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
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
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
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 not left her house in Ireland (since it was brought over 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 necessarily resemble published portraits if they have been 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 "known portraits."