Four Portraits of Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte Brontë was not a woman who was content to sit and do nothing; rather, she was a woman of action who liked to occupy her time in the best possible way. This day in 1850 must have been difficult for her, because it was on this day, the 13th of June, that she sat, for the first time, for the portrait artist George Richmond. In today’s post we’re going to look at that portrait of Charlotte Brontë, and at others she had done.

George Richmond self portrait
George Richmond self portrait, circa 1830

As I said, this is the 171st anniversary of Charlotte’s first sitting for Richmond at the home of her London publisher George Smith, she also sat for him on the 15th June and 24th June before her portrait was complete. We can imagine the thoughts whizzing through Charlotte’s mind as she sat in stillness and silence; perhaps her mind turned to future works, to her father in Haworth, or to her recently departed siblings? At least she would have found some comfort in the fact that she was being drawn by one of the leading society portraitists of his day.

Richmond, born in 1809, was known for his portraits in chalk, and he was so much in demand that he often had three or four subjects sitting for him in one day. After three sittings, two at the Smith house near Hyde Park, and the final one at the Phillimore Gardens home of Charlotte’s friend Laetitia Wheelwright, the portrait was complete, and it remains the definitive image of Charlotte Brontë to this day.

Charlotte Bronte George Richmond
Charlotte Bronte, by George Richmond, in the National Portrait Gallery collection

What did people who knew Charlotte well think of the portrait? In a letter to Ellen Nussey of 1st August 1850, Charlotte made these comments:

‘My portrait is come from London – and the Duke of Wellington’s and kind letters enough. Papa thinks the portrait looks older than I do: he says the features are far from flattered, but acknowledges that the expression is wonderfully good and life-like.’

On the other hand the ever frank Mary Taylor said that the portrait was ‘too much flattered’, whilst Ellen Nussey herself remarked that ‘there would always have been regret for its painful expression to be perpetuated.’ It’s said that faithful servant Tabby Aykroyd didn’t like the picture at all, although it has to be said that Tabby was only partially sighted by this time. Perhaps the problem was that George Richmond created so many portraits, and stuck rigidly to his own style, that many people said that his portraits all looked similar.

Charlotte Bronte by J.H. Thompson
Charlotte Bronte by J.H. Thompson

This rather lovely portrait of Charlotte Brontë was painted by John Hunter Thompson, but if Mary Taylor thought the Richmond portrait was flattering, who knows what she would have thought of Thompson’s? This portrait is now part of the Brontë Parsonage Museum collection, but it was one that Charlotte never sat for.

We don’t know the exact date of this composition, so does the fact that it was not painted from life make it worthless? Not necessarily, for Thompson was a great friend of Branwell Brontë, and it’s likely that he had met Charlotte Brontë too.

In fact, J.H. Thompson was not only a friend of Branwell’s, but a colleague too. He was a fellow portrait artist in Bradford at the time Branwell was painting there, and we know that Thompson was occasionally called upon by Branwell to put the finishing touches to paintings he’d worked on. Painted from memory it may be, but Thompson certainly gives Charlotte Brontë a happier, more vibrant, disposition than Richmond managed.

Bronte sisters portrait
The pillar portrait by Branwell Bronte, showing Anne, Emily and Charlotte

Talking of Branwell, we have his teenage portrait of his sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë of course. It’s less complete than the other portraits we have of Charlotte, but it’s also surely the most important as it was painted by someone who was part of her daily life.

The story is well known of how he painted himself into the portrait but was so dissatisfied at this part of the portrait that he painted himself out by placing a large pillar over his own image. It’s a great metaphor for the impression that Branwell would make on life compared to his sisters, but is it true? Certainly someone was painted out, but the man in the faded image seems to be wearing a large neck warmer known as a Wellington. These were habitually worn by Patrick Brontë, as we see in all his pictures, so could the ghostly figure behind the pillar actually have been Branwell’s father? After all, if Branwell was looking at the quartet as he painted it, he couldn’t also have been part of it.

Charlotte Bronte 1843
Once thought to be Charlotte Bronte, painted by Mary Dixon

There is another portrait to look at. This beautiful image was once believed to be of Charlotte Brontë, painted in Belgium in 1843 by her friend Mary Dixon, a cousin of Mary Taylor. Dixon became a great friend of Charlotte’s in Brussels, although she was in such ill health that Charlotte referred to her as ‘a piteous case’, and said that it was ‘grievous to think of her.’ Despite her illness, however, Mary Dixon died in 1897 aged 88.

The picture was bought by the Brontë Society in 2002, but it’s subject matter is now thought not to be Charlotte Brontë. Just as with its initial attribution, however, that is unproven, so could it be Charlotte after all? In addition to this we have the Edwin Landseer portrait which is believed by some to be a portrait of the Brontë sisters.

We almost had another Charlotte Brontë portrait, by an artist whose name is still renowned across the world: John Everett Millais, the founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. A young Millais was struck by Charlotte Brontë after meeting her in London at a party hosted by Thackeray. Millais later told his daughter that Charlotte forever represented in his mind the ideal of a woman genius, and that she had remarkable eyes; he also stated that Charlotte, ‘looked tired with her own brains.’ Millais offered to paint Charlotte’s portrait, but stepped aside when he learned that Richmond was already underway with a portrait of her.

Effie Millais
Effie Millais, formerly Effie Gray, painted by her husband John Everett Millais in 1873

Perhaps the greatest portraits of all are those of the characters which Charlotte and her family brought to life in her books. I shall see you again next Sunday for another sitting, er, I mean another new Brontë blog post.

