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.

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.