14. The Faces of Charlotte Brontë

I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.

 – L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables.

Pen scribble of the four Brontës by moi in style of Kazuko Nomoto (Pocko) cover image of Vintage Classics Little Women (Alcott).

I love this time of year. I feel this time of year really ‘gets’ me. Like, you fancy going to bed earlier because functioning well only when the sun is down has been a difficulty all summer? Sure – we’ll have you shutting your curtains at 4pm and popping the heating on so you get nice and cozy. You wanna go out into the world but only really like knitwear? Sure, we’ll drop the temp a few degrees. You thrive from the sound of the wind and feel it is the breath of life? Go outside, feel alive. This time of year is made for me. Justin Hayward gets it in the song Forever Autumn. I don’t even mind if it never gets to Christmas – just keep pumpkins and fireworks coming, I’ll live the rest of my days in happiness amid the falling of the leaves and the southern breeze. A steaming mug with a friend outside but wrapped up is Heaven way more than a few gifts beneath a tree and a gigantic overindulgent meal.

Anyway – I digress. Today I’d like to talk about the face of Charlotte Brontë, as a few weeks ago the Brontë Society shared a newly found image of her. Now, during my study of the Brontë Portraits I have been collecting images – whether approved by the society or not – that are said to depict Charlotte Brontë (and of course her sisters, Emily and Anne).

When we’re talking about the appearance of an historic individual, we can make a Johari window of a sort regarding what we can know about the subject. The enquiry requires two kinds of analysis: visual, whereby we draw conclusions from those existing likenesses (and of course here we can also scrutinize their validity); and descriptive, whereby we can examine existing descriptions and conclude certain knowledge that way. Within these two kinds of analyses, there are going to be things that are known and demonstrated in both, and equally not known or demonstrated in either – or indeed demonstrated in one, but not the other.

Charlotte Brontë Known features (visual) Unknown features (not visually apparent in likenesses)
Known features (described) A. e.g. Hair colour: Chestnut/ light brown – described as such and visible in portraits. B. e.g. Height: at a diminutive 4’9, Charlotte’s height has been described but is not obvious in images.
Unknown features (not described) C. e.g. Hairstyle: drawn up into a top knot with two ringlets framing the face in Branwell’s two paintings, though this is never specifically described. D. e.g. Nude appearance: never visually replicated, never described.

So there are a number of conclusions we can draw regarding likenesses of Charlotte, Emily and Anne. In terms of the window, what is most important is what is in box A.: things we can see in visual representations, and things we know from written descriptions. But we can also take on board, to a degree, those things that are only accessible via likenesses or via descriptions independently of each other. Of those things that we have no knowledge of regarding the girls’ appearances, we can only speculate – but speculation can be undertaken to a degree of rationality. Once we have considered all of these things, our conclusions must be drawn carefully.

Friend of Branwell, Francis Henry Grundy, described the four Brontës as: ‘distant and distrait, large of nose, small of figure, red of hair, prominent of spectacles’. Carolyn Marie Morgan rejects this: ‘none of those more intimately connected with the Brontës concur … only Charlotte and Branwell wore spectacles and Branwell alone had red hair.’ However we might be able to draw something from Grundy’s words: the girls were Irish and Branwell had vividly orange hair, so perhaps when Grundy refers to them as ‘red haired’ he means that they had a red sheen to their hair that accompanied their fair skin, a trait common to those of Celtic heritage (though nb. the hair of Charlotte, Emily and Anne are all extant in various forms at the Parsonage).

The ‘gun’ group by Branwell (Charlotte detail), c. 1835 (tracing c. 1860).

The question, then, is: what can we know about Charlotte Brontë’s appearance, and can we then use what we know to ascertain that future potential finds (for example, art) are authentic/inauthentic?

We know that Charlotte was tiny. Halifax author John Stores Smith gives a vivid account of meeting her where he describes her piercing, ‘mesmerizing’ gaze, and her hand, which was one of the smallest he had ever grasped. Harriet Martineau compared her to little people seen at the Circus, and Jane Forster likened her to a wee bird. Many considered her deeply unattractive, with altogether too much chin about her face and in possession of a high, narrow forehead (though Arthur Bell Nicholls contested this, stating her forehead was wide, so much so that she arranged her hair so as to narrow it).

In terms of likenesses, we can only really examine Branwell’s two portraits (of which one no longer exists in full however there is a tracing taken from the original), and the famous portrait of her by George Richmond, the society painter, which has been so widely replicated that it is probably the best-known image of her in existence.

However, of these images, there is little similarity. Branwell was a novice painter, and while Richmond was an expert, he threw out his portraits with stunning rapidity and according to many account idealized his sitters, so much so in the case of Charlotte that where many considered her plain, Richmond made a veritable beauty of her – one that allegedly was much more similar to one of her sisters (though we aren’t sure which). Charlotte herself had a real love of author portraits, and it is understandable that she was responsible for the hiding and near-destruction of Branwell’s two portraits. This shows that she was fiercely protective over her image – and indeed only the Richmond portrait was known to the public, until Branwell’s portraits were found some 53 years after they were hidden away in Ireland with Charlotte’s widower Arthur Bell Nicholls.

The first Landseer pic (Charlotte detail), c. 1834.

The second Landseer pic (Charlotte detail), c. 1845.

But the question remains as to whether there were other portraits. It is likely that Edwin Landseer made two portraits of the three sisters, however these require slightly more research. To my mind they may well be authentic.

