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The Bronte Photograph

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).

I had intended this post to have many things but I have been busy for a few days and much distracted. My friend Naomi had a baby! Welcome to the world Mathilda Florence Hennessy (b. 30/09/2015) and congratulations to Naomi and Ian on bringing such a beautiful light into the world.

Naomi and I first met in 2004 where we were in the show Cider with Rosie together (see embarrassing old pic below). She played Rosie Waterbury (and a few other characters) and I played the young Laurie Lee. Since then, we have acted many times opposite each other, all when I acted as a boy (for want of an easier description). We were often cast as lovebirds: in the 2013 production of The Merchant of Venice where I was Gratiano and she Nerissa, and more notably in the 2014 production of Brontë where she played Charlotte Brontë and I took the roles of Constantin Héger and Arthur Bell Nicholls.

Rosie Waterbury and Laurie Lee – Cider with Rosie, 2005

Shylock, Gratiano, Nerissa, Salarina and Solania – The Merchant of Venice, 2013

It was this show, Brontë (written by Polly Teale), that first sparked my interest in the Brontë sisters and, looking back, I find it astounding I lived a life without them in it for so long. My interest was continually reinforced by a number of peculiar occurrences that happened about that time. Everything suddenly made sense to me in a Brontë-ish context.

Constantin Héger and Charlotte Brontë – Brontë, 2014

In 2013, I visited Brussels, and then one of my aunts sadly passed away before Christmas (think Aunt Branwell), and then during the Christmas period I suffered a M Héger-like situation. As well as all of this, Lana Del Rey had just released Tropico – which was, for the introductory montage and Body Electric at least, a homage to getting in contact with your spiritual ancestors. This spoke to me: Del Rey was meeting Elvis, Adam and Eve, John Wayne, the Virgin Mary, Jesus, Marilyn Monroe. Due to the research involved with being cast in Brontë, a fervent study of the Brontë sisters began: my own spiritual ancestors, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, were being found.

I was also finding my feet academically. I had finished my MA and wanted to write something on Hans Christian Andersen and The Snow Queen, and I wanted to philosophically examine the treatment of cetaceans by the Faroe Islands, and I wanted to save the world from homophobia and racism (and these are all things that I want yet to do), but the Brontës suddenly got in the way of that.

The night of 18th February 2014, I had a dream in which I was in my old house (which is my consistent dream location) and there was a tiny figure running about outside – a shadow viewed through the windows. Oddly, my old house is not unlike the Brontë Parsonage; a remote location, sparsely furnished, near to a village but otherwise with access to remote wilderness. I was definitely a child that grew up in the middle of nowhere. In the dream, a creature, this sprite, was zooming around the house, and I felt afraid, the same spooky feeling one gets when considering ghosts (not something I make a habit of). And then, at the last minute, a face appeared at the kitchen window, and in fear I jolted awake, the face imprinted on the backs of my eyes like nothing I had ever seen. Human, but with these striking, staring eyes, glaring through the glass at me.

It’s important to know that at the time I was commissioned to complete some drawings for the Courtauld Institute’s dress history department, so my mind was in a very creative place, soaking in everything, and my dreams are always very vivid anyway. A few days later, on 23rd February, I had another dream. It was just after 5 o’clock in the morning, and this tiny woman was sat at the foot of the bed. I recognized the face as that I had dreamt about before. She expressed some guilt and remorse, and was much less intimidating, and we spoke a while before I woke up. It was later that day that I first came upon the Brontë photograph after trying to find as many pictures of the Brontës as I could and ultimately googling ‘Brontë photograph’, wondering if ever a photograph had been taken – and I recognized Charlotte’s face as that which had come to me in the two dreams.

‘Charlotte’ in the Brontë photograph

At this time, of course, we were preparing for the production of Brontë. Each day before we went live the cast got together on the stage and had the tech guys plays Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights, which we all sang along to as a warm-up. There were seven of us, and 104 lighting cues, and we received many kind words and compliments from friends, relatives and members of the public who came to watch. Looking back, I think that the casting was slightly wrong, and certain parts of the show I would change, but at the time I do not think it could have been better.

Then I began to read the biography by Juliet Barker (which was kindly given to me by the director of the show), and the poems of Emily, and I started to get more and more familiar with the Brontë story – a familiarity that has grown to a deep and certain expertise, not to mention one that I have paralleled endlessly against my own life experiences.

The photograph I took of the portrait when first I saw it in real life.

On the 5th March, I went in to London and wandered down to the National Portrait Gallery so as to examine the Brontë portraits for the first time – and as I arrived, a woman walked into the room and met me and said, ‘Are you here for the talk?’ Puzzled I asked her which talk, and she said, ‘Well – the talk on the Brontë portraits’ ! I learned more and more – and felt some sympathy with Charlotte and Arthur Bell Nicholls, who concealed the two Brontë portraits: Charlotte clearly did not want them found, least of all hanging in the National Portrait Gallery. More strange phenomena happened, spurring creative visions. That April, I saw a lapwing on the moors. The following April, it was a merlin. A year and a half later, I began this blog. Hopefully there’s much more to come ..! x

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?

The photograph in full, a wet-plate collodion (photo on glass) c.1850. Mr Haley, the primary researcher, believes it to be a copy of an earlier daguerreotype (the original being c. 1847-8). Note the fascinating ‘gypsy straws’ and thick cloaks possessed by Charlotte on the left and Emily in the middle. Anne on the right by contrast is in a thinner cloak, very similar to one worn in a pencil drawing of her by Charlotte from 1833 (even features the same clasp).

The nature of our enquiry (that we can draw some conclusions about the Brontës’ appearances) is a finite one – there are only going to be so many sources that we can cite, and so many images that we can share. So I will try to take my time and approach the subjects with some stealth and steadiness. Hopefully, you are interested in what I have to say. Lord knows I find it fascinating enough to write about, so perhaps there shall never be a time where I am rendered speechless..!

One source that I have become intensely interested in is the alleged Brontë photograph, and I do not anticipate that this will be the last you hear about it. About a year ago, I did a selection of drawings of the three Brontë girls, and based them on the photograph (and I still draw the girls a lot like this). The images below detail the basic method I went through when planning; overlaying the photograph’s faces on top of existing images and then drawing from that stimulus.

What do you think? Could they be the girls? E x

Left: Anne, by Charlotte, 1834. Middle: Charlotte, by George Richmond, 1850. Right: Unknown woman (thought to be Elizabeth Branwell (but I think it’s Emily)) c. 1834 (nb. the similarity to Anne’s miniature – the two complement each other).

As above featuring the faces of the photograph’s sitters – Anne, Charlotte, and Emily. Adobe Photoshop collage, 2015.