1. In Memory of the Brontës

Today is 24th September. On this day, in 1848, Patrick Branwell Brontë, known as Branwell to his sisters and father, died of advanced tuberculosis complicated by excess of drug and alcohol abuse.

Branwell Brontë, The Brontë Sisters (Anne Brontë; Emily Brontë; Charlotte Brontë), c. 1834, oil on canvas, 90.2 × 74.6 cm, Primary Collection: NPG 1725, London. Courtesy of the NPG.

In his late teens and early twenties, between 1834 and 1840, Branwell was making attempts to become a portrait painter, and two of his oil paintings depicted his sisters, the now-world-renowned Brontë sisters: Charlotte, Emily and Anne.

Charlotte did not like the portraits and never told anyone of their existence, and after her death her husband kept them hidden in a wardrobe for 53 years. However, it is thanks to these pictures that we have any notion of what the sisters look like.

Understanding and coming to know what the Brontë siblings looked like has been an interest of mine for over a year now, and this task is possible for three reasons:

Firstly, the four Brontës were real people who actually existed, and therefore there are a certain (and finite) number of claims we can make about their appearances.

Secondly, there exist many written descriptions from contemporaneous authors, friends, acquaintances and so on, that allow us to draw conclusions.

Thirdly, there exist likenesses of them that we can with some degree presume to be accurate.

Edwin Landseer, c. 1840, watercolour, private collection. Said to be the three Brontë sisters (Emily, Charlotte and Anne).

Once we make claims about the appearances of the Brontë siblings, we can then move forward when examining speculative likenesses, of which there are a number in existence.

We can also come to create new works of the three girls with some degree of accuracy.

Comments and questions welcome. E x

Further Reading:

Christopher Heywood, ‘The Column in Branwell’s “Pillar” Portrait Group’, Brontë Studies, 34.1 (March 2009), 1–19.

Ingeborg Nixon, ‘The Brontë Portraits: Some Old Problems and a New Discovery’, Brontë Society Transactions, 13.3 (January 1958) 230–38.

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2 comments
  1. Frank said:

    The bottom portrait could it be artistic licence on the hair colouring,,because one portrait certainly is not quite correct..i would say that Branwell’s must be the most true to form and much more truthful one has he was not charging for the work,where as the other portrait was more flattering as the painter did require a payment,,

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    • Dear Frank, are you referring to Anne? I think you are correct – however there are many kinds of hair that appear different in different lights, particularly those on the red spectrum (and I speak from my own experience, having red hair) – therefore Anne’s locks, though being in most lights a ‘pretty light brown’ as Ellen Nussey described, could well be gold when lit by the sun on a warm day (and a biographer of Branwell’s described all four of them as being ‘red haired’). However, I included the Landseer pic (of which there are 2) merely as an example of a speculative image that requires further research (and to my view, would be a worthy contender for authentication). But you raise an interesting and thoughtful point re: payment – and presumably Landseer would indeed have charged (something I had not considered). Many thanks! E

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