The "Profile Portrait" - Emily or Anne?

The Profile Portrait – Emily or Anne?

The Profile Portrait was identified as Emily Bronte in 1914 and purchased by the National Portrait Gallery. Within two weeks this was challenged1. and the question has been debated ever since.

Is this Emily Bronte or Anne Bronte?

A photo taken c1857 but not discovered about 1990. This is the original "Gun-Group" Portrait. The "Profile Portrait" is the figure on the far right.

Tracings from the "Gun Group" made either c1835 or c1860.
The "Profile Portrait" is the figure on the far right.

The “Gun-Group” was an 1830s painting by Branwell Bronte depicting him stood holding a gun with his three sisters seated at a table. Charlotte Bronte's husband destroyed most of the painting in the 1860s, apart from the right-hand figure, known as the "Profile Portrait," but is this Emily or Anne?

The Physical Evidence.
Although the rest of the "Gun-Group" was destroyed, tracings of the female figures have survived; there is also a poor photo of the original painting and an engraving made from the photo.

Identification in the past. 
The sitters in the “Gun-Group” were identified by two reliable contemporary sources:

Martha Brown (the Bronte’s servant) owned an 1850s photograph of the portrait and provided the description 2. when the engraving of it was made for a book in 1879.

Ellen Nussey (Charlotte’s lifelong friend) was shown this engraving in the 1890s, remembered the original painting and initialled the engraving as seen on the right.2a

Both identified the sitters from left to right as: Emily, Charlotte, Branwell & Anne.

Photo of an engraving based on photo of the "Gun-Group" 1879.
The "Profile Portrait" relates to the figure on the far right.

Visual identification using the tracings.

Ellen Nussey stated that “Anne was quite different in appearance from the others” 2b so it should be possible to differentiate between Emily and Anne.

The  tracings below relate to the figures on the left and right of the “Gun-Group;” one will be Emily and the other Anne. One sister has a straight nose and the other an aquiline nose.

These are compared here with Emily and Anne in the only surviving group portrait, known as the “Pillar Portrait.” From Elizabeth Gaskell’s description of this painting (1857) we know that the smaller sister is Anne. She has an aquiline nose and this is confirmed by other portraits of Anne created by Charlotte.

Emily & George Henry Lewes.

There are no other ‘identified’ portraits of Emily but a strong clue as to her looks can be found in a letter by Charlotte concerning George Henry Lewes whose:

 "face almost moves me to tears—it is so wonderfully like Emily—her eyes, her features—the very nose, the somewhat prominent mouth, the forehead—even at moments the expression." 3. 

Emily didn't look like Lewes in this photograph of him as a much older man but we can see that his nose was not aquiline; it was straight and at a similar angle to Emily's in the Pillar Portrait. "The very nose" can also be compared with the tracings.



The right-hand tracing represents the "Profile Portrait" identified as Emily since 1914.

Height of the sisters.

Photo of the "Gun-Group" Portrait taken c1857.
The figure on the right of the "Gun-Group" is depicted by Branwell as the smallest of the three sisters. This is unlikely to be Emily as she was the tallest and the tallest figure in his painting is on the far left. Anne was the youngest, born in 1820, and would be about 15 years-old if the picture dates to 1835.

Clement King Shorter & Arthur Bell Nicholls.

The evidence supporting identification of the "Profile Portrait" as Emily has always been contradictory. The historian, Clement Shorter, wrote (1896) that Mr Nicholls (Charlotte Bronte's widower): “Being of opinion that the only accurate portrait [in the Gun-Group] was that of Emily, he cut this out and destroyed the remainder.” 4. 

The portrait found in Mr Nicholl's house in 1914, eight years after his death, was the "Profile Portrait." This though is the figure in the engraving identified by Martha Brown (1879) and Ellen Nussey (c1895) as Anne.

Shorter continued: “The portrait of Emily was given to Martha Brown, the servant, on one of her visits to Mr. Nicholls.” This was contradicted in 1914 by Mrs Nicholls stating that the painting had never left their house in Ireland.5. It is also known that whilst Martha Brown did own a portrait of Emily it was not an oil painting.

The Public Image.

