This is a collodion photo with "The Bronte Sisters" written
in French on the reverse, however this type of photograph on glass was only invented
in the early 1850s, after the death of Emily (1848) and Anne (1849).
The researcher's experience in photography spans three decades and includes
printing thousands of photographs from glass negatives such as this. He believes that this is a
copy of an earlier 1840s photo (a daguerreotype). Sit back from the screen and you may
notice that the photo is on a slight slant and has the appearance of
having been cropped. This is how daguerreotypes were copied, at an angle to avoid reflections
and centred to avoid marks at the edges of the original photo.1.
The image is in a photographic archive in Scotland. As with most
photos there is virtually no provenance and it can only be traced back to the previous owners in
France, although it is thought that they purchased it in the Paris
Photographs of the Bronte Sisters.
There is no record of a group photo being taken of the Bronte sisters but, given
the history of other portraits, there may be very good reasons for this. The only
group portraits of the sisters were two paintings by their brother Branwell and one of
these was deliberately destroyed in the 1860s. The surviving group portrait, and the profile
cut from the destroyed canvas, are at the National Portrait Gallery in London. These were
painted c1835 but not seen by the general public until 1914.
When the photo was purchased3. it was assumed that it was one of many copies sold to
visitors in 1850s Haworth but this turned out not to be the case. The Bronte
Parsonage Museum viewed the photo in 2011, and 2012, but didn't think that a photograph of the
Bronte Sisters could have been taken. A visit to the National Media Museum proved inconclusive; one
member of staff said that it was unlikely to be a copy because they are far less common than
original photos, another said that “it has that look of a copy about it.”
The NMM couldn't help because it wasn't thought possible
to confirm whether a photograph is an original, taken of people from several feet away, or a
copy of a photo taken from several inches away. Since then, photographic historians have
suggested that as there are blemishes on the photo it may be possible to
determine whether these are on the photo or - if a copy - on the copied photo.
The hats are similar to those seen in England in the early 1860s but
they appear to be slightly different. In 1840s Europe this style of hat was unique
to Germany, where Charlotte's lifelong friend, Mary Taylor, spent two years teaching.
If genuine, then the most likely location for the photo is the garden
of the daguerreotype studio in Stonegate, York. If the wall and
features in the background can be matched to old photos of this property then it will
date the photo to the time of the Bronte sisters.
One major problem in comparing images of the sisters is that over the years
several Bronte portraits were wrongly identified and are still in use today. An attempt has
been made to discover which portraits are misleading so that a fair comparison can be made with the
ladies in the photo. Where possible, only contemporary descriptions have been used; those by people
who actually knew or met the Bronte Sisters.
The research is only being carried out in spare time, a few days each month, so
it will be a while before the mystery is solved.This website
was set up in 2012 and is updated two or three times a year.4.