Portraits of Emily Bronte
The 'Pillar' portrait.
The 'Profile' portrait.
In the 1830s Branwell Bronte painted two group
portraits of his sisters, often referred to as the 'Pillar' portrait and
the 'Gun' group. In the 1850s the two paintings were seen by
some visitors to Haworth Parsonage and the Bronte's servant, Martha Brown,
had them photographed. After the death of Rev Patrick Bronte in
1861 Charlotte's widower, Arthur Bell Nicholls, left Haworth for Ireland, taking the
portraits with him. He destroyed the 'Gun Group' in the 1860s, apart from the right-hand
figure known as the 'Profile Portrait,' which he wrapped in paper along with the
'Pillar' portrait and stored in a wardrobe.
The only portrait of the sisters to be published before the 1890s was the
engraving of Charlotte's portrait by George Richmond (1857) and variations based upon it. One
other image was the engraving below, created from Martha Brown's photo of the 'Gun Group' and
published in a local history book Haworth, Past and Present, in 1879. Only Branwell was
identifiable because the description read: "Anne is on Branwell's left, Charlotte on the right,
and Emily to the right of Charlotte."
'Bronte Group' also known as the 'Gun-Group' published
Although these events are known about today, in the early 1890s the
only mention of a group portrait was in Elizabeth Gaskell's biography of Charlotte Bronte (1857).
Souvenir photographs of the picture entitled 'Bronte Group' or 'Gun-Group' had been
circulating in Haworth since the 1880s but for historians it wasn't clear what it was
or where it had come from. Even when it was known that the image came from Horsfall
Turner's book, the description did not make sense, making it impossible to identify the
sisters. It would take a century before the pieces of the puzzle began to be pieced together.
After the Bronte Society was founded In 1893 preparations were made for the
first museum, but, although there were portraits of Charlotte and Anne to display, there were none
of Emily. William Walsh Yates, editor of the Dewsbury Reporter, travelled to Blackpool to visit
Robinson Brown, a cousin of the Bronte's servant, Martha Brown (d.1880). Yates was told that "a
photograph of her on glass" had existed but had been accidentally "broken to
atoms." The earliest photos on glass date from the 1850s, so this had
been a copy of an earlier image. It is not known whether this was an
actual photograph, or some other image such as Martha Brown's photo on glass of the 'Gun
Portrait of Emily Bronte, published
in an article by Frederika MacDonald (1894). Clement Shorter also published it
(1896) but wrote in 1900 that it "was afterwards admitted to have been a
A picture "Emily Bronte. From a painting by Charlotte hitherto
unpublished" appeared in an article in Woman at Home in 1894. There was no
mention as to where it had come from or whether it had been inserted by the
contributor, Frederika MacDonald, or the owner of the publication, William Robertson
Joseph Horsfall Turner travelled to Ireland to visit Charlotte's
widower, Arthur Bell Nicholls, and was told that the portrait in Woman at Home was
unlikely to be of Emily but he gleaned very little about other portraits.2
Turner was followed by Clement Shorter who also raised the subject with Mr
Nicholls. Shorter was left with the impression that there had only been one group portrait (the
'Pillar portrait'), described by Mrs Gaskell in Charlotte's biography (1857), and that it had been
destroyed, apart from the figure of Emily, which had been given to Martha Brown.3.
Shorter sent Arthur Nicholls a print from a photo which had once
belonged to Martha Brown. It was a photo of a painting but Shorter did not know that this was
the 'Pillar portrait.' Arthur Nicholls replied in March 1897 that "The photograph you
enclosed does bear a resemblance to the picture of the three sisters - it is just possible that
Martha Brown had it copied before we left Haworth - The likenesses are very bad - The head in the
left hand corner has something of the expression of Anne - The others I should not
We now know that this is a photo of the 'Pillar Portrait' (L-R: Anne, Emily,
Charlotte) described by Mrs Gaskell and that Arthur Nicholls avoided naming the sisters, including
his late wife. In August 1897, Clement Shorter published the image in Woman at
Home with an ambiguous and incorrect description.
Shorter was given the impression that no images
of Charlotte existed, other than her
portrait by George Richmond, first published in 1857.
During the 1890s quest for a portrait of Emily several emerged from
various parts of Yorkshire, all purporting to be of Emily and all of different women. Frustrated
and confused, Shorter's search for a genuine portrait was abandoned. As a result,
two pieces of artwork were created in the late 1890s, based on what were thought to
be pictures of Emily. William Scruton's portrait was copied from the left figure in
the photograph in Woman at Home.
Emily Bronte, artwork published by
William Scruton, 1898. This is derived from the figure of Anne in the 'Pillar
Emily Bronte, engraved for Smith,
Elder, 1900 on the advice of Clement Shorter. This is based on the r/h figure in
the 'Bronte Group' illustration first published in Haworth, Past & Present,
About 1899 Clement Shorter was told that the rough picture of the 'Gun Group'
was a photograph of artwork by Branwell and he decided that this must be the group
portrait of the sisters. There does not appear to be any logic in his decision but he took the
right-hand figure to be Emily, even though Ellen Nussey had told him that this
was Anne. On this basis the publishers Smith, Elder created an engraving from the right hand
figure in the 'Gun Group.'
