Charlotte Bronte

 Comparing Charlotte

If the 'Bronte Sisters Photograph' does depict the sisters then it will be an 1850s copy of an 1840s daguerreotype.

This page compares portraits of Charlotte Bronte with 'Charlotte' in the 'Bronte Sisters Photograph'. The collodion photo dates from the 1850s or 1860s, at least 50 years before the first 'unflattered' portrait of the author was seen by the public. If it is not a photograph of Charlotte then any resemblance could only be coincidental.


Only three undisputed portraits of Charlotte Bronte exist. The most famous and most reproduced is George Richmond's chalk drawing of 1850. A beautiful portrait, but it is idealised, making any direct comparison with the photo problematic.

Branwell Bronte's 1830s portrait of Charlotte is unflattered and considered to be the most accurate likeness of her.1. The only other undisputed image is her own caricature

A fourth image, Charlotte Bronte's "Portrait of a Young Woman" is of an unidentified figure; it is included on this page because some features resemble those of the artist, and 'Charlotte' in the photograph. Finally, there are some contemporary descriptions of Charlotte.

 Charlotte Bronte's Caricature, 1843.


Charlotte Bronte, self-caricature, 1843. Only a rough sketch but it exaggerates the large eyes, large mouth and prominent chin mentioned in descriptions of her. She was extremely self-conscious about her appearance and considered her head to be too large for her body. The sketch may suggest that her nose was slightly retrousse, a trait in some members of the maternal Branwell family.

'The Bronte Sisters Photo' L-R: 'Charlotte', 'Emily', 'Anne'. All three Bronte sisters were small in stature by the standards of today. Estimates vary: Charlotte was about 4 feet 10 inches; Emily was considered tall at about 5 feet 6 inches; Anne's height is unknown. This was not unusual for the time. In photographs of Queen Victoria she is very grand and majestic, but she was only a couple of inches taller than Charlotte Bronte.

Charlotte in Branwell's 1830s 'Pillar' portrait.


Left: 'Charlotte' in the photo. If it was taken c1848, she would be 32-years-old.
Right: Charlotte Bronte in Branwell Bronte's 'Pillar' portrait. Charlotte was about 18-years-old when it was painted. She had a slightly crooked mouth, it turned downwards on her right, and her hair was parted slightly to her left; none of this is immediately obvious in either image but it is when the pictures are reversed.

Branwell's depiction of Charlotte is certainly no masterpiece but it is valuable for two reasons. Firstly, it is an unflattered portrait by someone close to her. Secondly, it was described by Elizabeth Gaskell as bearing "a striking resemblance" to Charlotte. This was in the 1850s and Mrs Gaskell was equally surprised because it had been painted twenty years before. Charlotte's appearance did not change very much in her adult life.

Charlotte Bronte by George Richmond



George Richmond's portrait of Charlotte (top left) was published in 1857. Permission had been granted by her widower but he suppressed all other portraits. Branwell's portrait of his sister Charlotte (top right) was discovered decades later in 1914.

In the 'Richmond' portrait Charlotte's features were idealised, including the length of the face, nose shape and the raised height of the forehead. It does though give some sense of the "rather overhanging forehead" mentioned by Elizabeth Gaskell. 

Charlotte's Pencil Portrait of a Young Woman


Left: Charlotte Bronte in Branwell Bronte's 'Pillar' portrait.
Right: A pencil portrait by Charlotte Bronte of an unidentified young woman .

In the Edwardian era this unidentified pencil sketch by Charlotte briefly appeared in a book as a portrait of Anne Bronte. It is a sketch by Charlotte, but this certainly isn't Anne Bronte. In more recent times it was thought that she had copied it from an illustration. 

Charlotte was renowned for her large attractive eyes and her gaze and, as Anne Thackeray Ritchie put it, "there was a general impression of chin about her face". She certainly has the prominent jaw and chin seen in Branwell's portrait so it is possible that this is a slightly idealised self-portrait.

