Branwell Brontë, By Those Who Knew Him

This weekend marks the 204th anniversary of Patrick Branwell Brontë, born in Thornton, Bradford on 26th June 1817. Okay, it’s a day after the day itself, but we’re sure that Branwell would still be celebrating.

Branwell Bronte self portrait
Branwell Bronte self portrait

What do we know about Branwell Brontë? He was the fourth of six Brontë siblings, born a year and two months after Charlotte Brontë. He and Charlotte were particularly close in childhood, and it was they who led the way into the kingdoms of Glass Town and Angria, leading to an explosion of youthful creativity and the little books which we can still see at Haworth Parsonage Museum today.

Map of Angria drawn by Branwell Bronte
Map of Angria drawn by Branwell Bronte

He was a man who found life a challenge, who was hit hard by the childhood losses of his mother and two eldest sisters, and then by failures in his artistic and literary dreams, and in love. Somehow, Branwell has taken on a Byronic twist for many, he is seen as ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know’ but is that a true and complete picture? I don’t think so, and nor did the people who knew him. In today’s post we’re going to delve into the archives and look at first person encounters with Branwell Brontë!

A little book, Branwell’s Blackwood’s Magazine

Chamber’s Journal, 22 February 1868

‘To his mind, Mr Branwell was the cleverest of the family. A wonderful talker he was, and able to do things which nobody he had ever seen could do. He had seen Branwell sitting in the vestry, talking to his father, and writing two different letters at the same time. He could take a pen in each hand, and write a letter with each at once. He had seen him do that many times, and had afterwards read the letters written in that way. Yes; it was true that he had come to a sad end, but Mrs Gaskell had not stated the case about him correctly. Haworth people did not like Mrs Gaskell at all. There was a deal of feeling against her for what she had said about Mr Branwell, and the villagers encouraging him to drink. Mrs Gaskell said that he had learned to drink as a boy, and had gone on strengthening his habit; but that was not true. When he was nineteen years old he was secretary to the temperance society in the village, and it was not until after that that he learned to drink. It was not correct that the landlord of the Bull had anything to do with teaching him, though it was quite true that he used to sit in the back parlour there and drink almost constantly of an evening when he was older. But if he could not have got drink there, he would have been sure to have got it somewhere else. But, oh, he was a fine talker Branwell; and such a talker! Ay, and when he was at the worst, he never missed coming to the Sunday school with his sisters. They all used to come regularly.’

Old School Rooms Haworth
The Old School Rooms, where Branwell sometimes taught

Francis Leyland, Leeds Times, 28 July 1883

‘Although the biographers of the Brontë family have done their best to destroy the reputation of Branwell for any mental gifts or manly virtues he might at any time have had, there was a better side of his nature, with which the readers of Brontë literature are unacquainted, but which they may know ere long. There can be no doubt that the irregularities of Branwell’s young life clashed with the formal manners of the parsonage. It is not surprising that Miss Brontë, in correspondence with a friend, should inform her of the apprehensions she felt respecting her brother. It is certain that Miss Brontë never intended the private concerns of the parsonage to be made known to others. Mr Brontë expressed to me his sorrow that his son’s irregularities were made known to the world. That Branwell was miserable I admit; but I deny that his misery was caused by drink, although he sometimes – and towards the close of his life too often – sought oblivion from his own woes in society and indulgence. Yet he was too worthy a member, on many accounts, of the Brontë family to be excluded from it as entirely worthless, reprobate, and lost. I speak from personal knowledge of him, I possess many of his writings in letters and poems, and I hope at no distant day to demonstrate his power, and to dispose of many of the calumnies with which a hasty and ill-considered judgment has overshadowed his memory.’

Branwell Bronte medallion by Joseph Leyland
Branwell Bronte medallion by Joseph Leyland

Nancy de Garrs, Pall Mall Gazette, 12 December 1884

‘“Branwell was a good lad enough,” she says, “until the serpent beguiled him,” and she thinks he has been “made out to be a good deal worse than he really was.” Nancy could “manage him” better than any one else when his fits of fury were upon him, and Branwell seemed to have a real affection for his old nurse. He often wanted to paint her portrait, but she declined on the score that she did not consider herself good looking enough.’

Patrick Reid Turned Off
‘Patrick Reid Turned Off’ by Branwell Bronte

J. S. Horsfall, Leeds Mercury, 15 September 1897

‘My most vivid remembrances are of Branwell Brontë, who was a great friend of my father’s, and whom I distinctly remember one evening at our house reciting from ‘Childe Harold,’ Byron’s fine address to the ocean. I never forgot it. It made a great impression on my mind, and I can remember him now, a little man (compared with my father, who was tall) with light, reddish hair, and wearing spectacles.’

