How fitting that my final post of 2015 shall be my fifteenth. I had hoped to get something out for Emily Brontë’s deathday earlier this month (Nick Holland did a lovely post on his own blog here). However, these past two months have been hectic and busy and only now – New Year’s Eve no less, have I found the time to sit and write. The draft I wrote for this post was about Emily’s appearance, however it is a very complex affair and cannot be done without reference to Anne’s appearance – so, I am afraid, fellow Brontë lovers, you shall have to wait just a little longer for it.
I will try and keep this short. Earlier this month the Telegraph posted an interesting article regarding the ‘pillar’ group portrait of the three Brontë Sisters. It’s not a brilliant article (indeed the timeline states Emily died twice) but it is important to note a few of the main points as follows:
- The NPG is set to ‘reveal mysteries’ of ‘shadowy’ Branwell.
- Branwell painted over himself in the ‘pillar’ group painting.
- ‘Fading paint’ and ‘the steady march of time’ have led to the figure behind the pillar to appear.
- The pillar is ‘now thought’ to have been painted as the composition was too cramped, rather than other ideas.
Christopher Heywood put forward an argument in 2009 (Brontë Studies 34.1, March 2009, pp. 1–19) that the pillar was painted over by Charlotte. Not only was a pillar something of a trademark of Charlotte’s drawings and ‘creative vision’ (see The Art of the Brontës pp. 163, 179-80, 243-4, 251), Heywood also details that the paint of the pillar has suffered ‘tabaccoing’; i.e. a fading, caused by mixing paints improperly with gone off linseed oil – indicative of the pillar having been painted some time after Branwell had stopped using oils, possibly before Gaskell’s visit where she was shown the painting. Indeed, the question remains, why did Charlotte not show her the other picture, of all four of the siblings? Heywood cites Charlotte’s contempt for Branwell, and I am inclined (not without hesitation mind) to this view also.
I am presuming that the NPG is aware of this view as I cited it in an essay draft that I sent them in August. I am also presuming that they have read the detailed account of the portraits by the brilliant Susan R. Foister (Brontë Society Transactions 18.5, January 1985, pp. 348–9) and come to a conclusion I am very sympathetic with: that the ‘pillar’ group was the first portrait of the sisters, and ultimately abandoned, unfinished, because of the cramped composition.
This is not, then, a new idea. It is equally talked about in Heywood, Alexander and Sellars’s the Art of the Brontës (see p. 75) and Juliet Barker’s group-biography The Brontës (p. 215). There is no mystery regarding Branwell, then; he was just an amateur painter and he gave up on a painting that wasn’t working, like any of the best artists. And it is a poor painting: there is no definition of hands, no definition of fabric, nor background or objects (as there is in the original of the other painting). The only things that really work are the faces, and, even considering that, it appears from what we know about the ‘gun’ group is that the faces were much better the second time around (though still poor likenesses in the opinions of Charlotte and her husband Arthur Bell Nicholls, hence the hiding of both portraits and the destruction of one).
I might add that the figure beneath the column has always been visible to a degree; the very first newspaper article regarding the portrait (The Sphere 1914), which I have framed (see pic) shows the column with some visibility between the sisters, and even in the shadowy black and white some discernment can be made: the light of the column follows the light of the painted out hair, if one compares the two images.
Further to this, and here mark my words, there will be little to no new information regarding the painted over figure – the x-ray, completed in the 50s when Jean and Inge Nixon first enquired about it (see Nixon, BST 13.3, January 1958, 230–38) – is quite sufficient to know what is beneath the pillar: a shape of a person with a single left eye, with some colour distinction re: the hair and the pale collar, but no true features. Anyone can see this through booking an appointment with the NPG Heinz Archive (and for those interested, I suggest you do – this topic is a fascinating one). There could be some contention as to whether the figure really is Branwell, or whether it is actually their father, Revd Patrick Brontë, but I should leave that debate for another day.
What of course one may wish to see is a recreation of the other portrait – the ‘gun’ group, which I have kindly reproduced for you below. Now that is a fascinating tale – one upcoming for Brontë Studies, by myself and no other (save much help from Robert Haley, Christopher Heywood and Amber Adams at Maney).
Saying all of this, of course, I am very much looking forward to seeing the upcoming exhibition. In the new year, as I have said above, we shall examine the appearances of Emily and Anne, and, as I did not mention, a newly found picture, possibly of Branwell Brontë. If authentic, this image will be the first of him face-on, and therefore a very exciting discovery.
Yours, dear reader,
Updated 01/01/2016. I had previously incorrectly stated that the pillar was comprised of oil mixed with watercolour, not gone off linseed oil (I wrote my account of Heywood’s article from memory and have now double-checked my facts). Apologies for any confusion. The article is available to read online at Maney to all Brontë Society Members and subscribers to Brontë Studies here.