Charlotte's widower, Arthur Bell Nicholls, died in December 1906 and the
following year George Richmond's portrait of Charlotte passed to the NPG. It was displayed
alongside another portrait of Charlotte supposedly by her tutor in Brussels signed 'Paul Heger,'
purchased by the NPG earlier in 1906 (NPG 1444 Unknown woman, formerly known as Charlotte Brontë) and the subject
of a bitter dispute between the gallery director, Lionel Cust and Clement
Shorter, who considered it to be fraudulent.
In October 1913 the historian, Esther Alice Chadwick, persuaded the
new gallery director that the portrait was not painted by either Constantine Heger
or his son Paul and it was later removed from the gallery. In December Mrs
Chadwick sent out prospectuses for her new book In the Footsteps of the Brontes
which was published under the name Mrs Ellis H Chadwick. The book was published in
January 1914 and included a photograph of the 'Pillar Portrait' (from the photo once owned by
Martha Brown). This was the first time that the portrait had been published in a
book and the first time the figures had been correctly identified.
Two months later newspapers reported a miraculous discovery. Eight
years after the death of Arthur Bell Nicholls the 'Pillar Portrait' and 'Profile
Portrait' had been 'discovered' by his widow, his second wife, at the house in
Ireland. They had been hidden away for over 50 years. The discovery must have come as a great shock
for Clement Shorter. He had visited and corresponded with Arthur Bell Nicholls for nearly a decade,
the subject of portraits had been raised several times, and yet the paintings had been in the house
all the time.
The 'Pillar' & 'Profile'
portraits discovered in 1914.
The portraits were purchased by the National Portrait Gallery but
as soon as they were exhibited the identity of the 'Profile Portrait' as Emily was challenged
by Esther Alice Chadwick who believed that this could only be Anne. A second problem then
surfaced because this was supposed to be the portrait of Emily, owned by Martha Brown,
and seen by William Robertson Nicoll when he visited her in 1879. Over in Ireland, Rev
Sherrard, a close friend of the late Arthur Nicholls, wrote to the Morning Post on behalf
of Mrs Nicholls. He claimed that the portrait was never in the possession of Martha Brown
and it had not left the house in Ireland.
William Robertson Nicoll seems to have remained silent on the matter and by
August 1914 the country was at war. Mrs Nicholls died in 1916 and in 1918 Esther Alice
Chadwick published an article claiming that the portraits were 'discovered' by Mrs
Nicholls because about December 1913 she was sent a prospectus for her book which included
the picture of the 'Pillar Portrait.'
In 1914 Clement Shorter had accepted that the 'Profile'
portrait was Emily but by the 1920s he had changed his mind, deciding that it
"Is really a portrait of Anne." He died in 1927, just as Charles Simpson began
researching his book Emily Bronte (1929). Simpson considered the 'Profile Portrait' to be
Emily but changed his mind during research. In his book he included a brief chapter on the
subject. Included was an illustration, the photo of the engraving where Ellen Nussey had identified
the figures. The 'Profile Portrait' resembled the right-hand figure, labelled as Anne.
Ellen Nussey identified the sisters
L-R: Emily, Charlotte,
In 1932, three years after Charles Simpson's book was published, an article
"Emily Bronte - A National Portrait Vindicated" was published
in The Yorkshire Post by the secretary of the Bronte Society, Mabel Edgerley.
She announced "a fortunate discovery which has important bearing on the authenticity
of a portrait believed be that of Emily Bronte."
The "fortunate discovery" was three tracings labelled with the
sisters' names and ages. These were thought to have been traced c1860 by John Greenwood, the
Haworth stationer, from the 'Gun Group' portrait before it was taken to Ireland. A copy of the
tracing labelled "Emily Jane Bronte" was made, taken to the NPG, placed over the 'Profile
Portrait' and found to be a close match. It was now believed that the tracings and the NPG's
Profile Portrait related to one group portrait and, as the tracing was labelled Emily, the NPG
attribution was correct.
The tracings identified the sisters
Anne, Charlotte, Emily.
Ellen Nussey identified the sisters
Emily, Charlotte, Anne.
The labels on the tracings contradicted Ellen Nussey's identification in
the engraving where the figure on the right was Anne. It was decided that Ellen
Nussey may have been correct but the image (now known to be an engraving),
was thought to be a drawing by Branwell and considered to be a completely
different group portrait, partly due to differences in clothing and the wallpaper.
The labelling of the tracings did not convince everyone which led
Virginia Moore to devote a page in The Life and Eager Death of Emily Bronte (1936)
giving reasons why she thought the portrait was of Emily.4.
In 1958 the debate resurfaced when Ingeborg Nixon published a very
balanced article about the two NPG portraits in the Bronte Society
There was a
response by Dame Myra Curtis (1959) questioning amongst other
things, resemblances and the labelling of the tracings.
In The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë (1960) Daphne du
Maurier, touched on the portrait but all she had to say on the subject was that "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."
The NPG catalogue description was published in the 1970s and
addressed the identity question, concluding that it is Emily although there were certain
reservations. Since publication other evidence has emerged.