If this is Charlotte then it is probably connected with her deep interest in physiognomy and dislike of her own appearance; it would mean that, as with the idealised portrait by George Richmond, the forehead is artificially high and the shape of the nose may have been altered.

There is one other reason for thinking that this may be Charlotte. The features below the forehead resemble those of 'Charlotte' in the 'Bronte Sisters Photo', including a limbal ring which is partly responsible for the piercing eyes.

Detail from Charlotte's pencil portrait and 'Charlotte' in the photograph.

It could a portrait of a friend, a self-portrait or copied from an illustration. There is more information on Charlotte's Portrait of a Young Woman on the page "The Problem with Anne". 

A description.

Elizabeth Gaskell first met Charlotte in 1850:

"the little lady worked away and hardly spoke but I had time for a good look at her. She is (as she calls herself) UNDEVELOPED, thin, and more than half a head shorter than I am; soft brown hair, not very dark; eyes (very good and expressive, looking straight and open at you) of the same colour as her hair; a large mouth; the forehead square, broad and rather over-hanging. She has a very sweet voice; rather hesitates in choosing her expressions, but when chosen they seem without an effort admirable, and just befitting the occasion; there is nothing overstrained, but perfectly simple."

As a child, Anne Thackeray Ritchie met Charlotte twice:

"I remember how she frowned at me whenever I looked at her, but perhaps it was specially at me — at least so I imagined. There was a general impression of chin about her face."


Eyes as clear as diamonds.

The one feature that Charlotte was renowned for in her lifetime is not really evident in her portraits. Almost all descriptions of Charlotte refer to her eyesHere are some examples:

'Charlotte' in the 'Bronte Sisters Photo'.

Elizabeth Gaskell in The Life of Charlotte Bronte:

"...peculiar eyes, of which I find it difficult to give a description, as they appeared to me in her later life. They were large, and well shaped; their colour a reddish brown; but if the iris was closely examined, it appeared to be composed of a great variety of tints. The usual expression was of quiet, listening intelligence; but now and then, on some just occasion for vivid interest or wholesome indignation, a light would shine out, as if some spiritual lamp had been kindled, which glowed behind those expressive orbs. I never saw the like in any other human creature."

"As for the rest of her features, they were plain, large, and ill set; but, unless you began to catalogue them, you were hardly aware of the fact, for the eyes and power of the countenance over-balanced every physical defect; the crooked mouth and large nose were forgotten, and the whole face arrested the attention, and presently attracted all those whom she herself would have cared to attract."

Joseph Marsden Dixon remembered Charlotte visiting Ellen Nussey:

“She wor a ‘lowish’ [small] woman...and her eyes they looked a long way into her head..." 2.

A relative of the Bronte family in Ireland who visited Haworth as a boy:

"Charlotte had a very wee foot and small arms, and was [short] sighted" but her eyes were "as clear as diamonds." 3.

William Makepeace Thackeray:

"I remember the trembling little frame, the little hand, the great honest eyes. An impetuous honesty seemed to me to characterize the woman." 4.

Her publisher, George Smith reminisced:

"I must confess that my first impression of Charlotte Brontë's personal appearance was that it was interesting rather than attractive. She was very small, and had a quaint old-fashioned look.Her head seemed too large for her body. She had fine eyes, but her face was marred by the shape of the mouth and by the complexion. There was but little feminine charm about her."

Matthew Arnold met Charlotte in 1850:

"I talked to Miss Bronte (past thirty and plain, with expressive grey eyes though)".

Meta Gaskell on Charlotte:

"a dainty, bird-like creature, being delicate in appearance, slight in figure, with tiny hands and feet, very large grey eyes, silky brown hair, and a shy, timid manner: At times, when strangers were not present, and she was at her ease, she would become quite impassioned in conversation, using her hands to accentuate her remarks." 5.

Detail from the image of Charlotte in Branwell's 'Pillar' portrait and 'Charlotte' in the photograph. A notable feature in the photograph is the limbal ring which accentuates the eye.

