3. The ‘Other’ Brontë Photograph

It’s incredibly important to note that, as an academic, philosopher and art historian, I see absolutely no value whatsoever in the Brontë photograph that appeared some weeks ago in this article (don’t get too excited as it’s only the Daily Mail), other than it satisfies our peculiar interest in photos from days gone by.

Unknown photographer, unknown women. Image bought from eBay for £15 by Seamus Molloy of West Yorkshire.

I will briefly explain why. At first glimpse, the image appears to depict three unfortunate-looking women. They look as though they could be American sitters, and from the 1860s. Though first impressions do not a conclusion make; I cannot say the following clearly or loudly enough: unlike the other Brontë photograph, which I spoke above in a previous post, the three women do not match any contemporary descriptions, nor do they resemble any existing likenesses of the Brontë sisters.

It is important to note that the Brontë girls were extremely close in age – there was only a year or so between each sibling. As well as this, there are basic criteria that would need to be met for a photograph to be considered seriously as authentic, which are as follows:

Charlotte: oldest, smallest (at a diminutive 4’9), looks similar to Emily (or at least similar enough to make Anne look distinctive).

Emily: second-youngest, tallest (at a comparably huge 5’7), looks similar to Charlotte as above, but described as prettier though more boyish.

Anne: youngest, second-tallest (described with Emily as taller than the two smaller siblings, Charlotte and Branwell – Branwell was about 5’) and, though described as ever-entwined with Emily, their looks were quite different. Anne was described as having ‘a pleasant appearance, but by no means pretty’ (Ellen Nussey).

The facial recognition image from the ‘RealBrontes’ twitter feed. Note that the accompanying text ‘Using facial modelling software…’ and ‘Surely these are…’ is from the original image.

Though the owners of this photograph have put forward arguments including some fascinating use of facial manipulation software via their twitter, there are glaring problems. It is quite clear that the eldest woman, she who the owners have identified as Charlotte (on the left in the above image) is also the tallest. The alleged Emily is tall, but still smaller by the elder-looking woman. The alleged Anne, sat in the middle, is dwarfed by the other two and extremely young looking, and does not call to mind any existing likenesses of Anne (of which there are far more than of her sisters), all featuring a distinctively straight or aquiline (Roman) nose.

I do think it is possible that the Brontës were photographed: despite photography being in its infancy, it was a popular art form – particularly among artists and painters &c. – and also affordable and plentiful in the area at the time (as hard as that may be to believe; for more information see this interesting timeline re: the other photo). The Brontës loved art, and while they would likely have taken to sitting for a photographer with some enthusiasm, would they really sit for a photograph in such static positions and with such clumsy and expositional props such as the books? The four were as aesthetically-obsessed as the most dedicated Instagram users of today. In short, I think not.

Again an image from twitter, captioned with extensive description/justification as to how the photo is linked (extremely tenuously) to the Bronte girls. Again, writing from original image, not my own.

Lastly, the owners of the photograph state that the photographer has somehow scrubbed the term ‘Bell’ or ‘Bells’ (referencing the girls’ famous pseudonym surname) into the photograph, or else on the back wall of the set. If this is not a photoshop manipulation (looks like the burn tool to me), it is a coincidence barely worth mentioning with little to no meaning.

The finding of this photograph is something of a frustration to me as it has garnered some degree of publicity (though thankfully not all have been taken in by it, for example in this article). In one way, the picture can be an aid in that it can teach us to be more discerning when examining future potential Brontë images. But that is all it does, aside from actively polluting the pool of fragile research that we have to our disposal.

I would like to put the matter quite to rest: the photograph is of three miserable looking women indeed, however they are not the Brontë girls.

Of course, the real concluding can only really be undertaken by you, dear readers. As Anne said in the preface to Wildfell Hall, ‘the truth always conveys its own moral to those able to receive it’. Well let the conveyance (or lack thereof) begin..!

E x

Further reading:

Robert Haley at The Brontë Sisters: A True Likeness, A Timeline

Nick Holland, at Anne Brontë: Love, Loss, and Redemption,  Is This The Real Photograph of the Brontë Sisters?

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1 comment
  1. The photo is refreshing in that it reinforces what the extraordinary sisters really did look like. American? Yes, these chumps look as if they might have just got off the ship- certainly their gritty determination might suggest; ‘we made it’. The woman left has v.brown hands- but too affluent to be a washerwoman or fish-cleaner- perhaps she’s been reading on deck? The edited backdrop is interesting,they’re not in a prepared studio- could they be sitting, on their luggage, in front of the ship? At least the girl on far right (I’m sure she’s not related), looks Irish. Docking passenger ships would have been a hot source of work for enterprising photographers in the ‘new world’.

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