These discrepancies are due in part to a refusal by Mr Nicholls to admit that a portrait of Charlotte existed other than the idealised "Richmond Portrait" (below) which he had authorised for publication in 1857. Shorter wasn’t aware of this and took him at his word, to a degree.

An example of this is when Shorter sent a photo of the "Pillar Portrait" (right) to Mr Nicholls who replied:

"The likenesses are very bad - The left hand corner has something of the expression of Anne - The others I should not recognise."

This is despite the fact that his deceased wife (Charlotte) is on the right. As a result Shorter published this image in Woman at Home in August 1897, identifying her as her Aunt Branwell.

It would appear that Shorter had his own idea of what Emily looked like, hence the title in capitals placing Emily to the left (which is in fact Anne), but including in small italics "the portrait on the extreme left bears a certain resemblance to Anne" so as not to contradict Arthur Bell Nicholls.

The Shorter made several visits to Mr Nicholls and corresponded with him for over 10 years, the subject of Bronte portraits often arising. During this entire period the original portraits were languishing in a wardrobe upstairs in Mr Nicholl's house, but he said nothing; this evasiveness led to Shorter’s confusion.

This was demonstrated again in 1906 in a letter6. by Shorter to The Times stating that only one photograph of Mr Nicholls existed when in fact there were at least six. He went on to say that this "one photo" which was published in his book, was taken at the time of Mr Nicholl’s marriage to Charlotte in 1854. It was actually taken on his second marriage in 1864.

In 1914, when the "Profile Portrait" was found, he jumped to the conclusion that this was the "portrait of Emily Bronte" seen by William Robertson Nicoll when he visited Martha Brown in 1879. He didn't ask Robertson Nicoll though; if he had, he would have discovered that although Martha Brown's portrait was of Emily, it was by Charlotte and not Branwell.6a.

Mrs Nicholl's Identification in 1914. 

The "Profile Portrait" (right) was discovered in 1914, eight years after the death of Mr Nicholls, and identified by his widow as Emily. This is despite the fact that it had been hidden away in a wardrobe for 50 years and Mrs Nicholls had never met Emily or Anne.

The only way she could have identified the portrait is through seeing the only published portrait of Emily (left). This had been published in error 14 years earlier; it was in fact a portrait based on the right-hand figure in the 1879 engraving (i.e. the "Profile Portrait" - right) which had been identified by Martha Brown and Ellen Nussey as Anne.


The tracings - identification & ages.

The tracings of the "Gun-Group" support the identification of the Profile Portrait as Emily as they are labelled in pencil L-R: Anne, Charlotte, Emily. When these tracings were discovered in 1932 it was thought that John Greenwood had created them and that he had labelled them, but he died some 70 years earlier so this was an assumption. We know that Charlotte and her husband did not want any portraits published so it is unlikely that they let John Greenwood loose with tracing paper and pencil, especially as he was the village stationer.

In the tracing of Charlotte her right shoulder is visible, as well as her left hand. In the photo of the portrait her shoulder isn't visible and in place of her hand is an object on the table. Are these differences due to Branwell when he created the painting, or to someone who traced it?

It isn't known whether the tracings predate or postdate the picture so it isn't known who created them. We don't know who identified each of the tracings but this is suspicious; the ages given are in Gaskell's biography of Charlotte, but for a different group portrait (the Pillar Portrait). There is a year or more difference between the creation of these two portraits.



The identification by two of the most reliable sources, Martha Brown and Ellen Nussey, carries a great deal of weight. This has to be balanced against Clement Shorter's, which was muddled, influenced by a vague and evasive Mr Nicholls; it can also be proved in part to be wrong. Mrs Nicholls identification depends upon her memory of an event one day, fifty years before. Even Clement Shorter eventually changed his mind about the portrait, believing that the NPG had wrongly identified it and that it depicted Anne. 7.

The Profile Portrait was not given to Martha Brown. William Robertson Nicoll's two earlier statements (see Lost Portrait of Emily) make it clear that Martha possessed a pencil sketch of Emily by Charlotte, not an oil painting of Emily by Branwell.

When the tracings are compared with the photograph discovered in 1989 they match but the one of Charlotte extends further to her right than her figure in the photo. This suggests that they were created and used by Branwell to compose the portrait and that the labels were added decades later.