Another portrait that is well known is the John Hunter Thompson image, which according to Ellis Chadwick was begun by Branwell and finished by Thompson, his friend, after Charlotte’s death. Ellen Nussey said that this portrait looked just like Charlotte on her wedding morning. Christopher Heywood considered earlier this year in Brontë Studies that the same thing happened with a portrait of Emily in a large straw hat. If this is the case, I wonder if there is perhaps a Thompson portrait of Anne, hitherto unknown and waiting to be found.

As well as these portraits are two apparent self-caricatures, one which received some press coverage the other week, and another which Charlotte included in a letter to Ellen Nussey. One image that I think requires a second glance is a third caricature, by Branwell, included in one of his workbooks from his time working on the Railways. When I found it, whilst leafing through the Art of the Brontës at 3am, I hastened to e-mail Robert Haley at the True Likeness website, as the similarity to the alleged photograph is striking.

Self-caricature by Charlotte in a letter to Ellen Nussey (detail), 1843.

Caricature by Branwell c. 1840s.

According to Alexander and Sellars, this is a lawyer or clergyman facing a goose. I think it is Charlotte – the goose perhaps an inkblot turned symbolic of her nagging him; her face distorted and aged in a cruel depiction – but note the piercing eyes, strand of curling hair, hair covering ears, and neckerchief.

Ambrotype copy of a daguerreotype (detail of face) c. 1847.

Following this, we are brought of course lastly to the photograph of Charlotte, which appears to possess many of the features she is described as having: a piercing gaze, hair that always covered her ears and was parted ever so slightly to the left and covered her broad forehead, a nose that was a curious mix between retroussé and aquiline, a lop-sided mouth, a poor complexion (you can see some scarring/pimples) and that broad, cat-like face with altogether too much chin. The neck scarf implies Brussels, where wearing a neck-scarf was a social norm (indeed having a bare neck was the height of scant cladding), and she and the Emily figure share thick travelling cloaks. Even the small kink of hair curling at the front matches the caricature by Branwell – if one looks closely at the drawing the hair comes down over the forehead in a distinctive curl (though Alexander and Sellars consider it a judge’s wig).

So, I wonder as to what more we can find by way of understanding the appearances of the three Brontë sisters (and I shall, as time progresses, examine the other 2 girls). To my mind, the trope that they had very simple and uneventful lives is a nonsense, dooming them to a concealment within the vaults of history: they had as rich and complex a lives as anyone does, and at a time of much change with regard to art, photography and fashion, I do think there is much more to be discovered. I wonder what the future holds. I have been researching now for two years. Next autumn, when I feel the cold wind blow and draw my scarf about my neck, I wonder what I shall know then that I have no conception of now.

E x

Ps – see below for some images that are not Charlotte…

NOT Charlotte: this watercolour originated in Belgium and was sold to the NPG, signed by Paul Heger in 1850, however the title ‘Portrait of Miss Mary Vickers’ was found on the back after further research and it was revealed to be a fake. Saying that, I like this portrait and feel Charlotte would have also.

NOT Charlotte: this photo (on the left) gained much publicity in the 90s after its discovery in a box labelled ‘taken within a year of CB’s death’, implying it was Charlotte. However, it appears clearly to depict Ellen Nussey (see comparison on the right).

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2 comments
  1. Fab page- ,may I make couple comments? Seems grp photo; made mid-Brussels, between Dec ’42 and Jan ’43. (scarves as you mention, don’t go with straw hats- chenille cloaks- lush fabric comes from Brussels- Anne’s cloak a ‘replica’ prob’bly made by Chrltt for the photo- I strongly fancy photo never seen or mentioned because- probably much to Chrltt’s heartbreak an horror, the probing lens betrayed her growing dependency on laudanum. May have been made for estranged Taylor sisters. The portrait you like (NPG 1444) was made at the same time- prepared on rout Brussels to Haworth funeral Dec ’42, collected on return leg Jan ’43- accompanied to ferry by Branwell. Artist W H Hunt made a sketch of disheveled, despondent, unemployed Bran at the same time- is that the ‘frontal’ you mention? He was enchantingly handsome- with a concave rt eyebrow. I hope NPG & Tate will look into the paper types of both- if made before ’43 will be on ‘rag-paper’- (plentiful wood-pulp paper introduced spring ’43) could be from same maker, same batch or stock-sheet.. Her left cuff is unfinished, yet tremendous care elsewhere- micro-impasto complexion eg- suggesting collected in a hurry (as if to catch a ferry?). Paul’s inscription was not intended to claim authorship- merely to authenticate the portrait by association. Mary Vickers? Could have been mistake or owner’s protective disguise at any time before 1905- or is it Chrltt’s h/writing? Glad you oik the ‘profile photo’ of chubby, 45 y/o Ellen Nussey- you don’t raise the ‘bonnet pastel’ tho- again thanks to Landseer she’s re-identified- it’s Liz Gaskill! Ah the magnificent ‘bohemians’ with guitar- I would like to send you an image of Landseer’s mother- near indistinguishable from his depiction of Anne, also another drawing by Billy Hunt, suggesting the little … lady staring daggers at love-trance Emily is Charlotte- a leering ogre stares back at her from the back of her ‘beastly’ chair- Anne holds the music score, and poss. wearing the herringbone wove-hair band? Your images are far better than mine. A tiny note about the ‘pillar’ if I may- Branwell did a better job than at first appears, the portrait is rich in hidden narrative and expression- Chrltt has closed the book- why?- she has her hand in it- looks off-guard or surprised- as if ‘caught in the act’ concealing something.. a pen? Seems to show the literary aspirations were always there but not dared stated until Landseer, who apparently encouraged the impudent,, dissident presumption. Pls email for images kobrinbooks@aol.com v.best, James

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