Two portraits of Charlotte Bronte exist, Branwell's 1830s depiction in the
'Pillar Portrait' and George Richmond's chalk drawing of 1850. Although the latter is a
beautiful portrait it is idealised, making any comparison with the photo difficult - see
Charlotte's Two Portraits.
Left: If this is Charlotte Bronte in the photo was taken
c1848, she would be 32.
Right: Charlotte Bronte in the 1830s,
aged about 18. She had a slightly crooked mouth; it turned downwards on
her right. This
is detail from the 'Pillar
Portrait' painted by her teenage brother,
Branwell in the 1830s but it was not seen by the public until 1914.
Elizabeth Gaskell first met Charlotte in 1850:
"the little lady worked away and hardly spoke but I had time for a good look at her. She
is (as she calls herself) UNDEVELOPED, thin, and more than half a head shorter than I am; soft
brown hair, not very dark; eyes (very good and expressive, looking straight and open at you) of
the same colour as her hair; a large mouth; the forehead square, broad and rather over-hanging.
She has a very sweet voice; rather hesitates in choosing her expressions, but when chosen they
seem without an effort admirable, and just befitting the occasion; there is nothing
overstrained, but perfectly simple."
Eyes as clear as
Many descriptions of Charlotte mention her eyes
and Elizabeth Gaskell thought them to
"...peculiar eyes, of which I find it
difficult to give a description, as they appeared to me in her later life. They were large, and
well shaped; their colour a reddish brown; but if the iris was closely examined, it appeared to
be composed of a great variety of tints. The
usual expression was of quiet, listening intelligence; but now and then, on some just occasion
for vivid interest or wholesome indignation, a light would shine out, as if some spiritual lamp
had been kindled, which glowed behind those expressive orbs. I never saw the like in any other human creature."
the rest of her features, they were plain, large, and ill set; but, unless you began to
catalogue them, you were hardly aware of the fact, for the eyes and power of the countenance
over-balanced every physical defect; the crooked mouth and large nose were forgotten, and
the whole face arrested the attention, and presently attracted all those whom she herself
would have cared to attract."
Life of Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell,
"Charlotte had a very wee foot and small arms, and
was [short] sighted" but her eyes
were "as clear as diamonds."
of the Bronte family in Ireland who visited Haworth as a boy - published in The
Sketch, 10 February 1897
"Many who met Charlotte Brontë were amazed to find that
the fierce and vehement Currer Bell was, in fact, a rather plain, terribly shy,
and quite proper woman, completely unremarkable in appearance except for eyes
of "extraordinary brilliancy and penetration." 2.
"I must confess that my first impression of Charlotte
Brontë's personal appearance was that it was interesting rather than
attractive. She was very small, and had a quaint old-fashioned look.
Her head seemed too large for her body. She had fine eyes, but her face was
marred by the shape of the mouth and by the complexion. There was but little
feminine charm about her." George
Over the years, paintings and descriptions of Charlotte's eyes are varied: grey,
blue, blue/brown, hazel, light brown and "difficult to
describe... but reddish-brown with tints." There is similar confusion over the colour of
Detail from Charlotte in Branwell's 'Pillar
Portrait' and 'Charlotte' in the photograph.
Charlotte in the photo, Branwell's portrait and
the sketch, photographed about 1900.
The only image found which in any way resembles Branwell's
version of Charlotte is a profile sketch, photographed about 1900 by A E Hall; a poor
reproduction of it is shown above. He thought that this was Anne but the nose is concave.
He couldn't have compared it with Branwell's painting because it wasn't discovered until 1914
and in 1900 the only image of Charlotte was her portrait by George Richmond.
This suggests that her nose was slightly retrousse
in the sense that it turned up at the bridge.
1. Anne Thackeray Richie (daughter of William
Makepeace Thackeray) describing Charlotte. Harold Orel. (ed) "The Brontes - Interviews and
Recollections." London 1997, p. 160.
2. One visitor to the
Parsonage was mesmerized by them; although no doubt exaggerated this is his
"Altogether she was as unpretending,
undemonstrative, quiet a little lady as you could well meet. Her age I took to be about
five-and-thirty. But when you saw and felt her eyes, the spirit that created Jane Eyre was
revealed at once to you. They were rather
small, but of a very peculiar colour, and had a strange lustre and intensity. They were
chameleon-like, a blending of various brown and olive tints. But they looked you through and through-and you felt they were
forming an opinion of you, not by mere acute noting of Lavaterish physiognomical
peculiarities, but by a subtle penetration into the very marrow of your mind, and the
innermost core of your soul.
Taking my hand again she apologised for her
enforced absence, and, as she did so, she looked right through me. There was no boldness in the
gaze, but an intense, direct, searching look, as of one who had the gift to read hidden
mysteries, and the right to read them. I had a feeling that I never experienced before or
since, as though I was being mesmerised. It was almost a relief when the look was removed, and
we sat down together to table. During dinner I had always a feeling that those eyes were on me,
when I was looking down myself, and when I looked at her, and her gaze was on her plate, I
still could not divest myself of the sensation that those eyes could see one through their
Free Lance, 7 and 14 March, 1868, articles entitled "Charlotte Bronte" and "A Day with
Charlotte Bronte [in 1850]" Personal Reminiscences (of John Stores Smith).
3. There is other evidence
that Branwell managed to achieve a good
likeness. He had a brief career as an artist in
Bradford from June 1838 until May 1839 lodging with the Kirby family and their niece, Margaret
Hartley. In 1893 she reminisced that “Whilst
lodging with us he painted my portrait and those of my uncle and aunt, and all three were
accounted good likenesses.” In 1858 William Davies
visited Haworth Parsonage, spoke at length with the Rev Patrick Bronte and on leaving was shown
Branwell's 'Gun-Group' portrait of his sisters: “It was
crude and harsh from a technical point of view but the likenesses were said to be
4.The Thompson Portrait is probably based on a photograph of the
engraving of the 'Richmond Portrait' published in Elizabeth Gaskell's 1857 biography and
not on the original portrait by George Richmond.