Will the real Charlotte Bronte PLEASE stand up!

There have not been many portraits of the famous writer Charlotte Bronte, so it’s a bit of a tall order to establish what she really looked like.  One person who at least had a bit of an idea having lived with her, was her brother Branwell.  He painted quite a few portraits of people he knew.  How objective was he though about his own sisters?  I do not think he would be flattering, and  I get the feeling that he would try to truthfully portray them, warts and all.  He was particularly scathing about his own portrait which he couldn’t get right – he just  painted his own face  out!

bronte_sisters by-branwell-bronte-c1834
bronte_sisters by-branwell-bronte-c1834


The most flattering one is the George Richmond portrait. This is the one that most people associate with Charlotte.  It has been said that Richmond greatly flattered Charlotte in this portrait.

charlotte-bronte-by-george-richmoond-18503.jpg NPG 1452, Charlotte BrontÎ (Mrs A.B. Nicholls)





charlotte-bronte-by-george-richmoond-18503.jpg NPG 1452, Charlotte BrontÎ (Mrs A.B. Nicholls)

And here’s another one purported to be of  Charlotte…though I can’t see it  myself.  There’s an article about it here.  Personally, I think that this lady looks more like Charlotte’s biographer Elizabeth Gaskell.




elizabeth-gaskell early champion and biographer
elizabeth-gaskell early champion and biographer


I rather like this one by J H Thompson.  Again, I get the impression that this glamorises Charlotte.  Nonetheless, there is a homeliness also within this portrayal that persuades me that the photo below and the painting are of the same person.  Now, whether that person is Charlotte, is another matter.

J H Thompson portrait
J H Thompson portrait

This is the photograph purported to be Charlotte Bronte.

Could this really be Charlotte?  I'd like to think so
Could this really be Charlotte? I'd like to think so

We will never know what she really looked like, which is a shame.  All we have to go on is this description by Charlotte’s friend and publisher George Smith: –

I must confess that my first impression of Charlotte Bronte’s personal appearance was that it was interesting rather than attractive.  She was very small, and had a quaint old fashioned look.  Her head seemed to large for her body.  She had fine eyes, but her face was marred by the shape of the mouth and by the complexion.  There was but little feminine charm about her….’

How very charming of him eh!  And him such an oil painting himself….. Charlotte did receive four proposals of marriage in her life time though, so four men at least disagreed with Smith!

george smith no gentleman
george smith no gentleman

 More about the Haworth journey here

34 thoughts on “Will the real Charlotte Bronte PLEASE stand up!

  1. I tend to agree with you that the Brussells painting resembles Gaskell more than Charlotte Bronte. Based on Branwell’s painting, I thought Vickery Turner in The Brontes of Haworth (http://janegs.blogspot.com/2008/09/bronts-of-haworth-1973-episode-3.html) captured Charlotte’s look quite well, despite the hair, which is a combo of 1840/1970 style.

    The photo is not consistent with any of the paintings and going merely on that, I doubt it is Charlotte.

    The Richmond painting and Branwell’s seem to be of the same person, so my image of Charlotte is a mix of the two.

    1. Hi JaneGS again, The Bronte programme you mention was indeed very well done..apart from THAT hair lol! It’s interesting how differently people see their hero’s or heroines isn’t it. I read somewhere (may have been Gaskell) that Charlotte had quite bad teeth) and she did suffer from toothache a lot. The Branwell portait I think is a very good starting point as to her appearence. I can’t see Branwell flattering his sisters, but I also think he was a bit too arrogant to get it that wrong and leave it. Of course it all depends on how good an artist he was. I would judge him a passable one, going by the likenesses he did of local people. Hheheh I’m still not convinced that photo isn’t Charlotte though…..

