The Bronte Connection

How the 'Bronte Sisters Photo' is linked to a photo at the Bronte Parsonage Museum.

When photos on glass were produced in the 1850s they were placed in a frame with another piece of glass in front. Sandwiched between the glass plates was a thin piece of metal (known as a mat or passe partout). These came in various designs and were normally machine-cut.

The 'Bronte Sisters Photo' doesn't have one of these ornate mats, it has been cut out of a piece of metal by hand.

Hand-cut mats are surprisingly rare.
Over the past three years we have looked at over 25,000 English collodions and only found one other.

Straight/Concave/Uneven.

What is thought to be the earliest photo in the Bronte Parsonage Museum also has a roughly-hewn, hand-cut mat and a similar pinchbeck frame. This is despite the fact that in the 1850s machine-cut mats were widely available.

In the Parsonage photo the right edge of the mat is straight, the opposite edge slightly concave, and the other two are uneven. The 'Bronte Sisters Photo' is cut in exactly the same way except that the straight edge is on the left and the concave side on the right. This is unlikely to be a coincidence.

ABOVE: The Bronte Museum's photo of Haworth Parsonage c1857 and the 'Bronte Sisters photo' with similar hand-cut mat and frame.

Hand-cut mats are not often seen in 1850s photos and where they do exist they are usually straight. The two photos are not only badly cut, but badly cut in the same manner; as both appear to be Bronte-related they were almost certainly taken by the same photographer about 1857.

There is a grey cast to the 'Bronte Sisters Photo' which is more noticeable when compared to other contemporary photos. This lack of tonal range and contrast, and the fact that it isn't level, is a sign that it may well be a copy of an earlier photo. The BPM allowed us to compare the two photos in 2012 (see the image below).

Did John Stewart take both photos?

Scottish-born John Stewart and his friend Jean-Jacques Heilmann were landscape photographers in France, known for using aerial perspective. Unusually, the Parsonage Photo is taken from the tower of Haworth Church; any photographer would have needed permission from the Rev Bronte or Mr Nicholls before taking bulky photographic equipment and chemicals into the church.

It is possible that the two photos were taken by John Stewart on his visits to Haworth in 1856-7. He visited Haworth for two reasons. In November 1856 he made three photographic copies of the 'Richmond Portrait' of Charlotte for Mr Nicholls. Early in 1857 he returned to take a selection of views of Haworth for Mrs Gaskell.

Stewart lived in the South of France and returned there in 1857; the 'Bronte Sisters photo' was discovered in France a few years ago. The only other connection with France is Elizabeth Gaskell who travelled to visit her friend Mary Clarke Mohl in March 1857.

 Handwriting on the reverse

 

To the top left of the backing paper "Soeurs Bronte" is written in pencil. It has been suggested that this is was not written by a French hand because of the omission of "Les." Just above and below this are indistinct marks which may or may not be faded writing.

Detail of the earlier writing on the backing paper which reads "Soeurs Bronte."

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At some later date, perhaps several decades later, someone has written "Londres" and "Les Soeurs Bronte" in ink. Only two sisters are known to have visited London at the same time so if these are the Bronte sisters then this is unlikely to be the location.  A French contributor to the website believes that this resembles a young person's handwriting and that it should perhaps read "Angleterre."

Detail of the later handwriting on the backing paper which reads "Londres" and "Les Soeurs Bronte."

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The backing consists of three sheets of paper: black, cream and blue.