Happy Charlotte Brontë day! Today marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of the author of Jane Eyre and to celebrate I bring you a bit of a mystery…
|Charlotte Brontë (1850) George Richmond|
You are more than likely all familiar with this image. It is the portrait of Charlotte by George Richmond, done in chalk and dated 1850. In George Richmond’s artist’s records there is an entry for the picture and his normal fee of 30 shillings, his standard charge for a head and shoulders portrait. Whilst he recorded making duplicates of other portraits, there is only one Charlotte Brontë. At least, by his hand...
|Copy after George Richmond, painted on porcelain|
It was commissioned by George Smith, of Charlotte’s publisher Smith, Elder and Co, and given as a gift to Patrick Brontë, Charlotte’s father. Charlotte died in 1855 and after Patrick Brontë died in 1861, the portrait went to Charlotte’s widower Arthur Nicholls, who had gone to live in Ireland with his second wife. Story has it that the portrait fell on the second wife and it was given to the National Portrait Gallery. Whether these two instances were connected I’ll leave it up to you to decide. Anyway, today's mystery is that in 1969 the Russell-Cotes bought at auction a pastel portrait of Charlotte Brontë, signed George Richmond 1850 and it looks like this...
|Charlotte Brontë (1850) George Richmond|
or at least that is what they were told when they bought it.
Look familiar? Until the 1990s the picture was taken at its face value, that it was a copy of the Richmond picture, done by Richmond at around the same time as the original. It was suggested that possibly it was the original Richmond picture but herein lies the keyword for today's post: provenance. In the past I have identified works of art for various institutions and so when Mr Walker asked me to find out more about the Russell-Cotes' picture I was happy to take up the challenge but what you really need is a clear path of provenance. The National Portrait Gallery undoubtedly have the original picture as their picture has a nice path from Charlotte Brontë to her father to her husband to her husband's second wife's head to the NPG. Unless the pictures were swapped at any point, unless multiple copies were made and distributed for some unknown reason (and kept secret until now) then we can be fairly certain that the NPG own the official portrait of Charlotte Brontë done by George Richmond in June 1850.
|The Brontë Sisters (1834) Branwell Brontë|
Anne, Emily, (Branwell, scrubbed out) and Charlotte
Obviously it was not the first portrait of Charlotte, that honour goes within the family. Possibly the most enduring image of the Brontë family is Branwell's portrait with his own image scraped out. Much can be read into the insular, troubling image of the family, fragile from folds and huddled together in the darkness as they get scraped out one by one. Sorry, my imagination was getting away from me there...
|Charlotte Brontë Unknown artist|
Nor is Richmond's portrait the only 'lone' picture of Charlotte, as the Brontë Parsonage also owns this offering. A particularly doll-like Charlotte seems to be looking for someone, as does her dog. Is it her own mortality slowly creeping upon her as she waits in her mourning clothes...? Sorry, at it again.
I have a particular fondness for photographs of the Brontë Sisters, or Les Souers Brontë, as one of these is French (as these things tend to be). Although they are lovely photographs, especially the top one, neither has any provenance at all or any compelling arguments other than 'wouldn't it be smashing if these were the Brontë Sisters?' The top photo is particularly gorgeous and dramatic and much has been made of the fact that the figure of 'Charlotte' on the left looks like her portrait but I'm sadly not at all convinced. Gorgeous image tho'. Look at the spaniel-shine on 'Anne's' hair on the right. It's very staged, and if you told me that it was by Oscar Rejlander, I wouldn't be surprised. As for the bottom image it's more like a family portrait of the 1840s or 50s but the women in the lower image look more like a mother and two daughters.
So iconic is the Richmond image of Charlotte that she is instantly recognisable in the miniature done over 100 years after her death by the artist H. Midgley-Dodding. Charlotte herself felt the portrait by Richmond looked more like her sister Emily, and wept when she saw it, but it is the accepted image of one of the most famous authors of the nineteenth century. Most images after her death are derived from it, and they crop up as engravings in her books, like this one...
So, back to the Russell-Cotes' portrait. It entered the collection in 1969 and then was hanging in one of the galleries when it was spotted by a Brontë enthusiast in the early 1990s. It was borrowed by the Brontë Parsonage for an exhibition in 1993 on the understanding that it was a copy of the original, but still by Richmond. In a press cutting of the exhibition, from the Yorkshire Post, Jane Sellars, the Parsonage director was quoted as saying "We sent a photograph of it to an expert on the works of Richmond and he feels it is his work." However, by the time the Parsonage returned the work to the Russell-Cotes, they had come to the conclusion it was more than likely a copy by an artist called William Bright Morris...
