The Lost Portrait of Emily Bronte

The 'Profile Portrait' (NPG 1724) identified as Emily Brontë at the National Portrait Gallery.

The 'Profile Portrait' (NPG 1724) at the NPG is identified as Emily Bronte and the reasons for this are given in the catalogue description. The conclusion is disputed because since publication in the early 1970s further evidence has come to light. One aspect of this concerns the portrait of Emily Bronte owned by Martha Brown and seen by William Robertson Nicoll in 1879. The catalogue description takes this to be NPG 1724, citing an article published in 1908:

"I shall never cease to regret that I did not buy the portrait she 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." 1.

William Robertson Nicoll (1851-1923) Founding editor of The British Weekly, The Bookman and Woman at Home.

Martha Brown (1828-1880) servant to the Bronte family from 1839. She owned a large collection of Brontë memorabilia.

The "fine and expressive painting" quote from 1908 is used as evidence that the NPG's 'Profile Portrait' was the one seen by Robertson Nicoll when he visited Martha Brown in 1879.

Robertson Nicoll was writing nearly 30 years after the event and described the portrait as a painting but there is a discrepancy between this and his two earlier accounts of the visit published in 1891 and 1893:

"... In July, 1879, I paid a visit to Haworth and had an interesting interview with Martha Brown, the faithful servant who nursed all the Brontes, and saw them all die. She possessed many relics of the famous sisters which had been given her by Mr Bronte. Among them was the pencil sketch of Anne Bronte by Charlotte Bronte, which, however imperfect in drawing, is described by at least two who knew her well as an unmistakable likeness.... I purchased it on Martha Brown's death from one of her sisters.... 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. ..." 2.
William Robertson Nicoll, 1891

Writing again in 1893:

"It is proposed to establish a Bronte Society... The chief desideratum is the excellent pencil sketch of Emily Bronte, drawn by Charlotte, which was in the possession of Martha Brown, the old servant of the family, and is now lost." I saw it thirteen years ago, and vainly endeavoured to purchase it. I have vainly endeavoured to trace it since." 3.
William Robertson Nicoll, 1893

These two statements, published little more than a decade after the event, are likely to be more accurate than the one written nearly three decades later.

If it had been the NPG's 'Profile Portrait' that Robertson Nicoll had seen in 1879 then he would have stated this in 1914 when the identification was initially contested, or at some point in the following decade. He remained silent on the matter even though he took a keen interest in Bronte affairs and later became President of the Bronte Society.3a During the dispute in 1914, the late Arthur Bell Nicholls's close friend, Rev J. J. Sherrard, wrote to the newspapers on behalf of Mrs A B Nicholls; it was stated that the 'Profile Portrait' had never left her house in Ireland (since it was brought there in 1861) and was never in the possession of Martha Brown.3b

If this is the case then in 1879 Robertson Nicoll saw two portraits, one of Emily Bronte and one of Anne Bronte; both were pencil sketches by Charlotte. After Martha Brown's death he tried to locate them but only succeeded in finding and purchasing the portrait of Anne seen below.

Charlotte Bronte's pencil portrait of her sister Anne. This was in the possession of Martha Brown in the 1870s and purchased by William Robertson Nicoll after her death. Martha had also owned a pencil portrait of Emily but he was unable to trace it.

What happened to the "irrevocably lost" portrait of Emily?

It is almost 140 years since Robertson Nicoll viewed the portrait of Emily and it may still exist - few people if any have searched for a pencil sketch because this is the first time that both accounts from the 1890s have been published.4. No mention has so far been found of a pencil portrait although there is a brief newspaper report noting the sale of "a sketch of Emily Bronte by Charlotte" in 1933.5.

The lost portrait of Emily may well have been signed by Patrick Bronte "By my daughter Charlotte ...P Bronte" but Emily would not resemble the many published portraits mistakenly based upon pictures of Anne. Emily was very different in appearance, described by Charlotte as having similar features to George Henry Lewes and by friends as strong and more masculine looking. This, and any other genuine portrait, may in the past have been overlooked if it was simply compared to the "known portraits."




1. "British Weekly, October 1908" quoted in Ingeborg Nixon, 'The Bronte Portraits - Some old problems and a new discovery.' Bronte Society Transactions, Volume 13, Part 68, 1958, pp.235. (Possibly 29 Oct 1908: ‘Not by sight’: ‘The Brontës’)

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

3. William Robertson Nicoll, "The Sketch" 13 December 1893

3a. If Robertson Nicoll had stated in 1914 that the portrait he had viewed in 1879 was a pencil sketch then this would have been extremely embarrassing for his friend Clement Shorter and possibly the NPG. In later years Shorter believed that the 'Profile portrait' was of Anne.

3b. See letter from James J. Sherrard., Banagher, March 8, 1914" Page location here (external website).

4. Published 22 August 2017.

5. "A small collection of photographs of the Bronte family, and a sketch of Emily Bronte by Charlotte produced no higher bid than 30s at Sotheby's to-day." The Yorkshire Post, Tuesday 19 December, 1933. p.8, col.7. The auction sale was held Monday 18 December 1933. The name of the vendor and purchaser is not yet known and without seeing the full description in the auction catalogue it is not possible to determine whether this was the sketch once owned by Martha Brown. If genuine then the lack of interest at the sale may be because the previous year Mabel Edgerley used the tracings to "prove" the identity of the NPG's 'Profile Portrait' as Emily; this interpretation of the tracings and labels is in doubt since the 1990s. Emily did not resemble Anne. If the 'Profile Portrait' was wrongly identified in 1914 then any genuine portraits may have been rejected by historians for over a century.

Catherine Mabel Edgerley was Honorary Secretary of the Bronte Society, 1929-1946.