It has proved impossible to pin down Charlotte's eye colour because the descriptions all vary: grey, blue, blue/brown, hazel, light brown and "difficult to describe... but reddish-brown with tints." The eye colour in Branwell's group 'Pillar' portrait may not be accurate because the colour of the sisters' hair is supposed to be different but here it is the same.




1. Barnard; Louise Barnard (29 March 2013). "Brontë, Patrick Branwell". A Brontë Encyclopedia. Wiley. p.263

"Most commentators agreed on the excellence of the likenesses, despite the crudeness of Branwell’s artistic techniques."

Ann Dinsdale, Brontë Parsonage Museum collections manager. Keighley News 30 July 2015.

"Branwell’s famous portrait which is believed to show a good likeness to the real-life Charlotte, Anne and Emily."

See the page  'Charlotte's Two Portraits '

2.Bradford Daily Telegraph, Thursday 20 February 1908. P.2: "CHARLOTTE BRONTE THOUGHT NOUGHT ABOUT."

""There is still living at Birstall an old man named Joseph Marsden Dixon who has dear remembrance of Charlotte Bronte. When Mr. Dixon was a boy — he is now well over eighty - Charlotte Bronte used come to Birstall to see her friend Miss Ellen Nussey, who lived near Mr. Dixon’s home. “She wor a ‘lowish’ [small] woman.” said Mr. Dixon to an interviewer last week, “and her eyes they looked a long way into her head.... She was thought nought about at that day. She and Miss Nussey used to walk out together in the wood behind where Wensleydale Mill stands now." It is close upon fifty-three years since Charlotte Bronte died.""

Site of Red House, Gomersal and site of woods, now Wensleydale Mill, Birstall - Map.

3. The Sketch, 10 February 1897

4. One visitor to the Parsonage was mesmerized by them; although no doubt exaggerated this is his account:

"Altogether she was as unpretending, undemonstrative, quiet a little lady as you could well meet. Her age I took to be about five-and-thirty. But when you saw and felt her eyes, the spirit that created Jane Eyre was revealed at once to you. They were rather small, but of a very peculiar colour, and had a strange lustre and intensity. They were chameleon-like, a blending of various brown and olive tints. But they looked you through and through-and you felt they were forming an opinion of you, not by mere acute noting of Lavaterish physiognomical peculiarities, but by a subtle penetration into the very marrow of your mind, and the innermost core of your soul.

Taking my hand again she apologised for her enforced absence, and, as she did so, she looked right through me. There was no boldness in the gaze, but an intense, direct, searching look, as of one who had the gift to read hidden mysteries, and the right to read them. I had a feeling that I never experienced before or since, as though I was being mesmerised. It was almost a relief when the look was removed, and we sat down together to table. During dinner I had always a feeling that those eyes were on me, when I was looking down myself, and when I looked at her, and her gaze was on her plate, I still could not divest myself of the sensation that those eyes could see one through their lids."The Free Lance, 7 and 14 March, 1868, articles entitled "Charlotte Bronte" and "A Day with Charlotte Bronte [in 1850]" Personal Reminiscences (of John Stores Smith).

5. Dundee Evening Telegraph - Saturday 22 May 1897.p.2. "HOW CHARLOTTE BRONTE LOOKED. "

"A great deal is now being written about Charlotte Bronte, and in one of the magazines [Woman at Home] there is an interesting reference to her in an article on Mrs Gaskell's house and its memories. Miss Gaskell, a daughter of Charlotte's biographer, still living there, tells that the impression which she retained of the author of "Jane Eyre" was of a dainty, bird-like creature, being delicate in appearance, slight in figure, with tiny hands and feet, very large grey eyes, silky brown hair, and a shy, timid manner: At times, when strangers were not present, and she was at her ease, she would become quite impassioned in conversation, using her hands to accentuate her remarks. Concerning Mr Bronte, whom she saw when she accompanied her mother to Haworth, Miss Gaskell says that "he talked incessantly, telling story after story, and spinning yarns like a Napier, full of point and vivid colouring,"