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 1879.

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 Group.' 1.

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 fashion plate."

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 Nicoll.

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 recognise."

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 Portrait.'

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, 1879.

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
: Emily, Charlotte, Anne. 


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 L-R:
Anne, Charlotte, Emily.

Ellen Nussey identified the sisters L-R:
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.

1950s - 1970s

In 1958 the debate resurfaced when Ingeborg Nixon published a very balanced article about the two NPG portraits in the Bronte Society Transactions.5. 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.

1980s onwards

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 L-R:
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 page.

A photo of the engraving with the figures identified by Ellen Nussey as
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 next page.



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.



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 accident."

2. Yorkshire 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, pp. 313-323

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 spurious."
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, p369.

"if the 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. 342-346

6. The Bronte Portraits: a Mystery Solved. Juliet R. V. Barker Bronte Society Transactions The Journal of Bronte Studies, Volume 20, Part 1, 1990 , pp. 3-11