Branwell Bronte gun group engraving
Branwell Bronte’s gun group engraving

Charles Hall, Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 7 February 1908

‘Branwell died in my childhood, but one heard a good many stories about his appearances at the ‘Black Bull’. He was a merry, well read, interesting boy, and it was not surprising that the men who gathered at the ‘Black Bull’ for liquor and entertainment enjoyed his gay company and made him welcome; nor was it surprising that he went there, considering that there was not a lad in the village, of his own social standing, with whom he could have consorted. It was a pity he was not sent away in early life, then all might have been different.’

Branwell's painting of the sexton (& his drinking friend) John Brown
Branwell’s portrait of his friend John Brown

Batley Reporter and Guardian, 30 June 1877

‘The room in which this lively scene occurs has no doubt witnessed many still more lively, for it was the sanctum sanctorum of the company that gathered round Branwell Brontë while he kept the table in a roar with his lively sallies of wit, or astonished and dazzled the more intelligent portion of his friends by his eloquent and thoughtful discourse. There in the corner is “Mr. Branwell’s chair,” old and curious enough to be placed in some museum, and there he would sit with his “great tawny mane” dishevelled, and his bright eyes turned to the ceiling, talking most eloquently to the admiring villagers, with whom anyone who visits Haworth will soon find he was a firm favourite. Poor Branwell! What a pity that a life of such promise should have been so cruelly wasted. Every elderly man you meet knew Branwell. Charlotte and her sisters they were also familiar with, but they were very reserved, and kept apart. Branwell, however, was free and open. They will all give you anecdotes of him.”

Branwell Bronte's chair
Branwell Bronte’s chair, once of the Black Bull

Francis Grundy, Pictures Of The Past: Memories of Men I Have Met And Places I Have Seen

‘Soon after I came to Halifax, I made the acquaintance of a genius of the highest order, Patrick Branwell Bronte, who was at least as talented as any member of that wonderful family. Much my senior, Bronte took an unusual fancy to me, and I continued, perhaps, his most confidential friend through good and ill until his death. Poor, brilliant, gay, moody, moping, wildly excitable, miserable Bronte! No history records your many struggles after the good, – your wit, brilliance, attractiveness, eagerness for excitement, – all the qualities which made you such ‘good company,’ and dragged you down to an untimely grave. But you have had a most unnecessary scandal heaped upon you by the author of your sister’s Biography by which that scandal does its best to spoil.

This generous gentleman in all his ideas, this madman in many of his acts died at twenty-eight of grief for a woman. But at twenty-two, what a splendid specimen of brain power running wild he was! what glorious talent he had still to waste! That Rector of Haworth little knew how to bring up and bring out his clever family, and the boy least of all. He was a hard, matter-of-fact man. So the girls worked their own way to fame and death, the boy to death only! I knew them all.

The Lonely Shepherd
The Lonely Shepherd by Branwell Bronte

The father, – upright, handsome, distantly courteous, white-haired, tall ; knowing me as his son’s friend, he would treat me in the Grandisonian fashion, coming himself down to the little inn to invite me, a boy, up to his house, where I would be coldly uncomfortable until I could escape with Patrick Branwell to the moors…

Branwell was very like them [Charlotte, Emily and Anne], almost insignificantly small – one of his life’s trials. He had a mass of red hair, which he wore brushed high off his forehead, – to help his height, I fancy ; a great, bumpy, intellectual forehead, nearly half the size of the whole facial contour ; small ferrety eyes, deep sunk, and still further hidden by the never removed spectacles ; prominent nose, but weak lower features. He had a downcast look, which never varied, save for a rapid momentary glance at long intervals. Small and thin of person, he was the reverse of attractive at first sight.

