The Photograph & The Research

The Photograph

This is a collodion photo with "The Bronte Sisters" written in French on the reverse, however this type of photograph on glass was only invented in the early 1850s, after the death of Emily (1848) and Anne (1849).

The researcher's experience in photography spans three decades and includes printing thousands of photographs from glass negatives such as this. He believes that this is a copy of an earlier 1840s photo (a daguerreotype). Sit back from the screen and you may notice that the photo is on a slight slant and has the appearance of having been cropped. This is how daguerreotypes were copied, at an angle to avoid reflections and centred to avoid marks at the edges of the original photo.1. 

Provenance.

The image is in a photographic archive in Scotland. As with most photos there is virtually no provenance and it can only be traced back to the previous owners in France, although it is thought that they purchased it in the Paris area.2

 Photographs of the Bronte Sisters.

There is no record of a group photo being taken of the Bronte sisters but, given the history of other portraits, there may be very good reasons for this. The only group portraits of the sisters were two paintings by their brother Branwell and one of these was deliberately destroyed in the 1860s. The surviving group portrait, and the profile cut from the destroyed canvas, are at the National Portrait Gallery in London. These were painted c1835 but not seen by the general public until 1914.

Opinions.

When the photo was purchased3. it was assumed that it was one of many copies sold to visitors in 1850s Haworth but this turned out not to be the case. The Bronte Parsonage Museum viewed the photo in 2011, and 2012, but didn't think that a photograph of the Bronte Sisters could have been taken. A visit to the National Media Museum proved inconclusive; one member of staff said that it was unlikely to be a copy because they are far less common than original photos, another said that “it has that look of a copy about it.”

The NMM couldn't help because it wasn't thought possible to confirm whether a photograph is an original, taken of people from several feet away, or a copy of a photo taken from several inches away. Since then, photographic historians have suggested that as there are blemishes on the photo it may be possible to determine whether these are on the photo or - if a copy - on the copied photo.

The hats are similar to those seen in England in the early 1860s but they appear to be slightly different. In 1840s Europe this style of hat was unique to Germany, where Charlotte's lifelong friend, Mary Taylor, spent two years teaching.

The Research

If genuine, then the most likely location for the photo is the garden of the daguerreotype studio in Stonegate, York. If the wall and features in the background can be matched to old photos of this property then it will date the photo to the time of the Bronte sisters.

One major problem in comparing images of the sisters is that over the years several Bronte portraits were wrongly identified and are still in use today. An attempt has been made to discover which portraits are misleading so that a fair comparison can be made with the ladies in the photo. Where possible, only contemporary descriptions have been used; those by people who actually knew or met the Bronte Sisters.

The research is only being carried out in spare time, a few days each month, so it will be a while before the mystery is solved.This website was set up in 2012 and is updated two or three times a year.4.

 

1. There is an example of a collodion copy of a daguerreotype on the Royal Collection website; it has been photographed at an angle though another method using a box also existed. The copy survives but the original daguerreotype been lost, possibly because the case was not resealed correctly after being copied, causing tarnishing/damage. If the 'Bronte Sisters Photo' is a copy then the photographer has only photographed the centre of the daguerreotype, not the whole plate.

2. The previous owners visited flea markets and sales; they thought that the photo had been "amongst other items purchased in Paris [region?]."

3. This photo was one of many purchased to illustrate a book on photography and after publication they were to be sold on to collectors. In the end the image could not be used because identification was too problematic. In addition, in 2011 the Bronte Museum confirmed that there is no known photograph of the Bronte sisters.

4. After the creation of the website in 2012 the expectation was that other copies would be discovered, and possibly the original photo, but this did not happen. It became clear that there had been a number of historical errors in the identification of Bronte portraits and this accounted for the discrepancies between the portraits of Anne and Emily. Early in 2013 the decision was made not to sell the photo because, potentially, it is of great historical significance. The research has continued.

Proof that a photo was taken may never be found but it should be possible to demonstrate, beyond reasonable doubt, that the image depicts the Bronte sisters. The photo needs to undergo some cleaning and conservation work but re-scanned and 'digitally restored' the resulting image will be very impressive.