Tag Archives: bronte

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

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending with some friends a jumble trail in which locals sold old – and in some instances new – bits and bobs from their front yards. About an hour into our search, what did I find?

I had to buy it. It never ceases to amaze me how far the name of Brontë has come from the remote hills of Haworth..!

Another sweet find were two coasters that resemble two well beloved (well in one case, well feared) characters from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials – Iorek Brynison (the bear) and Marisa Coulter’s sinister dæmon, the Golden Monkey. All from the same stall, spookily. Horley and Grinstead from Pullman’s latest work, The Collectors, come to mind.

Was it by some Divine Providence that I found these items? Since my Brontë-mania began in (between Nov 2013 and Feb 2014) lots of peculiar things have happened, quite by chance, that have suggested I am on the right path – but many coincidences happen daily, I suppose, and as I said above, they have become known far and wide, and their reach and influence extends across the world. Oh, to be a genius!

E x

Just came upon this rather wonderful quote by Lucasta Miller:

Facts, then, can become mythic through the way in which they are packaged and perceived. That there were three – and not four or five – Brontë sisters is, for example, a historical fact. But the motif of the three sisters has a cultural mystique stretching back into fairy tale, which unconsciously – or consciously, as when Ted Hughes calls them the ‘Three weird sisters’ after the witches in Macbeth – contributes to the sense of mystery which surrounds them. The historical accident by which three of Patrick and Maria Brontë’s five daughters lived beyond childhood, grew to develop literary talent, and become famous as a trio melds at some level in the cultural consciousness with the atavistic magic associated with the idea of the three sisters.

The Brontë Myth can be purchased here. Guardian review here.

E 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?

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.