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 only existed from 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 known as a daguerreotype. The photo is on a slight slant and has the appearance of having been cropped. This is how daguerreotypes were often copied, at an angle to avoid reflections and centred to avoid marks at the edges of the original photo. 

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. It is thought that they purchased it in the Paris area.

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. When asked by her publisher for portraits of her sisters, Charlotte denied that any existed, but within Haworth Parsonage were Branwell's two group portraits and several of her own portraits of her sisters. After Charlotte's death her widower destroyed correspondence and suppressed images of the sisters by burning most of one group portrait and hiding the other away for five decades.

Opinions.

When the photo was purchased 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 but could find no mention of a group photograph of the Bronte Sisters.

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. In 1840s Europe this style of hat was unique to Germany, where Charlotte's lifelong friend, Mary Taylor, spent two years teaching.

The Research

One major problem in comparing images of the sisters is that over the years several Bronte portraits were wrongly identified. These are still published today and give a very distorted view of what the sisters looked like. 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, by people who actually knew or met the Bronte sisters. The research is carried out in spare time, a few days each month, so it will be a while before the mystery is solved.

The Website

The website is divided into sections. In COMPARE PORTRAITS the undisputed portraits are listed followed by those considered to be idealised, mistaken or wrongly identified. Genuine images of Charlotte, Emily and Anne are then compared with the ladies in the photo. Three sections focus on the decades 1840s-1860s; the theory is that a daguerreotype photograph was taken in the 1840s and that this is a collodion copy made in the 1850s. The photo is in effect a glass negative and there is evidence that a print on paper was in London in the 1860s. There is a SUMMARY but as yet no conclusion.

More detailed information on several portraits of the Bronte sisters is in the section Confusing Portraits.

If the 1850s collodion photo is a copy of an 1840s daguerreotype then it is correctly orientated with 'Charlotte' on the left, her hair parted on her left and crooked mouth turning down on her right. The original daguerreotype would however have been a reversed image, and viewed as below, with 'Charlotte' on the right and composition similar to Branwell's group portrait at the NPG.

The website was set up in 2012 and is updated once or twice a year.