  2. Dear Echostains- fascinating you liken the ‘Brussels’ pastel to Mrs Gaskill! Yoom likely right. The head-shape is wrong for Chrlt- she had ‘oblong’ head (Emily ‘heart-shaped’ and Ann ‘oval’). Thompson’s recollection is not perfect, but Blue eyes. Intriguingly, Mrs G described Chrlt; ‘Brown hair (bla bla bla) lighter than mine (bla bla) her eyes were the same colour’.. Did she mean Brown, or Blue- like her own- and those in ‘Busssels’ portrait?
    Richmond’s sternly bi-tonal chalk with white h/lights had no way of conveying blue, except by their very transluscence. He suggests Chrlt had a ‘dimple’.
    I have ‘found’ a fresh group portrait, each corner and layer crammed with biography known and new. It says Chrlt had a crooked mouth, bent nose, bad teeth and blue eyes. You can see low-res copy on BBC’s Yorks. web ‘Man claims Bronte portrait find’. Do ee make they brown eyes blue? If u tell me how I will send you better image. Best wishes, James

    1. Thanks James, I have sent you an email. Maybe you could attach a high res version to an email? This is a fascinating subject, that I know will be up for much discussion! The plot thickens eh!
      Kind Regards

  3. We are told that a number ( 2 or 3, I think) photographs of Charlotte Bronte have been found in recent years.

    Great news! But can anyone tell us where they are, as they may finally lay to rest the burning question – ‘What did Charlotte Bronte look like’?

  4. We need unrefutable proof Vernon…and believe me it would need to be unrefutable to be accepted by the legions of Bronted fans. But, you never know… we live in hope 🙂 thanks for your comments – appreciated.

  5. Hi Vernon,

    Yep, a photo would be great but would need absolute irrefutable provenance and documented proof, photos are so easy to make and so many people could be made to look like her (contemporary’s description).
    I’ve never been sure how she transformed into the robust, jaunty (‘fisher’)-woman photographed after Richmond’s gaunt pastel image.
    If a fine picture with corroborating evidence were found, that would be something! You never know what’s ’round the corner- look out for ‘An Arc of Waking Stars’ – Jam

    1. Hi James! You DID it? the book is coming out? Love the title by the way! When is it being published? I shall plug it shamelessly 🙂

  6. Can’t wait to get copy to you! Hope to have publish date soon. You have been a champ!
    Best wishes, Jam

  7. Hi
    I think the photo is Charlotte,because to me it does seem like a side view of the face in the other images and fits descriptions by other people ,,the nose and mouth seem similare to the paintings and she has that Mona Lisa like half smile , .I admit its not much like the Branwell portraite but Charlotte was much much younger there than in the photo,.
    The two later paintings have Charlotte at a flattering angle,, the heads slightly down and more front on, and I dont know about other people but my views always drawn to the eyes which most people seem to have agreed was Charlottes most attractive feature ,,, whereas in the photo shes gazing into the distance not at you ,so you dont really get to see her eyes and the photo pose is a really bad angle for most people even if they are pretty ,
    When I was thinking about the images the portraite of Ann of cleves came to mind ,,the one fullly foward by Holbein makes her look quite pretty but the side on ones make her look ugly and its because you see her big nose and sharp chin but not her pretty eyes and mouth .
    ,,I was pondering the portraite from Brussels ,,its a bit like the face in the gun group sketch but not really like any of the other images ,the hairs far too dark too and why would the unmarried Charlotte wear a cap ,,seems odd

  8. The Richmond, everyone agrees is flattering. Branwell was not a flatterer and I think he was a competent artist, judging by some of the portraits he did of other people who did say he could capture a likeness.
    I like the Thompson one best. I also see a bit of similiarity in that one and the photograph of the older woman; the large forehead, though the chin is fuller.
    I know the Holbein Anne of Cleves you mention – reader, he married her based upon that portrait 🙂 Off with his head!
    Good point about the cap too Lyn. That pic I think looks like the very married Mrs Gaskell complete with lace cap.

