The Problem with Anne Bronte (or Charlotte?)

The problem of identification is not restricted to portraits of Charlotte and Emily. This page looks at Charlotte Bronte's 'Portrait of a Young Woman' and two other portraits occasionally used as an illustration of Anne Bronte.

 Charlotte Bronte's Pencil Sketches

In her later years, Martha Brown (the Bronte family's servant) owned a large collection of Bronte memorabilia including two pencil portraits of Anne and Emily, both drawn by Charlotte.

A third pencil portrait by Charlotte may also have been owned by Martha Brown. It appeared from out of the blue in the Edwardian era before disappearing for over a century. The picture only resurfaced a few years ago and depicts a young woman.1.

LEFT: Charlotte's pencil sketch of her sister Anne which she dated '1833' and labelled 'Anne Bronte'.
RIGHT: Charlotte's pencil sketch of a young woman, undated and unidentified.
Both were authenticated and signed by Rev Patrick Bronte in the late1850s. 1a.

'Portrait of a Young Woman'


Charlotte's 'Portrait of a Young Woman' is from the 1830s or early 1840s but it can't be dated precisely. It may well have formed part of Martha Brown's collection of Bronteana from the 1860s until her death in 1880. It is now known that it was subsequently owned by the historian and Bronte enthusiast, Joseph Horsfall Turner (1845-1915). He did meet Martha Brown but he probably purchased it after her death, either from one of her relatives or from another collector.2.

'Portrait of a Young Woman' by Charlotte Bronte.

Although the figure was unidentified, the sketch was used to illustrate the frontispiece of the Thornton (1905 & 1907) editions of Tenant of Wildfell Hall with the caption: "ANNE BRONTE. From a pencil drawing by Charlotte Bronte". The features though were different from those in the two profile portraits of Anne already published, and two more discovered a few years later. In all these her lower lip extends beyond the chin and the upper lip projects further still. 3.

By 1905 these two undisputed portraits of Anne Bronte had already published.

Charlotte's sketch was listed in Art of the Brontes (1995), when its whereabouts were still unknown, noting that the identification as Anne was 'suspect'. It resurfaced in 2012 and was sold at auction to a private buyer as 'a Portrait of a Young Woman by Charlotte Bronte. The book illustration from 1905 is sometimes used as a portrait of Anne Bronte in print publications and is increasingly seen on websites, but this is based upon the dubious identification in 1905.4.

William Robertson Nicoll (1851-1923) purchased Charlotte's drawing of Anne from one of Martha Brown's sisters.

Joseph Horsfall Turner (1845-1915) purchased Charlotte's drawing of the 'Young Woman' possibly from one of Martha Brown's sisters.

The Identity of the Sitter?


Mr. Rochester : "Your gaze is very direct, Miss Eyre. Do you think me handsome?"

Jane Eyre: "No, sir."

The only person in the Bronte family bearing any resemblance to Charlotte's pencil portrait is Charlotte herself (in the 'Pillar' portrait). She has large eyes with a noticeable drop to the lower eyelid, high cheekbones, full cheeks, a strong, prominent chin and lower jaw. The most remarked upon characteristic of Charlotte Bronte in her lifetime was her eyes, and her gaze. If the sketch is a self-portrait then it may have been created with the aid of either two mirrors, existing portraits, a tracing or silhouette, but with the nose and forehead idealised.

Left: Charlotte Bronte in the 'Pillar' portrait, painted by her brother Branwell. Right: Charlotte's pencil sketch (reversed).

Charlotte was fascinated with physiognomy (judging character from facial characteristics) and it permeates her novels, but she was very self-conscious indeed about her own appearance. A self-portrait may not be always be an entirely faithful likeness, but it normally contains some elements of truth, some identifying features. 5.

Left: Charlotte's pencil sketch. Right: 'Charlotte' in the 'Bronte Sisters Photo'.

The "rather overhanging forehead", as described by Elizabeth Gaskell, is not present in the pencil sketch but below the brow the features are remarkably similar to Charlotte in the 'Bronte Sisters Photo'. Both women not only have similar large eyes, but also a limbal ring framing the iris; this helps to produce the intense gaze. Most contemporary descriptions of Charlotte Bronte mention her beautiful or penetrating eyes. 6.

Left: Charlotte's pencil sketch. Right: 'Charlotte' in the 'Bronte Sisters Photo' (detail from the two images).6a.

Charlotte Bronte created several pencil portraits but the quality of this is far superior and it is probably the most lifelike. If it is an idealised self-portrait then it is a precursor of the idealised portrait by George Richmond. In physiognomy, a high forehead represented intellect, but other features were important as well. 6b.

