Confusing Images - Photo of Charlotte Bronte

This photo is still sometimes used as an image of Charlotte Bronte and as recently as November 2015 it represented Charlotte on the Bronte Society's website but this has been shown to be incorrect.1.

The profile photo comes from a glass negative which was found in 1984 at the National Portrait Gallery. It is a copy made by Emery Walker (1851-1933), about 1918, of an earlier carte de visite photo. The NPGs index card was labelled 'Charlotte Bronte.'

In 1986 a carte de visite of the same photograph was discovered amongst a bequest to the Bronte Museum from a reliable source. This photo had "within a year of CB's death" written on the reverse so it was thought that it must depict Charlotte because of the link to the negative at the NPG. It seemed genuine but was the result of errors made decades earlier. The NPG's negative is a copy of the carte de visite photo in the archives of the Bronte Parsonage Museum.

 

The profile photograph (left), thought by some to be of Charlotte Bronte, compared with a photo of Ellen Nussey. The first photo is of course earlier but the photographer  'softened' the image which has the effect of blurring the photo slightly, masking lines, wrinkles etc., making the lady look even younger. 2.

It wasn't done to deceive people; it was a tool often used by photographers and created a more flattering portrait.

Some 50 years later, about 1918 when Emery Walker copied the photo, he thought that it was Charlotte and that the lady looked young enough to have been her. She died aged 38, in 1855.

Chalk portrait of Charlotte Bronte.

 


Left: Chalk portrait of Charlotte Bronte?
Right: Photo of Ellen Nussey.

In 2004 a chalk portrait, assumed to be of Charlotte Bronte, was added to the BPM archives.3. Some history is given in Claire Harman's biography of Charlotte although there is not necessarily a Brussels connection.4. Opinions differ as to the identity of the lady and Elizabeth Gaskell has been suggested but her kind, gentle features may be those of Ellen Nussey. If Charlotte did bear such a close resemblance to Ellen then it would have been commented upon.

 
Ellen Nussey (1817-97) in later years; she first met Charlotte in 1831 and was her lifelong friend.

 
Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-65); a friend of Charlotte 1850-55. This is the closest to a full photographic profile so far discovered. Her nose is aquiline and there is no inward curve between the eyes. These features are more evident in other images of her.

 See also: Facial recognition software solves Gaskell mystery.
(University of Manchester website)

1. There is a fuller explanation in an article by Claire Harman (30 September 2015) on The Times Literary Supplement website.

2. Other researchers certainly had their suspicions for some years, and may well have discovered this before now. The earliest mention found is in a book review in 2011 by James Gorin von Grozny; the photos were researched and compared by Bernd Karwath.

3. BPM cat no. 2004/47.1 "portrait of Charlotte Bronte done in chalk." See http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/west_yorkshire/4127959.stm  At the time (2004) it was thought that there were four other portraits of Charlotte in existence: Pillar Portrait, Richmond Portrait, Thompson Portrait and the profile photograph discussed on this page.

4. Charlotte Brontë: A Life by Claire Harman. P.161-2. The lady in the chalk portrait is similar to the 'Profile Photograph' which at the time (2004-5) was thought to depict Charlotte Bronte. The connection with Brussels was a theory. If this is a friend of Charlotte and the estimated date of about 1840 is correct then it is more likely to be of Ellen Nussey as Charlotte didn't meet Elizabeth Gaskell until 1850.