  9. Hi Echostains & hey ho Lyn Marie. Funny enough I was just thinking about that photo today, and the street-artist’s sketch believed of Charlotte, validated by such strong provenance, appearance needs not question- (‘just be amazed’). Originally I accepted the photo ‘must be’, yet frustratingly it didn’t comfortably correlate with the portrait, nor for that matter Branwell’s, Thompson’s (I agree lovely) nor Richmond’s. I haven’t bothered to compare it to the mousy face in bonnet, but I might just to see what disparities contradict the pair. I did eventually give the stout ‘fisher-woman’ photo a ruthless check to see where it fits with both accepted portraits and my likeness. The vertical ratios between hairline, eyes, nose and chin don’t align even close with any paintings or drawings, nor the exactness by Landseer.
    I’ve had time for another objective look at the photo today, and notice undulations in the shadow along her jawline, and slight clumping under the chin, not expected of slender, teetotal woman in late 30’s? There is a low, dark triangular shadow below her eye, Richmond lays a thin, delicate shadow under protruding fold of lower eyelid, no bulging lower lid in photo. Richmond, Branwell et al give Charlotte a lot of skin and bone between the upper eyelid/lashes and arched eyebrow. The narrow, linear distance between eyebrow (straight/low/stern) and eyelash in photo doesn’t correlate with any of the portraits. The photo shows a woman (I think mid-forties) the upper and lower lips near equal in thickness. The paintings and drawings all show Chalotte with a very thin upper lip, the lower almost twice as thick.
    Would be fantastic if the photos Vernon mentions turn up, photo’s are so the best in forensics, meantime I fear the stout matron presumed to be is not Charlotte- nor Mrs Gaskill! There may be a clue in the provenance…
    It’s better we really enjoy the real thing when we know it? Best wishes, James

    1. Hello James! I was wondering what happened to you :-0 Are you any further with the painting? I agree about the lower lip (compared to Branwell’s painting). That does seem a good clue. I did hear mention that the photo was thought to be one of Charlotte’s friends Nussy perhaps or a servant. Will we ever know? I fear not 😦