For the time being the portrait remains a mystery. It is either copied from an illustration, drawn from the life, or an idealised self-portrait. If any information is received concerning this pencil sketch then the page will be revised.

Images of Charlotte Bronte

Images of Anne Bronte


Two Anne Bronte Portraits of Young Women

 Anne Bronte

Four undisputed portraits of Anne Bronte.

In the early 1840s Anne Bronte made portraits of two unidentified young women or girls (below) with large eyes. At various times over the years it has been suggested that one or both of these could be self-portraits of Anne Bronte.

Left: 'Portrait of a Young Woman in Blue' (by Anne). Right: 'Portrait of a Young Woman' (by Anne).

Another candidate for at least one portrait is Martha Brown. Art was still a pastime for Anne until at least 1843, and for Charlotte until 1845. Anne was working near York in this period but the pencil sketch (above right) was drawn during her holidays at Haworth Parsonage. Written on the reverse is "a very bad picture drawn June 24th 1842 by Anne Bronte".

Could this be Martha Brown? By then she was a 14-year-old, and would have been at the Parsonage during Anne's visit. Perhaps she was occasionally requisitioned as an artist's model. We only ever see images of Martha as an older woman but even in her early 30s she was described as “a blooming, bright, clean young woman.” She was about eleven-years-old when she joined the Bronte household in 1839. 7.

Martha Brown (1828-1880) in photos, the dates are estimated at Left-Right: c1865, c1860 & late 1870s.8.







Bibliography:  The Art of the Brontës, Christine Alexander and Jane Sellars, (Cambridge University Press, 1995) 

1. Charlotte Bronte's 'portrait of a Young Woman' first appeared as an illustration in 1905. William Robertson Nicoll (1851-1923) would have been aware of its publication so it is unlikely that this is the lost 'Pencil Sketch of Emily', shown to him by Martha Brown in 1879.

This is not a portrait of Ellen Nussey. It has been compared with the photographs of her, but the lips and mouth are the wrong shape altogether.

1a. The handwriting reads: "By my daughter Charlotte, P Bronte, Min[iste]r".

2. Brief bio of Joseph Horsfall Turner: 

3. Thornton Editions:

Thornton Edition of Tenant of Wildfell Hall, 1905 

Thornton Edition of Tenant of Wildfell Hall, 1907 (vol.1) (vol.2)

4. Sotheby's sale in 2012


5. See Charlotte's Two Portraits.

6. Charlotte did create at least one self-portrait and Branwell painted his own in the lost 'Gun Group'. Self portraits in profile are less common but for what appears to be an example see Charles Robert Leslie. Several features are a close match for 'Charlotte' in the 'Bronte Sisters Photo'. The original portrait is clearer and more detailed than the illustration published in 1905. The original portrait can be found here:

 See also: 

6a. The two small marks may be a fault in the collodion surface of the photo, or part of the woman's complexion.

6b. Davison, Alan. High-art Music and Low-brow Types: Physiognomy and Nineteenth-century Iconography Music. Journal of Music Research, No. 17, Winter 1999 (PDF File):

Physiognomy: "..... the chin had two facets: projection and roundness. The first characteristic represented will, the latter amativeness (sexual drive). The forehead had the dimensions of height, width and angle in profile. A high forehead represented intellect, but broadness was also needed to be truly wise. Regarding the mouth, the degree of fullness was representative of the level of sensual passion. Sensual personalities, indicated by large lips, were considered with distrust; thin lips were indicative of a harsh, mean personality. Thus, a well-proportioned mouth was expected in an artist. The nose was considered to be extremely important by Lavater and subsequent physiognomists. Lavater considered the ideal nose to be equal in length to the forehead. To give some specific examples, an aquiline (or Roman) nose reflected firmness, while a straight (Greek) nose indicated refinement of emotions. A snub nose represented underdevelopment and stupidity."

See also: Tytler, Graeme. "Physiognomy in The Professor" Brontë Studies: The Journal of the Brontë Society. Volume 44, 2019 - Issue 4 Pages 339-350.

7. Brief bio of Martha Brown

8. The photographs of Martha used here are poor quality images retrieved from the internet. It would be interesting to see clearer copies of the original photos and any other images of Martha and the Brown family.

It is thought that Martha was photographed in the late 1850s or early 1860s (a collodion photo on glass). She certainly had at least two sittings with photographers in the 1860s and 1870s but this was in the era of carte de visite photographs (photos on paper). In the latter sitting at least two photographs were taken from slightly different angles, as was often the case at the time.