Jacob's Dream Branwell Bronte
Jacob’s Dream by Branwell Bronte

This plain specimen of humanity, who died unhonoured, might have made the world of literature and art ring with the name of which he was so proud…

He would discourse with wondrous knowledge upon subjects, moral, intellectual, philosophical, for hours, and afterwards accompany his audience to the nearest public-house, and recruit his exhausted powers by copious libations. He was proud of his name, his strength, and his abilities. In his fits of passion I have seen him drive his doubled fist through the panel of a door: it seemed to soothe him; it certainly bruised his knuckles. At times we would drive over in a gig to Haworth (twelve miles), and visit his people. He was then at his best, and would be eloquent and amusing, although sometimes he would burst into tears when returning, and swear that he meant to amend. I believe, however, that he was half mad, and could not control himself…

In Search of Anne Bronte at Emily's, Thornton
The fireplace at Thornton Parsonage by which Branwell was born in 1817

Poor fellow! this short story by a weak hand is all the biography his memory will know. His age was twenty-eight. I have always been of opinion that it remained for me to clear his name from the weight of accusation heaped upon it. I knew him, and indeed, I believe, all the family, better than Mrs. Gaskell did. He was a dear old friend, who from the rich storehouse of his knowledge taught me much. I make my humble effort to do my duty to his memory. His letters to me revealed more of his soul’s struggles than probably was known to any other. Patrick Branwell Bronte was no domestic demon – he was just a man moving in a mist, who lost his way. More sinned against, mayhap, than sinning, at least he proved the reality of his sorrows.’

Branwell Northangerland
Branwell wrote poetry under a Northangerland pseudonym

A man moving in a mist indeed, but with the passage of time those mists clear. We can now see that Branwell Brontë was a talented man, a kind hearted man, but one who needed help that simply wasn’t available at that time. Nevertheless, we can say, ‘Happy 204th birthday Branwell Brontë.’

I leave you now with exciting news of a new Brontë documentary being shown next week! ‘Brontë’s Britain with Gyles Brandreth‘ is being broadcast here in the UK on Channel 5 at 9pm on Tuesday, 29th June (after the England match is over, so there’s no excuse not to watch). It should be both entertaining and informative, especially as Gyles is a passionate fan of literature and the Brontës himself. I hope you enjoy it, and I hope to see you next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.

Gyles Brandreth heading up Haworth’s Main Street for Tuesday’s documentary

Charlotte Brontë On Her Writing Rivals

The Brontës are probably the most famous writing siblings of them all, which will make Grimm reading for two of their rivals, and their work continues to be enjoyed around the globe. Reading a Brontë novel can be moving, cathartic, and thought provoking, and it’s certainly enjoyable, but what did the Brontës think of the writers they read? That’s the subject of today’s new post.

When I say ‘the Brontës’, on this occasion I specifically mean Charlotte Brontë; unfortunately we don’t have the written pronouncements of Anne and Emily on this subject. Nevertheless, they were avid readers and we can see the influence of writers such as Scott in particular on Emily’s novel Wuthering Heights. It was Charlotte who gave her always frank and honest opinions on many of our greatest writers, however, including perhaps the greatest of them all: William Shakespeare.

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare

As an eighteen year old, Charlotte famously wrote of the great bard:

‘If you like poetry let it be first rate, Milton, Shakespeare, Thomson, Goldsmith, Pope (if you will though I don’t admire him), Scott, Byron, Campbell, Wordsworth and Southey. Now Ellen don’t be startled at the names of Shakespeare, and Byron. Both these were great men and their works are like themselves. You will know how to choose the good and avoid the evil, the finest passages are always the purest, the bad are invariably revolting you will never wish to read them over twice. Omit the comedies of Shakespeare.’

It seems, however, that in later years Charlotte had a keen interest in, or at least knowledge of, Shakespeare. We know this from the testimony of a Frank Peel, an aspiring actor who called upon Charlotte Brontë as he didn’t have any boots – Charlotte seemingly being well known in the area for her acts of philanthropy. He got the boots, but he also got a lesson in Shakespeare:

