Charlotte Bronte

In Elizabeth Gaskell's biography of Charlotte (1857) she describes Branwell's Pillar Portrait of his sisters as a poor painting but was surprised by:

"...the striking resemblance which Charlotte ... bore to her own representation, though it must have been ten years and more since the portraits were taken. They were good likenesses, however badly executed.”

Charlotte would have been standing next to the portrait when Gaskell viewed it in 1853 and these remarks imply that Charlotte's appearance had changed very little in twenty years.

Another friend, Mary Taylor, saw George Richmond's "flattered likeness" of Charlotte in the biography and in a letter to Gaskell berated her for publishing it because it lacked "the veritable square face" and the "large, disproportionate nose."  In both Branwell's portrait and Charlotte's self-caricature, the nose is concave, turning upward at the bridge.

Several decades after meeting her, Anne Thackeray Ritchie was asked about Charlotte's appearance: "I remember how she frowned at me whenever I looked at her, but perhaps it was specially at me — at least so I imagined. There was a general impression of chin about her face" 1. Anne would have been a teenager at the time and the frown may have been imagined because (according to Elizabeth Gaskell) Charlotte had an overhanging brow.



Left: 'Charlotte' in the photo. If this is her & the photo was taken c1845, she would be 29.  
Right: Charlotte Bronte in the 'Pillar Portrait' c1834, aged about 18. She had a slightly crooked mouth; it turned downwards on her right.

The 'Pillar Portrait' was painted by her 17 year-old brother, Branwell c1834 but it was not seen by the public until 1914.


Charlotte Bronte, self-caricature, 1843.
This suggests that her nose was retrousse in the sense that it turned up at the bridge.

"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 Smith 

Above: A rather cruel caricature of an unknown person by Branwell Bronte (1840s). A nagging goose or quacking duck perhaps? If this is a woman and the bird symbolism was intentional then it is seen in an equally cruel caricature from 1829 depicting the pioneering feminist & travel writer Frances Wright as a goose.

Eyes as clear as diamonds.

Many descriptions of Charlotte mention her eyes and Gaskell thought them to be: 

"...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."

"As for 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, 1857.

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"Charlotte had a very wee foot and small arms, and was [short] sighted" but her eyes were "as clear as diamonds."

A relative of the Bronte family in Ireland who visited Haworth as a boy - published in The Sketch, 10 February 1897

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"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.

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 Emily's eyes.

Detail from Charlotte in Branwell's 'Pillar Portrait' and 'Charlotte' in the photograph.

The Richmond Portrait.

Laetitia Wheelwright thought George Richmond's portrait of Charlotte was "entirely flattering" and this sums up the reaction from her other friends. Within Haworth Parsonage there were mixed views.

In her biography, Gaskell considered the Richmond portrait to be "an admirable likeness" but this is ambiguous, it could mean "an admirable resemblance" or "an admirable portrait." When read in context it can only mean "an admirable portrait" because she then states that "those closest to Charlotte" were "least satisfied with the resemblance" before going on to praise the "striking resemblance" in Branwell's portrait.

The careful wording is perhaps due to the fact that Gaskell's publisher was George Smith, the man who had commissioned the portrait seven years earlier. The pictures could easily depict two different women. If Gaskell was correct then Branwell's oil painting is a poor portrait but the resemblance is good; Richmond's is a good portrait but the resemblance is poor.

LEFT: Charlotte with her square face and concave nose in Branwell's 'Pillar Portrait' 
RIGHT: Charlotte with an oval face and convex nose in George Richmond's portrait.

When Charlotte first viewed the completed portrait she burst into tears because it reminded her so much of her late sister, Anne. Look at Branwell's portrait of Anne and it is clear why; she has an oval face and, as in her other portraits, she has a Roman nose.

This could partly explain why no other portraits of Charlotte have ever been discovered.

Whilst researching the 'Bronte Sisters Photo' the only image found which in any way resembles Branwell's version of Charlotte was a sketch, photographed about 1900 by A E Hall. 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 the Richmond Portrait.

 

 

The Richmond Portrait is compared below with the photo.

Left-right:'Thompson Portrait' (reversed for comparison), 'The Photo' &'Richmond Portrait.
'
The 'Thompson Portrait'4. is based on the 'Richmond Portrait' of Charlotte.

 

 

 

 

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 young writer who dined at the Parsonage was mesmerized by them; although no doubt a little exaggerated this is his account:

"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 lids." The 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 good”

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.