The visual evidence is more dependable. Branwell has depicted the right-hand figure as the smallest of the group which suggests that this is Anne. Comparison of the tracings with Anne and Emily in the Pillar Portrait, to us, makes it clear that the right-hand tracing is Anne.

For the reasons given, the Profile Portrait is treated on this website as a portrait of Anne; if more evidence comes to light in support of either Emily or Anne it will be added to this page.


 The Profile Portrait at the National Portrait Gallery










1. Ellis H. Chadwick, Portraits of the Brontes - Emily or Anne: The Yorkshire Post, 19 March 1914, P. 6 Col. 7. Article reprinted from The Morning Post. See also the following:
Simpson, Charles, Emily Bronte. London: Countrylife, 1929. A NOTE ON THE PORTRAITS, pp. 201-205.
Virginia Moore 'Life and Eager Death of Emily Bronte' 1936, 'NOTE ON THE PORTRAIT OF EMILY BRONTE' p. 369.
Ingeborg Nixon, 'The Bronte Portraits - Some old problems and a new discovery.' Bronte Society Transactions, Volume 13, Part 68, 1958, pp.232-238.
Dame Myra Curtis, 'The Profile Portrait,' Bronte Society Transactions The Journal of Bronte Studies, Volume 13, Part 69, 1959 , pp. 342-346

2. "Anne is on Branwell's left, Charlotte on the right, and Emily to the right of Charlotte." This is the published description which doesn't make sense and it can't be a coincidence that it is describing an image which has been reversed. Martha Brown will have given her description of the painting when Horsfall Turner visited and viewed her photo on glass. This was a small, framed collodion photo and these present a reversed image so the description needs to be read whilst viewing the portrait as Martha Brown would have seen it - reversed. (see images to the right).

Collodion photos are (underexposed) glass negatives and Martha's was sent to a Bradford photographer in 1879 who printed it (orientation correct) as a carte de visite (small photo on a card mount). The engraving was made from this cdv to illustrate Horsfall Turner's book Haworth Past and Present, published 1879. The description in the book - buried in the text on another page - wasn't altered to take the reversal into account. For the PDF version of the Horsfall Turner's book click here - the image is between pages 136-7  & the description is on p.170.

Martha Brown also owned a (collodion) photo of the Pillar Portrait which would also be a reversed image. She worked as a servant at Haworth Parsonage for 21 years and owned the photographs from the 1850s until her death in 1880. There may have been a third photograph.

The engraving as published in Haworth Past and Present.
"Anne is on Branwell's left, Charlotte on the right, and Emily to the right of Charlotte."
It makes no sense.

The photograph as Martha Brown viewed it - as a reversed image.
"Anne is on Branwell's left, Charlotte on the right, and Emily to the right of Charlotte."
Because it is reversed, what is now the Profile Portrait appears on the left.

2a. Simpson, Charles. Emily Bronte. London: Countrylife, 1929. Image faces p. 204.

2b. Reminiscences of Charlotte Brontë. Ellen Nussey. Scribner's Monthly, an illustrated magazine for the people Volume 2 Issue 1 (May 1871)

3. “I have seen Lewes too—he is a man with both weaknesses and sins; but unless I err greatly the foundation of his nature is not bad—and were he almost a fiend in character—I could not feel otherwise to him than half sadly half tenderly—a queer word the last—but I use it because the aspect of Lewes's face almost moves me to tears—it is so wonderfully like Emily—her eyes, her features—the very nose, the somewhat prominent mouth, the forehead—even at moments the expression: whatever Lewes does or says I believe I cannot hate him.”
Letter from Charlotte Bronte to Ellen Nussey, 12 June 1850.

4. "After Mr. Bronte's death Mr. Nicholls removed it to Ireland. Being of opinion that the only accurate portrait was that of Emily, he cut this out and destroyed the remainder. The portrait of Emily was given to Martha Brown, the servant, on one of her visits to Mr. Nicholls, and I have not been able to trace it. There are three or four so-called portraits of Emily in existence, but they are all repudiated by Mr. Nicholls as absolutely unlike her."
Shorter, Clement K: Charlotte Bronte and Her Circle, ed. 1896, p.123 footnote.