In 1989 a photograph of the original 'Gun Group' portrait was discovered and a
number of mysteries were solved, enabling the number of contradictory and complicated arguments to
be reduced. What was thought to be a drawing by Branwell of an
unrelated 'Gun Group' was actually an engraving made in 1879 using the newly discovered
photo. The differences, such as the wallpaper and clothing, could be put down to artistic
license because the photo was dark and lacked detail.6.
The newly discovered 'photo,' the
'engraving,' the 'tracings' and the 'Profile Portrait' all
related to Branwell's original 'Gun-Group.' It had been thought that there were three
or four group portraits but it was now known that there had only ever been two - the 'Pillar
Portrait' and the "Gun Group.'
Tracings from the "Gun Group" made either c1835 or
c1860. The sisters are identified
Anne, Charlotte, Emily.
The "Profile Portrait" at the NPG.
Copy of a photo taken c1858 but
not discovered until 1989, after publication of the NPG catalogue description.
This is the original "Gun-Group" Portrait with "Profile Portrait" on the far right.
An engraving made from the photo and published in Haworth Past and Present, 1879. The
figures were identified by Martha Brown, but are on another
A photo of the engraving with the
figures identified by Ellen Nussey as
L-R: Emily, Charlotte, Anne.
A number of questions remain unanswered. Ellen Nussey's
identification of the figures in the engraving still conflicts with the labels on the
tracings. Were the tracings made by Greenwood in the 1860s or created by Branwell in the
1830s? Two earlier accounts of William Robertson Nicoll's visit to Martha Brown state that
her portrait of Emily was a pencil sketch by Charlotte and not an oil painting by
Branwell. Then there is Martha Brown's confusing identification of the figures in the
'Gun Group' in Haworth Past and Present. Some of these questions are explored on the
The mistaken, wrongly identified and contested portraits of Emily
Bronte continue to be published but rarely do we see her only undisputed
portrait. Several other illustrations of Emily Bronte have appeared over the past century and
a few more are shown on the (external and unconnected) Wuthering Heights website.
The only undisputed portrait of Emily Bronte.
RETURN TO CONFUSING
1. W. W. Yates, "Some Relics of the Brontes", The
New Review (1894) pp. 482, 486 "The Brown collection once boasted a memorial of Emily Brontë of great
interest and value—a photograph of her on glass, I am informed, and described to me as a
negative. Not one so called nowadays. It was entrusted to a Bradford gentleman to be copied,
but he unfortunately fell, and the relic, to his great regret and that of its owner, was
broken to atoms. Brontë-lovers all the world over are much the poorer through that
Post and Leeds Intelligencer, Wednesday 12 September
1894. The full quote from the newspaper is:
"Of the portrait of Emily Bronte in the July number of the Woman
at Home he [Mr Nicholls] observed that it might be genuine, but that it did not accord, either as
to the head-dress or as to the features, with his recollection of her."
The portrait in The Woman at
Home, July 1894, was also published Clement Shorter
as "Emily Bronte, from a portrait drawn by
Charlotte" in an article, Mrs. Gaskell and
Charlotte Bronte, in The Bookman, June 1896,
3. Clement King
Shorter, Charlotte Brontë and her Circle (London, 1896) pp.123-4. "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. The supposed portrait which appeared in The Woman at Home for
July 1894 is now known to have been merely an illustration from a 'Book of Beauty,' and entirely
By 1924 Clement Shorter believed
that the "Profile" portrait at the NPG was of Anne.
The Sphere - Saturday 27 January 1900.
"It has long been an axiom
among Bronte enthusiasts that no portrait of Emily Bronte is in existence. It would appear,
however, that a photograph which always is on sale at Haworth, and has been reproduced in several
magazines and books, of a group purporting to be the Bronte family is really a photograph of an
actual picture by Branwell. Mr. Nicholls, the
husband of Charlotte Bronte, who still lives in Ireland and who takes the keenest possible interest
in the fortunes of The Sphere has identified the photograph. He says that the likeness of Emily is
excellent, whereas the portraits of his wife, of Anne, and of Branwell Bronte, are quite
worthless. On the strength of this
identification, Messrs. Smith and Elder are producing a beautiful photogravure of the portrait of
Emily Bronte, which will be published next month in the new edition of "Wuthering Heights" with
Mrs. Humphry Ward's introduction."
4. Virginia Moore, The Life and Eager Death of
Emily Brontë. London: Rich & Cowan, 1936. NOTE ON THE PORTRAIT OF EMILY BRONTE,
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."
5.The Bronte Portraits - Some Old Problems and a
New Discovery By Ingeborg Nixon, M.A., PH.D. Bronte Society Transactions The Journal of Bronte
Studies, Volume 13, Part 68, 1958 , pp. 232-238
5a. The "Profile" Portrait, Dame Myra Curtis.
Bronte Society Transactions The Journal of Bronte Studies, Volume 13, Part 69, 1959 , pp.
6. The Bronte Portraits: a Mystery Solved. Juliet
R. V. Barker Bronte Society Transactions The Journal of Bronte Studies, Volume 20, Part 1, 1990 ,