CBWS stamp
Charlotte and Shakespeare stamps

‘By the time I had finished my breakfast the lady had returned to the kitchen and put some old boots before me, bidding me to try to fit a pair on. I did so, and found a pair which fitted pretty well. By this time the younger lady also returned into the kitchen. Both sat down, and Miss Charlotte then said, “I have given you breakfast, found you boots, and I am now going to talk to you a bit.” She did talk to me, and in a way that made me wish I had never gone. She said that in nine cases out of ten people adopted my course of life from sheer idleness or gipsy instinct, and not because they had any special talent for theatricals. Did I think I had any talent? I told her I thought I had. Would I give her a specimen? Here was a dilemma! How could I refuse after the kindness with which I had been treated? In great pain, I said I would try to comply with her request. I gave, first, ‘Young Lochinvar,’ in my best style, and then her look of motherly severity seemed to relax a little. She then began to ask a number of questions about my family and other matters, which I answered as well as I could. Amongst other things, I told her I had relations at Cleckheaton. and described it and the neighbourhood to her. The younger lady then asked me if I knew any more recitations, and I replied I could give one or two from Shakespeare. Feeling more at ease, I at once recited one or two selections from ‘Hamlet’, without any remark being made. Miss Charlotte then asked me if I would give the dialogue between Hamlet and his mother, where the Queen says, “Do not for ever with thy veiled lids seek for thy noble father in the dust; thou know’st ’tis common, all that live must die—passing through nature to eternity.” I complied as well I could; gave the whole scene without the ladies displaying any special interest in it, until I came to the line where Hamlet says, “I have that within which passeth show; these, but the trappings and the suits of woe,” when they both burst out into good-humoured laugh. I dared not ask the cause of this, but I suppose my looks showed my anxiety, and Charlotte said, “I’ve seen Hamlet played at Bradford, and they made the same mistake you have made in the word ‘suite.’ Shakespeare never could have used it in that sense – namely, a dress – but in a wider sense, ‘suite,’ pronounced ‘sweet,’ meaning that the King, Queen, and all about them were only acting the part of mourners, making their conduct match or harmonise with their supposed recent bereavement – the death of Hamlet’s father.” I did not venture on any opinion, but said I believed it was in the book. Miss Charlotte said it was, but only showed the ignorant, shortsightedness of those who tampered with Shakespeare’s works.’

Walter Scott
Walter Scott (see also the header image of Scott)

One writer whom Charlotte Brontë always gave a glowing tribute to was Walter Scott. In the first letter we saw, Charlotte praised Scott’s poetry, but in the same 1834 missive she also praised his prose:

‘For Fiction – read Scott alone, all novels after his are worthless.’

By 1848, when Charlotte herself was a published and much praised writer, it was still Scott who held the position of supremacy in her mind, as we see in this letter to W. S. Williams:

‘The standard heroes and heroines of novels, are personages in whom I could never, from childhood upwards, take an interest, believe to be natural, or wish to imitate; were I obliged to copy these characters, I would simply not write at all. Were I obliged to copy any former novelist, even the greatest, even Scott, in anything, I would not write.’

Jane Austen
Jane Austen

Ask people today to name the greatest writer of ‘classic’ literature, and Jane Austen would be sure to figure highly, but Charlotte Brontë had contrasting views of this brilliant novelist. On 12th January 1848 she wrote the critic G. H. Lewes:

‘’Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point. What induced you to say that you would rather have written Pride & Prejudice or Tom Jones [Henry Fielding] than any of the Waverley novels [by Walter Scott]? I had not seen Pride & Prejudice till I read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book and studied it. And what did I find? An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a common-place face; a carefully-fenced, highly cultivated garden with neat borders and delicate flowers – but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy – no open country – no fresh air – no blue hill – no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses.’

This, however, shouldn’t be taken purely as a critique upon Austen. Charlotte had little knowledge of Jane’s writing, and from the letter to Williams we looked at, we can see how Charlotte was determined to differentiate herself from the style and characters of preceding novelists. Two years later, however, Charlotte is expressing praise, in her unique way, for Jane Austen’s Emma:

‘I have likewise read one of Miss Austen’s works Emma – read it with interest and with just the degree of admiration which Miss Austen herself would have thought sensible and suitable – anything like warmth or enthusiasm; anything energetic, poignant, heart-felt, is utterly out of place in commending these works: all such demonstrations the authoress would have met with a well-bred sneer, would have calmly scorned as outré and extravagant. She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well; there is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy in the painting: she ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound.’

Thackeray by Frank Stone
Thackeray by Frank Stone

After Scott, perhaps the most enduring literary love of Charlotte was William Makepeace Thackeray. Charlotte dedicated the second edition of Jane Eyre to her hero with extravagantly fulsome praise:

‘There is a man in our own days whose words are not framed to tickle delicate ears: who, to my thinking, comes before the great ones of society, much as the son of Imlah came before the throned Kings of Judah and Israel; and who speaks truth as deep, with a power as prophet-like and as vital-a mien as dauntless and as daring. Is the satirist of “Vanity Fair” admired in high places? I cannot tell; but I think if some of those amongst whom he hurls the Greek fire of his sarcasm, and over whom he flashes the levin-brand of his denunciation, were to take his warnings in time-they or their seed might yet escape a fatal Rimoth-Gilead.

