SOPHIE ANDREWS IS THE WOMAN BEHIND 'LAUGHING WITH LIZZIE' AND A JANE AUSTEN LITERACY FOUNDATION AMBASSADOR.
Dear friends, I am delighted to have been invited here today to share with you all my 'Sitting With Jane' journey.
To commemorate the Jane Austen bi-centenary, 'Sitting With Jane' is a public art trail consisting of 24 ‘BookBenches’ in and around the town of Basingstoke, each bench having been uniquely designed and painted by a professional artist and featuring their own personal interpretation of a Jane Austen theme.
Each bench takes the form of an open book and is painted both on the front and on the back. The trail celebrates Jane Austen’s significant connections with the Hampshire towns and villages of Basingstoke, Chawton, Alton and her birthplace, Steventon. They will only remain in situ for a few weeks, before the majority of the benches will be auctioned for charity in September.
I am most fortunate to live quite close to Basingstoke, but I hope my post allows those living further afield, and unlikely to visit the trail themselves in the next few weeks, to experience this exciting and colourful art trail with me instead! My dear friend Charlotte and I began the trail during Jane Austen Regency Week, in mid-June, during a heat wave, and completed our final bench outside Winchester Cathedral on 18th July, just before attending the very special 200 years' memorial service.
(I have included some of the bench descriptions and artists' explanations from the 'Sitting With Jane' website, together with my own thoughts about each bench, and my own photos. http://www.sittingwithjane.com/)
A Fine Day to Sit and Look Upon Verdure
Inspired by Jane Austen's words "to sit in the shade one fine day and to look upon verdure is the most perfect refreshment", this BookBench is outside Viables Craft Centre. Viables is also the name of the business park where De La Rue is based, the printing company established in the area just after Jane Austen's death, and the creators of banknotes and passports. Most recently, they have created the new £10 bank note featuring Jane Austen's portrait. This bench is in such a beautiful location - a very peaceful spot.
A Fine House Richly Furnished
This attractive design is based on Chatsworth House, in Derbyshire, which some think of as the inspiration for Pemberley. However, I beg to differ, as Jane Austen refers to Chatsworth in the text of her novel, Pride and Prejudice, and I am not sure she would have done so had she used it as her inspiration. Moreover, I feel Chatsworth House is too large even for Darcy with his "£10,000 a year"! The bench is in the War Memorial Park in Basingstoke, which was previously in the grounds of Goldings, where Jane Austen visited her friends, the Russell family. This bench also benefits from a most beautiful situation, under a veranda and overlooking the park.
Are you Sitting Comfortably?
Located at Worting House, near Basingstoke, this bench reflects the colours and furnishings of a Regency drawing room, and the classical elegance of high society at that time, whilst on the back the design includes busts of Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. Jane Austen visited Worting House and attended balls here - I think it would be the perfect location to hold a ball today!
Bench and Benchability
This bench is to be found at the Curtis Museum in Alton, the nearest town to Jane Austen's home in the village of Chawton. The design brings together themes and styles from the Regency period. It was created by students from Treloar College and sponsored by businesses and organisations from Alton. My friends and I had fun taking pictures on this bench immediately prior to attending a wonderful Regency ball just a few weeks ago!
Beyond the Birdcage
In Festival Square in Basingstoke, this BookBench represents the restrictions felt by women at this time. Jane Austen was considered an early feminist; the flying birds symbolise the beginnings of a new freedom for women, as indeed both Jane herself as well as some of the heroines in her novels start to make their own choices in life, both emotionally and financially. According to the ‘Sitting With Jane’ app, this has been the most popular bench of the 24.
Located outside Jane Austen's cottage home in her beloved village of Chawton, this bench was inspired by the Hampshire countryside, where Jane Austen, a keen walker, would have enjoyed regular rambles. The colours and patchwork were inspired by the beautiful quilt made by the three Austen ladies that is now displayed in the Jane Austen House Museum.
Dancing with Jane
At the wonderful Milestones Museum in Basingstoke, where you can experience the cobbled streets and atmosphere of a town in the 19th to early 20th centuries, this delightful BookBench celebrates Regency dancing and the balls that Jane and so many of her characters attended. Like me, Jane Austen was fond of dancing, and balls were the source of inspiration for many scenes in her novels. The background is a manuscript from Persuasion. (I would highly recommend a visit to Milestones if you find yourself in the area!)
Do You Dance Mr Darcy?
At St Nicholas Church in Jane Austen's birthplace of Steventon, where her father was rector, this bench features a silhouette of dancing, an activity which is so important to Jane and to her novels. Silhouettes were popular at that time, too, and turquoise was Jane's favourite colour. Jane Austen lived in Steventon for 25 years, however her family home is no longer standing. My friend Charlotte and I really enjoyed imitating the 'Allemande' hold (that the dancing couple on the bench are demonstrating).
This bench is to be found on the outskirts of Basingstoke, in Eastrop Park, and pictures Jane Austen working at her desk, with never-ending paper and bright colours that reflect the strength and vibrancy of her ideas. Personally, this is one of my least favourite designs, not being one for abstract art.
Located at the Ark Conference Centre near Basingstoke, this bright and colourful bench celebrates Jane Austen's strong female characters in a modern, comic-book style that demonstrates the relevance of her writing in today's society. Again, the style is less to my own personal taste, but I do appreciate the celebration of her powerful heroines, who we all admire.
