the publication of Jane’s first novel Sense and Sensibility in 1811.
The Digweed family were non-landed gentry who had rented Steventon Manor since 1758. It was on the opposite side of the lane to St Nicholas Church where Jane’s father preached, and up the lane from the Rectory where Jane lived.
Hugh and Ruth Digweed had five sons, John, Harry, James, William-Francis and Francis-William. The boys were all friends with the Austen boys, and they would often ride and hunt together.
They were mentioned often in Jane’s letters in reference to dinners, balls, and other social occasions. As England was at war with France for most of Jane’s life, there was a shortage of men. As the Digweeds were large in number, they were often called on to make up the numbers at balls.
James Digweed (1774-1862)
James Digweed was born in the Manor the year before Jane was born, and they remained good friends throughout their lives. He was ordained in 1797 and became George Austen’s curate at Steventon in 1798.
Jane teased Cassandra in her letter,
James Digweed left Hampshire to day. I think he must be in love you, from his anxiety to have you go to the Faversham Balls, & likewise from him supposing, that the two Elms fell from their greif at your absence. -Was not it a galant idea?
James had an ugly cut above his eyebrow which he got from a horse kick in 1798. Jane tells Cassandra this in one of her letters dated November 1800,
James Digweed has had a very ugly cut – how could it happen? -It happened by a young horse which he had lately purchased, & which he was trying to back into its stable; -the Animal kicked him down with his forefeet & kicked a great hole in his head.
You can see that the painter has included the scar above his left eye in his miniature.
Mary Susannah Lyford (1772-1840)
James married Mary Susannah Lyford in 1803. She was fondly known as Susannah and was a close friend of Jane’s from the neighbourhood.
Her father was John Lyford, the Austen family doctor whilst they lived in Steventon, so they saw each other often.
She was also the cousin of Giles King Lyford who was the Surgeon at the County Hospital in Winchester who took care of Jane in her final illness.
Once married, they went to live at Worting and Dummer, about 4 miles from Basingstoke. They had a five children, and the eldest son John-James returned to live in Steventon Manor.
Francis-William Digweed (1781-1866)
Francis-William was the youngest of the Digweed family. He married Elizabeth Harding in 1806, and this portrait of him was painted four years later. They lived in the small village of Greywell, just 6 miles on the opposite side of Basingstoke.
Harry Digweed of Alton and Chawton
Although Jane had been close friends with James, it was Harry Digweed that would become her neighbour. Interestingly, Jane was carrying papers for shooting rights at Steventon for Harry when she almost lost her writing slope.
Harry lived with his wife Jane (née Terry) and their four children in a cottage in Alton, and Jane would often stop in on his wife for tea.
Their relationship may have become strained after the publication of Emma though, as Jane noted Mrs Digweed found her novel very dull and was barely able to read it through!
Harry also rented Pound Farm just behind Chawton Cottage, so was a familiar face from their childhood for the Austen ladies.
Jane was present at the baptisms of their children at St Lawrence Church, Alton. This is where some of the Terry family are buried, although Harry and Jane went on to travel Europe and are buried in Paris.
The miniatures were purchased by the Jane Austen’s House Museum and are currently on display.