  10. Hi all. Have no fear, dear Echostains- blinkers and sharp eyes are out there.
    According to message alert, Lyn Marie has presented a fascinating theory about the possible origin of the portrait but it seems to have ‘slipped’ from this page?
    She says the portrait may have been commissioned by Charlotte as a ‘mourning memento’, based on existing drawings, but this idea contradicts her question about Branwell’s absence. If it were a ‘mourning’ icon it would include Branwell. The picture bears date 1838, Branwell was painting portraits in Bradford, I doubt the girls would have wanted to share their hero with him- can you imagine the girls would get a word in? Be fair, it was their occassion, their illustrious guest, and look what they are saying, it was their subversive, woman’s pledge (aided and abetted by the chivalrous rebel of romantic realism- the master of London’s lions). Besides Lyn Marie, there was romance- nay, more than that.
    Regarding Branwell’s invitation: Do you have a brother, and is there any likelyhood he could ever get in the way when you have a visitor- or even ‘steal the show’ as Branwell always liked to, bless im. (I like Bran and his painting.)
    Lyn M also says the ‘commissioned memento’ theory is supported by their style of dress, she believes is later, but surely if you were to commission a posthumous portrait you would insist the dress was familiar, not created in latest fashion? Also more likely you would expect those you remember to be the sort of age you remember them, rather than 10-15 years younger? Yes a lot of ladies have argued that the dresses are wrong, however, a lovely obscure first-hand description (Orel’s excellent ‘Interviews & Recollections’); ‘they were all dressed alike till they gate into young women- long sleeves and high neck and tippets down to the waist.’.
    The percieved matches of accessories are scary. Take for example the wide, flat band of gold-coloured ‘herringbone’ substance with purple-brown stone. I originally thought it was a wide flat band of gold material, perhaps fine flat links or woven thread, fantastic colour bursting from the semi-precious stone. I was utterly floored when uncovered a photo on BPM’s invaluable digital archive, object J14 ‘wide flat band of light brown plaited hair with gold clasp and purple amethyst stone’.
    The photo reveals the plaited ‘herringbone’ structure and particularly
    the very distinctive colour of stone, among the million hues of purple-brown matched exactly by the trustworthy and faithful artist.
    This reminds me of Ellen’s recollection of the parsonage dining room; ‘the walls were not papered, but stained in a pretty, dove-coloured tint’. How carefully and religiously that obscure detail is observed and replicated- rather like Em’s tooth!
    A final point about your theory is; no explanation of portrait’s dissapearance- ie; why it was never delivered, how it got into the public domain un-noticed, and how it eventually lost it’s identity and turned up in a country sale 20 miles from the Russell sisters home (youngest Landseer’s daughter. The house ransacked 3 years earlier in mass disposal of artifacts ‘The Woburn Sale’).
    If it were commissioned by Charlotte, and never delivered, I imagine her causing quite a rumpus- unforgettable!
    As it was it appears so far; the picture was a charm-gift from Edwin (not unusual before 1838) whether extracted by Charlotte or intended by the artist who knows, but I’m sure intended by Charlotte- must have been the ultimate fulfilment for her. Tragically, her hero didn’t arrive on the coach the following year with the finished picture- only rumours and ugly stories- he had gone mad- locked up in a lunatic asylum in Chiswick.
    Even if Charlotte could forgive him this fearful, shameful stigma, she had no opportunity. The following year, 1840, recuperating he went to Brussels with his mentor Jacob BELL, the following year Charlotte went to Brussels, from where the ‘crumbs of affection’ survive. Although it hardly ‘normal’, Branwell and Landseer also tragically fell for their boss’s spouse. You might wonder why Edwin didn’t eventually return to Haworth, on his way through to Bolton Hall in later years: They built the train, no need for coaches, also, Edwin had been advised to abandon his past social indescretions and complexities, and attend his worthy patrons (BELL).
    It’s never time to stop, but your feasable and attractive suggestion, without surrounding or integral structure or cause- and lot’s of established contradiction, can not contend the prima facia.
    The nice thing is you don’t contest the subjects.
    It breaks my heart sometimes to see loyal, dedicated admirers of people and art stuffed with erronous information- gazing at portraits in famous galleries that are not of the people on the label, and might not even be from the named artist either. There are lots an lots of things wrong in history, for a start, unless you don’t believe your own eyes and the artist’s brush, let’s establish: Charlotte Bronte had a bad leg with 3″ scar; and far from being the wild roamer of the hills, she walked poorly and, succinct surprise- was not member of the ‘Moorland Four’. (They were Bran, Em, Anne and Ellen-who founded and named the group- presumably with no hope of a 5th member. Apparantly they shared everything they saw and did with Charlotte when they got home).
    Did you ever notice, first and last sentence in first and second paragraphs in Charlotte’s first novel discuss aspects of walking and mobility?
    I hope you come up with another conclusion, whatever it is, it all for my part helps unravel this impossible presumption. (I wish I knew what Arthur wanted to destroy and why- hey? A very brutal act, for a curate, I reckon.)
    Very best wishes, James

    1. You’re right, I have this post in my email and have approved it – yet it’s not come on here :-0 Good information here, I didn’t know about the Moorland Four by the way and that Charlotte was not a member.
      I wish I knew too about Arthur Bell Nichols James, there’s not enough known about him!
      I will try to post or if not, copy and past lyn’s post from my email

