William Scruton's Portrait of Emily Bronte
This image (left) was first published in 1898 as a portrait of Emily
Bronte and has been reproduced many times since. It is actually based on a portrait of
The Bronte's ex-servant, Martha Brown, died in 1880 and her collection of Bronte
relics were distributed amongst her family. A photo on glass of the 'Pillar Portrait'
passed to her sister Tabitha Ratcliffe. The original 'Pillar Portrait' painting (right)
was in Ireland, hidden away in the house of Charlotte's widower, Arthur
Bell Nicholls, and was not discovered until 1914.
In 1897 Clement Shorter managed to obtain a copy of the photo of
the Pillar Portrait (below)but it appears that the identity of the sisters
wasn't known. He sent a copy to Mr Nicholls, in Ireland and in March 1897 Nicholls
"The photograph you enclosed does bear a resemblance to the picture of
the three sisters - it is just possible that Martha Brown had it copied before we left Haworth
- The likenesses are very bad - The left hand corner has something of the expression of Anne -
The others I should not recognise."
It was a poor image so some of the faces were retouched and
Shorter used it to illustrate an article "Relics of Emily Bronte" in
Woman at Home, August, 1897. This was the first time the portrait had been
The title reads in capitals: "SUPPOSED PORTRAITS OF EMILY AND ANNE
BRONTE AND THEIR AUNT, MISS BRANWELL." which makes it appear that Emily
is on the left but underneath in very small italics
reads: "The portrait on the extreme left bears a certain resemblance to Anne
This suggests that Clement Shorter thought the figure on the left to be Emily,
hence the title, but felt that he had to include what he was told by Mr Nicholls, which
is almost unreadable.
The figure on the far right is of course Charlotte Bronte, not Aunt Branwell. Mr
Nicholl's refused to recognise any image of his wife other than the Richmond Portrait which he
had authorised to be published in 1857.
The following year, in December 1898, the historian William Scruton
published his book 'Thornton and the Brontes' with this portrait of
Emily (left) which was:
"carefully and accurately copied by Miss Preston from a picture which came
to me from Haworth with good credentials as to authenticity.
The original was submitted to the inspection of Martha Brown, the Brontë
housekeeper, and admitted by her to be a tolerably faithful portrait. The picture formerly
belonged to a member of the Brown family, of Haworth, who always regarded it as a good
On the strength of this evidence, and notwithstanding
Mr.Shorter's opinion that the quest for an authentic portrait of Emily Brontë now seems
hopeless, I have felt justified in giving the portrait a prominent place in my book."
This text is quite misleading:
Was the "picture which came to me from Haworth" a painting or the
Whatever it was, it originates from the photo of the Pillar
Portrait published in 1897. The evidence for this is in the blemish - a dark
patch - above Anne's head in the photo. This has been mistaken by the artist for
her hair and is drawn as a bun. The blemish doesn't appear in the
original portrait painting (right).
"The original" seems to be the "Photo on glass of the Pillar
Portrait" which wasn't "submitted to the inspection of Martha Brown" because
she actually owned the photo. Martha wouldn't have seen Miss Preston's portrait
as it was created in 1897-8 and Martha had died some 17 years earlier, in 1880.
The "picture [which] formerly belonged to a member of the
Brown family" was the photo, not the original portrait painting, as that was
with Mr Nicholls in Ireland.
Historians at this date were unaware that this was the
"Pillar Portrait" described by Elizabeth Gaskell in 1857; she identified the sisters left
to right as Anne, Emily and Charlotte.
Publication of this portrait over the past century has led many people to
believe that Emily had an aquiline nose.
Left: Anne in the original 'Pillar Portrait.'
Right: The illustration of 1898.