5. Mrs Nicholls stated in a letter to the press (through a family friend, Rev Sharrard) that the portraits had never left the house in Ireland, probably after questioning the housemaids:

“Sir, I have received a copy of the “Morning Post” containing an article animadverting on some information I had recently forwarded to the King’s County Chronicle with reference to the above. I may state that your account of the discovery, &c., of the pictures – though not quite correct- was nearer the truth than any of the accounts I read in other newspapers. The facts are as follows:

The pictures sent by Mrs. Nicholls to the National Gallery have been at The Hill House, Banagher, ever since they were brought there by the late Rev. A. B. Nicholls. The single one of Emily [?] – cut out of a large portrait containing three sisters – was preserved by Mr. Nicholls. The rest of picture, with the portraits of his wife Charlotte and Anne [?], was handed to Martha Brown – who lived at The Hill House for upwards of eight years – not for preservation, but to be destroyed, and it is believed it was destroyed by her. I need not go into all the reasons for this action on the part of Mr. Nicholls.

You see, therefore, that I was correct in saying that the picture of Emily forwarded to the National Gallery was never in Martha Brown’s possession, though I was mistaken in implying that Mr. Nicholls had ever given any portrait to Martha Brown. I have the above facts on the best living authority. Yours &c.
James J. Sherrard., Banagher, March 8, 1914"
Page location here (external website).

6.The Times, Friday 7 December 1906; P.12

6a. Shorter assumed the newly discovered Profile Portrait to be the same portrait of Emily seen by William Robertson Nicoll in 1879, probably having read his artice from 1908 in The (British?) Weekly:

"I shall never cease to regret that I did not buy the portrait she [Martha] had of Emily Bronte, though I got a few other things. I did not buy it because I could not well afford it, and it has been irrevocably lost. I have made many efforts since, and have been helped by many of Martha Brown's relatives. But that really fine and expressive painting has hopelessly disappeared and now we have nothing that deserves to be called a likeness of that highly endowed girl."

Ingeborg Nixon, 'The Bronte Portraits - Some old problems and a new discovery.' Bronte Society Transactions, Volume 13, Part 68, 1958, pp.235.

Robertson Nicoll though had already written about his visit to Martha in The Bookman, some 18 years earlier; he had purchased, amongst other things, a pencil portrait of Anne Bronte:

 "... In July, 1879, I paid a visit to Haworth... "I deeply regret that I cannot add a portrait of the greatest genius among the sisters, Emily Bronte. Martha Brown possessed a very clearly and boldly drawn pencil sketch of Emily by Charlotte, which I in vain endeavoured to purchase. After her death, what she left was divided among four sisters, with all of whom I communicated without succeeding even in tracing the picture. ..."

Sir William Robertson Nicoll, The Bookman, Volume 1, Hodder and Stoughton, November, 1891 p. 63

The portrait of Emily seen by Robertson Nicoll was either a pencil sketch or pencil/watercolour by Charlotte, not an oil painting by Branwell.

7. Clement Shorter writing in The Sphere, Saturday 24 May 1924, p.230:

".....Mr Edmund Gosse...praises the "unique and valuable portrait of Emily," which Mr Drinkwater in his little book has wrongly titled, for it is really a portrait of Anne. (Here Mr Drinkwater errs, it is true, with the National Portrait Gallery.) This is quite easy of proof."

Shorter is referring to the Profile Portrait illustrating the frontispiece of John Drinkwater's publication - Branwell Bronte's translation of "The Odes of Quintus Horatius Flaccus Book 1" published 1923.

The Profile Portrait - Emily or Anne?
Voices from the past.

"Sentiment and tradition give this lovely profile to Emily, but the resemblance to the figure of Anne in the [Pillar Portrait] group would suggest otherwise."
Daphne Du Maurier, 'The infernal world of Branwell Brontë' 1960, p. 99

"if the soul, as I believe, forms its own body, this single [Profile] portrait, alone among the portraits of the Bronte sisters, deserves to be Emily, for here only, through Branwell's inexpertness, shines the power and poetry which were her inalienable characteristics."
Virginia Moore 'Life and Eager Death of Emily Bronte' 1936, p. 369.

"a professional art historian or artist should review the whole matter and give an expert opinion."
Ingeborg Nixon, 'The Bronte Portraits - Some old problems and a new discovery' in Bronte Society Transactions, Volume 13, Part 68, 1958, pp.232-238.