The Jane Austen of Art: Diana Sperling

 Mrs Hurst Dancing, Diane Sperling

I first came across the wonderful illustrations of Diana Sperling when I acquired the late Penelope Hughes-Hallett’s ‘The Illustrated Letters of Jane Austen’. My copy (1990) contained some of Diana’s sketches. When I then discovered that Diana spent her early life living in Great Maplestead, Essex (my own county) then my interest was stimulated, although there is not a great deal of verified information about her to research. To me, she is ‘the Jane Austen of art’, because in a similar fashion to Jane Austen, her sketches open windows on middle-class family life, manners and attitudes in the Regency era. It’s interesting to speculate whether Diana received any formal art tuition or was simply a talented amateur, but given her station in life it’s reasonable to assume that she did receive some art lessons.

The Sperling family originated from Sweden and had lived in Chigwell (also in Essex) before coming to Dynes Hall, Great Maplestead, Essex, where her father, John, was a large landowner owning an estate of over 500 acres. ‘Di’, as she was known within her family (she had two brothers and one sister) was born in 1791. She loved to sketch and in her sketchbooks she records social events, such as walking home by moonlight after an evening party (including picking one’s feet up rather high, to shake off the mud of a country lane), the family gathered round the dining table playing cards, skating on the lake, entertaining friends, and a quiet evening spent at home en famille, reading. Her brush is the equivalent of Jane Austen’s pen – we can immediately see the fun and interaction of family life, and perhaps gain an idea of some of the annoyances, too! Diana also sketched views of places that she visited with her family on their travels.

Diana would later marry a lawyer named Frederick Woolaston (shades of Mr John Knightley in Emma!) and moved from Essex to Pimlico, London, where she was living when she died in 1862 at the age of 71. Diana’s sketch books remained within the family for well over 150 years, and some of her work was eventually published in 1981 in Mrs Hurst Dancing and other Scenes from Regency Life, 1812-1823. 

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Margaret Mills is a part-time adult education lecturer in history and English literature. She also gives talks based on her subjects (including Jane Austen, of course). If you, like Margaret, would like to submit a piece to the Jane Austen Blog, please follow this link.

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