Bright Morris (1844-1912) lived for a while in Capri and was a respected painter of landscapes and still life. In 1909, he made a copy of the Richmond portrait which is now owned by Newnham College, Cambridge. For obvious reasons, the 1909 Charlotte looks very much like the Russell-Cotes' Charlotte but most notably the signatures were the same, apart from on the Cambridge copy it read 'after George Richmond 1850'. In the Russell-Cotes version, the 'after' is missing. This seemed to be enough to say that Bright Morris must also have created another copy that made its way to a Bournemouth auction room in 1969.
|The Brontë Sisters (apparently) by Edwin Landseer (apparently)|
Sold at auction in 2012 (well, that bit is true)
Undoubtedly the signatures on both are very similar. What I don't know is if they are both like Bright Morris' handwriting as he is not very well known these days and his work is not as widespread as would be convenient. Anyway, I have found out that he also made a copy of the Richmond portrait earlier than 1909. In 1895, the Brontë Parsonage were planning an exhibition of the sisters' effects and George Smith offered to lend them original manuscripts of the novels and a copy of Charlotte's portrait by Richmond, 'painted by Mr Bright-Morris, specially for Mr Smith'. Ah ha! So, there was another Bright Morris portrait painted before the 1909 one (which is clearly dated in the same handwriting that exists on both the Cambridge and the Bournemouth portraits). Whilst that seems to clear one mystery it brings up another - why did George Smith want a copy of the portrait by William Bright Smith? According to his correspondence with Charlotte Brontë, he already had one...
|George Murray Smith (1901) John Collier|
Charlotte and George Smith were very good friends, possibly more. She first met him when she and Emily came to London to 'out' themselves as women to the publisher who had thought they were men. George Smith was a handsome, amiable chap and he and Charlotte became good friends and so when Jane Eyre became popular and Richmond was commissioned to do the portrait, George Smith took the opportunity to get a personal copy done too. In her letter to him of 27th July 1850, shortly after the Richmond portrait had been completed, Charlotte wrote to Smith thanking him for the portrait that had been sent to Patrick Brontë , the author's father. She also went on to say
'You thought inaccurately about the copy of the picture as far as my feelings are concerned, and yet you judged rightly on the whole; for it is my intention that the original drawing shall one day return to your hands. As the production of a true artist it will always have a certain worth, independently of subject.'
So what do we derive from this? Unfortunately we do not have George's original letter to her so we don't know if he had obtained the copy in 1850 or had intended to do so shortly after. What seems apparent from Charlotte's letter is that he was intending to have the copy made by a respected artist, hence Charlotte's remark that it would be valuable despite being of her, bless her. I think possibly that Smith was intending to have a copy done but the reassurance from Charlotte that he would eventually own the original made him delay his plan. There is a letter from him to Ellen Nussey, a friend of Charlotte's, in 1869, stating that the museum in South Kensington (now the V&A) had managed to find out Charlotte's widower's address in Ireland in order to borrow the Richmond picture for an exhibition. If Smith had indeed had a copy done in 1850 then it would have been easier for the museum to borrow his portrait than find out Mr Nicholl's and borrow the original.
|1980 Famous Authoress stamp series by the Royal Mail|
Again, based on the 1850 Richmond portrait
So what is the answer? Well, as the auction house in Bournemouth could offer no provenance when requested in 1993, then we can't be certain but the narrative that seems to offer itself is that the Bournemouth Brontë is probably George Smith's copy of Richmond's original. We know from the 1895 newspaper article that he owned a Bright Morris copy, although without knowing more of Mr Bright Morris, we don't know when that copy was done. As William Bright Morris was born in 1844, this backs up the idea that if he did George Smith's copy then it wasn't done in 1850. I would even venture to suggest that if Smith is not in possession of a copy by 1869 (as suggested by the South Kensington Museum's use of the Richmond original), then it was done somewhen between 1869 and 1895, possibly prompted by the arrival of the original in London for the South Kensington exhibition. If I had to guess, Smith got Bright Morris to copy the portrait around this date and then Bright Morris did a further copy of it in 1909 which resides in Cambridge.
So what is the lesson of today's post? Well, after 200 years, our love of the Brontë sisters is so strong that we long to know more and being such visual creatures we need to see them. I think it is interesting that of late the alleged portraits of the Brontë sisters have been photographs, acknowledging a problem that Charlotte felt herself - paintings can often flatter or change the appearance to what we think a person should look like. Looking at the progression of 'portraits' of Charlotte after the Richmond image they change small details making her look more romantic, putting a blush in her cheek, a book in her hand. I think George Smith wanted a straight copy of Richmond's work which is why it would be tempting to think that Richmond himself made the copy. As it is more likely another artist, presumably William Bright Morris, made the copy then the fact that it is so identical to the original (so much so that an expert felt it was by Richmond) tells us something about Smith and Charlotte. Whilst Richmond's portrait might not have been an exact portrait of Charlotte, the picture was a moment in time, the capturing of a likeness of his dear friend of whom he was obviously very fond. In making the copy, Smith is not only recapturing a good work of art but also the spirit of 1850 when the world had opened up to Charlotte Brontë in a way that had been denied her and was ultimately not to be. In 1850, after the deaths of her brother and two sisters Charlotte had been superficially freed from Haworth, travelling to London and beginning a new literary life. As her happiness was not to last, it is unsurprising that Smith wanted to freeze her in 1850, the bright, young novelist with her whole life ahead of her.