Why have I alluded to this man? I have alluded to him, Reader, because I think I see in him an intellect profounder and more unique than his contemporaries have yet recognised; because I regard him as the first social regenerator of the day-as the very master of that working corps who would restore to rectitude the warped system of things; because I think no commentator on his writings has yet found the comparison that suits him, the terms which rightly characterise his talent. They say he is like Fielding: they talk of his wit, humour, comic powers. He resembles Fielding as an eagle does a vulture: Fielding could stoop on carrion, but Thackeray never does. His wit is bright, his humour attractive, but both bear the same relation to his serious genius that the mere lambent sheet-lightning playing under the edge of the summer-cloud does to the electric death-spark hid in its womb. Finally, I have alluded to Mr. Thackeray, because to him – if he will accept the tribute of a total stranger – I have dedicated this second edition of “JANE EYRE.”’

Bronte door panel
Door panel in Cornhill, London, showing Thackeray with Charlotte and Anne Bronte

Thanks to Charlotte’s growing fame, and their shared publisher George Smith, it wasn’t long before she met Thackeray; they got on well, all things considered, despite Thackeray’s large physical size and exuberant character being a sharp contrast to Charlotte herself.

Writing to George Smith in 1852, giving a critique of Henry Esmond (a work in progress by Thackeray which she’d been sent), her praise of the writer is undiminished:

‘Many other things I noticed that, for my part, grieved and exasperated me as I read, but then again came passages so true, so deeply thought, so tenderly felt, one could not help forgiving and admiring…I wish there was one whose word he cared for to bid him good speed – to tell him to go on courageously with the book; he may yet make it the best thing he has ever written… Some people have been in the habit of terming him the second writer of his day; it just depends on himself whether or not these critics shall be justified in their award. He need not be second. God made him second to no man.’

Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens

Who then is the number one in popular critical opinion alluded to by Charlotte? It was Charles Dickens, already by 1852 at the age of 40 a national treasure. Perhaps it was a perceived rivalry with Thackeray that led to Charlotte being rather cool on works by Dickens that are now regarded among the greatest novels of all time. In 1852, for example, Charlotte remarked:

‘Is the 1st number of Bleak House generally admired? I liked the Chancery part – but where it passes into the autobiographic form and the young woman who announces that she is not “bright” begins her history – it seems to me too often weak and twaddling; an amiable nature is caricatured not faithfully rendered in Miss Esther Summerson.’

Charlotte Brontë, like her sisters, loved reading books and forming opinions on them; she was a voracious and astute reader. I could fill another dozen posts with her views on other writers including Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, Julia Kavanagh and many more, but I will finish with her October 1852 praise of a contemporary novelist whose work shook society on both sides of the Atlantic, and whose great novel sold more than a million copies in England in that year alone – Harriet Beecher Stowe:

‘I cannot write books handling the topics of the day – it is of no use trying. Nor can I write a book for its moral. Nor can I take up a philanthropic scheme though I honour Philanthropy, and voluntarily and sincerely veil my face before such a mighty subject as that handled in Mrs. Beecher Stowe’s work – Uncle Tom’s Cabin. To manage these great matters rightly they must be long and practically studied – their bearings known intimately and their evils felt genuinely – they must not be taken up as a business-matter and a trading-speculation. I doubt not Mrs. Stowe had felt the iron of slavery enter her heart from childhood upwards long before she ever thought of writing books. The feeling throughout her work is sincere and not got up.’

Harriet Beecher Stowe
Harriet Beecher Stowe

The bottom line, of course, is that any book is a good book as long as you enjoy reading it. I wish Happy Father’s Day to all fathers out there, and for those for whom this day is a sad one may you find comfort in happy memories. This week also witnessed a sad anniversary for Elizabeth Brontë died on 15th June 1825 aged just ten years old. She was not forgotten then or now.

I leave you all with happier tidings. On Thursday morning I received an email from Sotheby’s – the July auction of the Honresfield Library containing Brontë treasures (and Scott and Austen items) has been suspended. They are instead helping to negotiate a plan to buy the items for the nation, with support from government funds, organisations such as the British Library and the Brontë Parsonage Museum, and from some wealthy philanthropists who are choosing to carry out their good work in private. Charlotte would surely have approved. It’s great news, and it now seems very likely that the items will soon be in public ownership and on view in locations such as Haworth and Euston Road. Many people have messaged me on this, thanks to all and especially to Amber Elby of Texas who has been undertaking fund raising ventures to help bring the Brontës home.

I will see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post – until then, happy reading!

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?