The Sotheby’s Auction Of Bronte Treasures

The Bronte Parsonage Museum has successfully opened to the public, but now the eyes of Bronte fans worldwide turn to another location: Sotheby’s Auction House on New Bond Street, London. In today’s post we’re going to look at perhaps the most eagerly anticipated literary auction of the century: the auction of the Honresfield Library at Sotheby’s on 13th July, with online bids accepted from 2pm on the 2nd.

Special thanks go to Dr. Gabriel Heaton and Melica Khansari of Sotheby’s who have supplied me with lots of details and images of the items to be auctioned so that I can share them with you.  This, in fact, is the first of three Honresfield auctions which are taking place ion 2021 and 2022, so what is the Honresfield Library and why is it of such interest to Bronte lovers?

Honresfield House
Honresfield House, once home to to literature lovers the Laws

The Honresfield Library was founded by William and Alfred Law, two self-made mill owners who used their vast fortune to satiate their love of literature at their grand home Honresfield House near Rochdale – much like another Lancashire-born mill owner, Sir Edward Brotherton. Like Brotherton, who gifted many priceless manuscripts to the Leeds University library which bears his name, the Laws were huge Bronte fans. In 1939 the Laws’ heir, their nephew Sir Alfred Law, died without issue and the spectacular Honresfield Library collection vanished from view – until now.

A first edition of Emma, image courtesy of Sotheby’s

The collection, large parts of which are now being auctioned, featured first editions, letters and manuscripts from leading writers including Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Robert Burns. Also appearing in this first auction is the manuscript of Walter Scott’s poem ‘The Lay Of The Last Minstrel.

Walter Scott manuscript, courtesy of Sotheby’s

The Scott manuscript would certainly have interested the Brontes, who were great fans of the writer. In an early letter to Ellen Nussey, Charlotte Bronte stated: ‘‘Scott’s sweet, wild, romantic Poetry can do you no harm… for Fiction – read Scott alone, all novels after his are worthless.’

Emily Bronte’s 1841 diary paper, courtesy of Sotheby’s
Anne Bronte’s 1841 diary paper, courtesy of Sotheby’s

What has captured the interest of the world, however, is items from the Laws’ Bronte collection which are soon to go under the hammer. We have letters from Branwell Bronte, first editions of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, Emily and Anne Bronte’s 1841 diary paper, and, perhaps most astonishingly, the manuscript book of Emily Bronte’s poetry which Charlotte Bronte ‘accidentally’ discovered in late 1845:

Emily Bronte’s poetry manuscript, courtesy of Sotheby’s

“One day, in the autumn of 1845, I accidentally lighted on a manuscript volume of verse in my sister Emily’s handwriting. Of course, I was not surprised, knowing that she could and did write verse: I looked it over, and something more than surprise seized me, – a deep conviction that these were not common effusions, nor at all like the poetry women generally write. I thought them condensed and terse, vigorous and genuine. To my ear, they had also a peculiar music – wild, melancholy, and elevating. Meantime, my younger sister (Anne) quietly produced some of her own compositions, intimating that since Emily’s had given me pleasure, I might like to look at hers. I thought that these verses too had a sweet sincere pathos of their own.”

More from Emily Bronte’s poetry manuscript, courtesy of Sotheby’s

It is this very manuscript volume which is the highlight of the Honresfield auction in July, and although it has been given an auction estimate of £800,000 to £1,200,000 it would be unsurprising  to see it fetch even more. Rather more affordable, to some, is the beautiful copy of Thomas Bewick’s A History of British Birds. Dating from 1816, the year Charlotte was born, it was the Bronte family copy, and we can tell how much the young Brontes loved it for two reasons: it features in both Jane Eyre and in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and this edition is full of their notes. If the estimate is correct, it can be yours for between thirty and fifty thousand pounds.

The Bronte family Bewick, courtesy of Sotheby’s

In one delightful annotation, Patrick Bronte has described a Bewick illustration of branches as being suggestive of, ‘those imaginary ghosts, that often excite the fears of weak, superstitious people, who are deceived by the uncertainty of darkness.’

This is the book a young Jane Eyre reads, image courtesy of Sotheby’s

So what will become of this magnificent collection next month? The high value of the items for sale makes it seem likely that they will once again become the property of a wealthy, private investor –much in the way that multi-million pound artworks are often bought by city traders to be locked away as a safe investment. Will these items disappear once more, or will a kindly benefactor gift them to the nation?

The Bronte Society has rightly called for the collection to be saved for the nation and has written to MPs. Unfortunately, the vast value of the Honresfield collection is too much for them to hope to raise without governmental help, and this government has shown no inclination to support literary heritage and the arts, before or during the pandemic. Nevertheless, hope springs eternal, and you can read their response, and find out how to support it, here. If you are in the UK you can also download a template letter to send to your own Member of Parliament.

One of two letters from Branwell Bronte to Hartley Coleridge, image courtesy of Sotheby’s

What is for sure is that a fabulous collection will be sold by Sotheby’s next month and that this has brought them to light once again – even if only fleetingly. I’m off to look down the back of my sofa for some spare pennies, if any of you have a million or two to spare, please get in touch. I will see you again next Sunday for another new Bronte blog post but I leave you with this thought: how astonished would the Bronte sisters have been if they could have known that their work would be so valued, and create such excitement, two centuries after their births?