  11. THIS POST is by Lyn Marie. I’m sorry lyn but it won’t come on though its been ‘approved’ I think I’ve ran out of space :-0
    I dont think its a from life group potraite of the sisters for all the reasons everyone mentions in the Bronte Blog but esp the clothing ,however i tried to think of anyway at all everyone could be right ,,maybe its mourning image commissioned by Charlotte or someone else that used a life sitting of Charlotte and sketched the other girls from Charlotte or Branwells sketches of the other sisters ,it explains the iconography thats otherwise troublesome, the clothing and a lot of other issues such as percieved simialties between paintings and the jewelery etc .It also explains why Branwell would not be in the group ,perhaps she got the idea after showing Mrs Gaskel the portraite ,,which removes another stumbling block , Charlotte drew her sisters healthy happy lives in Shirley ,why not get a well known portraite painter to do the same ,,though the flaw in my scenerio is that as far as I know theres no mention of it in Bronte archives or by anyone who knew the Brontes and I cant quite convince myself ,,

  12. Hi
    thank you for taking so much time to answer my comments I wont make a long relpy as I know this is the comment box for anther post .I an not an expert on the Brontes so I was not making a drect claim to know what the portraite was, I was pondering the image and trying to find a solution to everyones arguments , to just briefly answer some points I can be sure off ,As far as your arguement about Branwell not being on the portraite Charlotte was really really not happy with Branwell so I dont think she would have had him included ,,plus theres not really any great sketch of him to use,,though probably his friend Leyland could have produced something ,Also regarding the clothes a mourning portratie might well have had new clothing styles but idealised images of the subjects .
    Re the quote about the sisters dressing the same which indeed seems the case in Branwells portraite ,,the long sleeves could be in any style,tippets are probably the little “shawls ” Pellerines that went over 1830s dresses ,,like those in Branwells portraite ,
    I am not certain of the Brontes movements in 1838 so I can comment on the other points ,,
    I hope that the portraite issue is resolved soon ,,It would be nice to have more portraites of the sisters

  13. Good points, but I will leave the costume details and information to you and James as I have no specialised knowledge and bow to your judgement. It would be great, especailly at this point in time with so much technology and and tests available, to have another portrait of the sisters, though I suspect any new claims about anything to do with the Bronte’s are really going to be put through the wringer when it comes to authentification.

  14. You are right Lyn Marie, there must be an explanation for these eerie likenesses, in possession of surviving Bronte artefacts and even assuming their favourite choice of colours.
    Most confounding, the composition and Charlotte’s triumphant, yet adoring blaze blatently presumes to ‘predict’ the future, with an intensely composed and solemn literary pledge (aided, perhaps encouraged, by a mischievous, convention-crashing artist).
    The hottest point of picture is that it was made in 1838- 8 years preceding ‘Bells’ and ‘Poems’. (it is twice dated, also dated twice by specialists Nigel Kirk and Richard Ormond- findings corroborated at NPG.)
    ‘Tippet’s (and sometimes ‘tibbets’) were a fashion of convenience to the evolving ‘middling’ class, superceding the stiff, impractical ruffs and cuffs of 17th c and extravagant lace, cravats and satin brocades of the 18th.
    The dresses worn in the picture would be made by the girls, simply constructed with lot’s of fabric and deep folds & gathers- avoiding long exposed seams and darts, 12 years until Isaac M. Singer. His revoloutionary machine liberated home (and later industrial) garment creativity.
    All that heavy material in the hand-made frocks prior to Singer required time and care to launder, so the ladies developed the idea of detachable lace trimmings on cuffs, neck & ‘fly’ (the front join buttoned, tied or pinned). When the frills got frumpy and picked up dust and grim, you un-picked and detached them an popped em in the machine-. So that’s what tibbets (or tippets) be, perhaps old word for protrusions or ‘sticky-out-bits’.
    The ‘pleated’ style of dressmaking vanished completely as soon as the smooth forms achievable with machine were exhibited among ‘society’.
    About this time elastic…. la la. Hope you agree the dresses are pre-singer.
    Best wishes, James.