Outside Basingstoke railway station, this playing card design is an interpretation of Hugh Thomson's peacock edition cover for Pride and Prejudice and brings the characters to life in a fun and memorable way. With its busy location, just outside the station, this bench sees many intrigued visitors and curious tourists!
Jane and her Forgotten Peers
Jane Austen spent her final weeks in Winchester and is buried in the Cathedral. This BookBench in the Cathedral grounds is a reminder of Jane Austen and her contemporary female novelists, who were pioneers in their time for their independence and creativity. As I mentioned, this is the last bench I visited, just the other day on July 18th, when I was attending the service at Winchester Cathedral for the bi-centenary.
In Porchester Square, a busy spot in Basingstoke town centre, this modern graphic art style design uses popular quotes from Jane Austen and from film interpretations of her novels. They are chosen for their continued relevance today, in the hope they will inspire people to read her novels. This is another bench that receives plenty of attention, being in the centre of a very popular and modern shopping centre. A pleasing selection of quotes has been chosen here.
Look Upon Verdure
Jane Austen would have visited the village of Overton regularly, where this BookBench is centrally situated. It features Jane Austen's words "to sit in the shade one fine day and to look upon verdure is the most perfect refreshment", and encourages us to do just that. I very much enjoy the colours chosen for this bench, which give a suitable tranquil feel.
Once Upon a Time in Steventon
At the historic Tythe Barn in Old Basing is this colourful bench, inspired by Steventon Church, celebrating the beauty of the surrounding landscape and the variety of wildlife. This is, without a doubt, my favourite of all the benches; I adore the vibrant colours, and the wildlife painted into the landscape, particularly the handsome stag!
This unique bench, found in the Malls, Basingstoke's shopping area, features the splendid Regency architecture of the streets of Bath, much of which survives unchanged 200 years on. The design reflects Camden Crescent (named 'Camden Place' at that time). Bath is the city where Jane Austen lived for several years, and at several different addresses, during her late twenties, and it is the setting for scenes in her novels, especially Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. This is another real favourite for me, as I have always loved the beauty of Bath and the atmosphere created by the fabulous Regency architecture. This bench portrays it so well.
In Beggarwood Park on the outskirts of Basingstoke, this bench features a classic, elegant and detailed design in Regency style. It shows a timeline of Jane Austen's novels. I love the intricate detail to the design of this bench, and the location is very peaceful too.
Shall We Dance?
At Basingstoke's Willis Museum, the design of this BookBench celebrates Jane Austen's love of dance. The images include a dancing couple in silhouette, the floorplan and facade of the nearby historic house, the Vyne, where Jane is known to have attended dances, and it features her words: "to be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love". We had to make two trips to find this bench, as on our first visit, the museum was shut! But thankfully, we were successful second time.
The Golden Peacock
This beautiful and colourful bench in Eastrop Park celebrates the famous cover of the 1894 edition of Pride and Prejudice, known as the Golden Peacock cover, wrapping peacock feathers around the design and framing it with tropical blossoms. I am fortunate to own a 'Peacock' copy of Pride and Prejudice and it is my most favourite edition, so it is great to see a tribute to this famous cover on one of the benches.
The House that Jane Built
In Basingstoke town centre, this charming BookBench represents a Regency dolls' house and gives you a glimpse into Jane's life, or of a scene from one of her novels or perhaps of Regency society. Having received the wonderful present of a period dolls' house for my 21st birthday, this gave me some great ideas!
There is No Doing Without Money
In Basingstoke's Festival Place, the unusual design of this bench was inspired by the sketchbook for the new Jane Austen £2 coin that will come into circulation this autumn. There is even a real coin embedded into the top of the bench. I was so thrilled when I discovered that Jane would be appearing, not only on the new £10 note, but also on a special £2 coin as well - a fitting tribute to an inspirational author in her bi-centennial year.
Threads Lace & Time
Whitchurch Silk Mill has been producing fabrics since Jane Austen's time and, more recently, it has produced cloth for costumes used in film adaptations of her novels. The bench located here displays an intricate design inspired by lacemaking. I love the little motifs and pictures incorporated in the pattern, showing drawings such as Jane at her writing desk and Chawton Cottage.
Waiting for Mr Darcy
At Oakley Hall, a place Jane Austen knew well, is this striking red bench, with a design inspired by Mr Darcy as 'The Perfect Man'. A fun figure sits and 'waits for Mr Right'. I did take a seat to pass some time here myself, but had no luck - so the wait continues!
In the Walled Garden in the outskirts of Basingstoke, this BookBench features the famous Willow Pattern, first produced in Stoke on Trent in the 1780s and fashionable in Jane Austen's time. Jane may well have used china cups and plates with this design, and in fact, a broken eggcup in Willow Pattern was recently excavated from the site of Jane Austen's childhood home. This was another gorgeous situation for a bench!
Support our work today and receive a commemorative bookplate with your name in Jane’s handwriting. We are a volunteer organisation with no wages paid to anyone, so you can be confident your donation will be used wisely to buy books and writing materials for communities in literacy crisis, in honour of Jane. Reading and writing skills empower individuals to participate in society and achieve their dreams. Literacy gives a child pride and opens up a world of possibilities.
Image credits: Sophie Andrews