  15. Hi
    sorry for the late relpy I have been socialy deprived the past few days first Molly my cat pressed random buttons on the laptop and made my screen tiny ,then our internet in the village went off ,then it only worked a few mintues at a time ,
    ,I was inspired by echostains post and I am going to do a post in a few weeks on my blog on an assortment of Bronte images as I am working my way through Bronte outfits based on photos and portraite so I will answer James then if its ok and if he doesnt mind me useing his portraite on my blog as part of the post , ,also I dont want to hog echostains comments boxes

    1. Aw thanks for your thoughtfulness there Lyn 🙂 Absolutely pulled out with family stuff myself at the moment. Answering my comments etc is a welcome respite believe me. I look forward to looking at the Bronte post on your blog!! I’m sure you will be able to do these outfits proud and have valuable input regarding that enigmatic bronte painting 🙂

  16. I’m not sure if anyone has previously mentioned this, but in ‘Shirley’ Charlotte writes of the heroine Caroline having an image of Robert, her great love, “daguerreotyped” into her mind. This struck me as the book it set in the early 1800s but apparently wrote later in reflection, after the event. It is as if Charlotte mentions an invention of the day as an anchor, like the iPad to us.
    I think it likely, based on her character as present by Gaskell, that she would have pursued an invention so changing as photography. Although it would be interesting to hear the provenance of these pictures.
    Best wishes, Georgina

    1. Thanks Georgina. I have to admit to never getting along with Shirley – though I have perservered 🙂 The mention of the ‘daguerrotype’ sounds startling modern for Charlotte Bronte. Mind you she was an avid reader of magazines so perhaps the invention piqued her curiosity. There is a post here about daguerreotypes and a comment which mentions Charlottes interest in them Georgina:-

  17. Hi Girls (an bruvvas),
    Charlotte may not have had an Ipad (bit bulky), but she would have had a top-end graphics card in her Applemac. Just take a look at the scintillating fabric in her extraordinary ‘Lycidas’- (image @ BM or Amazon), it’s worth considering the focus of this superlative ‘self-study’ is the finely detailed suture-marks and dents below her right knee. She was exceptionally inquisitive, perhaps partly because she was a (v.brainy) rebel, yet contradictingly ‘trendy’, also she planned to teach, also partly because she was intellectually vain, and partly because she liked (to have dialogue with) men. An example of her technical reverence, indulgance- and; ‘succour’ to the language and elitism of technology may be written in her own hand on the group portrait I have been studying, it reads (in a fussy, proprietory instruction as expected of Charlotte): ‘DO NOT (triple underline) PUT IN LIQUID. HAIP GALZED’ I can’t imagine anyone putting an impossiibly fine watercolour in liquid- and I don’t know what ‘HAIP’ glaze is. (If anyone can tell me I’ll send big thanks and nice present.)
    I get the feeling ‘HAIP’ was a leading-edge, high-tech preserving glaze developed/discovered in the mid-late 1830’s which was superceded or for some other reason (perhaps cost, availablity or effectiveness) didn’t succeed commercially- but I think the owner and central subject of the picture (Charlotte) picked up the hip term HAIP from the artist (who was her hero, the Lion Maker Edwin Landseer), and took the opportunity not only to express her possesion of the picture, but to indulge her technical prowess and cognition with the artist she had adored since puberty. Bran played a bigger role in the meeting between his big sister and Landseer than I first realised (presuming it is not 3 ghosts in my portrait). His ‘best friend’ sculptor J.B. Leyland studied with Landseer under Heydon, they were life long friends. The artist would have first heard Charlotte’s name in 1834 when he visited the Northern Festival of Arts and saw her version of (‘his’) ‘Bolton Hall’ (‘sharing’ the title of a painting he exhibited earlier that year). ‘History’, and Arthur Bell Nichols’ bonfire not only attempted to hide the shame of Charlotte’s obsession and tragic episode with the mad Landseer, but further eroded and buried appreciation of Bran’s influence and his pivotal role in their meeting, which resulted both in romance (between the 2 giants of cultural evolution) and the literary career Charlotte and her siblings subsequently chose- I believe following/because of the good, wise and kind advice from her heart-throb in 1838- from when on she almost stopped painting and drawing.
    Best wishes, James

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: