Emily Brontë

1 portrait

Early Victorian Portraits Catalogue

Emily Brontë

by Patrick Branwell Brontë
circa 1833
21 1/2 in. x 13 3/4 in. (546 mm x 349 mm)
NPG 1724


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This portraitback to top

This painting, which was discovered at the same time as the famous group portrait of the Brontë Sisters (see NPG 1725), is apparently all that remains of a group portrait of the Brontës by Branwell Brontë of which it formed the right-hand part. The shape just visible to the left is almost certainly the shoulder and arm of Branwell Brontë, who also appears second from the right in the two other Brontë groups (NPG 1725, where he painted himself out, and the 'Gun Group'), his head forming the apex of a triangular composition. While the identification of the Brontë sisters in the surviving NPG group is now generally accepted, the identity of the sitter in this fragment is still disputed, and the claims of Emily and Anne have both been pressed.
In an interview in 1895, the Rev Nicholls told Clement Shorter that he had cut out a portrait of Emily, from a group picture, which he then destroyed, and gave the fragment to the Brontës' old servant, Martha Brown, during one of her visits to him in Ireland. [1] Martha Brown is known to have been in possession of this portrait of Emily in 1879, for in that year, Sir William Robertson Nicoll visited her in Haworth and saw it there:

'I shall never cease to regret that I did not buy the portrait she had of Emily Brontë, though I got a few other things. I did not buy it because I could not very well afford it, and it has been irrevocably lost. I have made many efforts since, and have been helped by many of Martha Brown's relatives. But that really fine and expressive painting has hopelessly disappeared, and now we have nothing that deserves to be called a likeness of that rarely endowed girl.' [2]
If the NPG fragment can be identified as that given to Martha Brown, then its identity as Emily is beyond dispute. Nicoll's description of Martha's portrait as 'that really fine and expressive painting' certainly fits the NPG fragment, but so far no-one has been able to prove whether or not Martha's picture was ever returned to the Rev Nicholls. One vital piece of evidence has, however, been overlooked. In a letter to Reginald Smith (of Smith, Elder & Co, Charlotte's publishers), written soon after the discovery of the NPG group and fragment, Mrs Nicholls remarked that she had not realized that the Brontë portraits had remained in her husband's possession, but she did imply that she had already seen the fragment: 'the one of Emily I had seen, & remember Mr Nicholls telling me he had cut it out of a painting done by Branwell as he thought it good but the others were bad, & he told Martha to destroy the others'. [3]
The significant fact in this statement is that Mrs Nicholls links the NPG fragment with her husband's statement to Shorter about cutting out the portrait of Emily and giving it to Martha, and hence connects the two as one and the same picture. Other authorities have presumed that Mrs Nicholls identified the fragment as Emily because of its similarity to the portrait reproduced as the frontispiece to the Haworth edition of Wuthering Heights. [4] If Mrs Nicholls had already seen the NPG fragment, [5] then the likelihood of its being the Martha Brown picture increases, though how or when Martha Brown's picture was returned to the Rev Nicholls remains a mystery. Sir Robertson Nicoll (see above) mentions searching for the portrait after Martha Brown's death, but is vague about which of her relatives he talked to and when; although he was alive when the fragment entered the NPG in 1914, he did not confirm whether it was the Martha Brown picture or not. If the Martha Brown picture was returned to the Rev Nicholls, his failure to enlighten Shorter in 1895 is not surprising. He did not mention the NPG group, which he had always owned, and he is known to have disliked relic hunters, and the publicity attached to the Brontës. Indeed, he left Shorter with the impression that there had only ever been one group portrait, and that he had cut the fragment for Martha Brown out of this. If the NPG and Martha Brown pictures are, in fact, two separate fragments, as the Rev J. J. Sherrard of Banagher maintained, [6] then the possibilities multiply. Perhaps the Rev Nicholls did preserve another fragment of the destroyed group (i.e. the NPG fragment represents Anne). Perhaps he cut Martha's portrait of Emily out of yet another lost group (i.e. the 'Gun Group'). None of these alternative suggestions are very convincing.
The identification of the NPG fragment as Emily, whether or not it is the portrait which Martha Brown possessed, is further supported by three separate tracings (Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth) of the Brontë sisters (no tracing of Branwell is known), all apparently done from the destroyed group. The tracing corresponding with the NPG fragment is of the same size, and follows the general outline exactly; it is labelled 'Emily Jane Brontë, 15th year of her age'. The tracing labelled Anne is inscribed '14th year of her age', and Charlotte '18th year of her age'. This would date the portrait to 1833, which agrees with the costume and the apparent age of the sitter. The actual handling of the paint seems more fluent than in the later group, and most authorities prefer to date the fragment to c.1840; there has, however, been no coherent stylistic analysis of Branwell's work, and the evidence of costume and age appear much more significant. The handwriting on the tracings has been identified by Mrs Mabel Edgerley as that of John Greenwood, [7] who had a small bookshop in Haworth, and who supplied all three sisters with notepaper, and knew them well. The tracings descended to his granddaughter, Mrs Judith Moore, along with other Brontë relics, and were in her collection in the 1930s, when they were photographed. Without more corroborative evidence these tracings cannot provide absolute proof of the identity of the sitters in the destroyed group, but being the record of a contemporary witness, they are extremely significant.
The evidence for suggesting that the NPG fragment represents Anne, and not Emily, is almost entirely based on a dubious comparison between the fragment and the so-called 'Gun Group', the third and most puzzling of the Brontë family groups. The original is lost, and all that survives is a photograph of a drawing or engraving, itself probably based on a painting. Ellen Nussey, Charlotte's old friend, who identified the figures in the 'Gun Group', wrote on the back of the print at Haworth: 'Photograph of an oil painting by Branwell Brontë of himself and sisters when quite a boy'. Unless she had muddled the 'Gun Group' with one of the others, Ellen Nussey's evidence supports the idea that there was once a 'Gun Group' painting, although the photograph seems to be of a drawing or engraving, not a painting. The figure in profile on the right of the 'Gun Group' was identified by Ellen Nussey, probably correctly, as Anne, and the taller figure on the left as Emily. There is a superficial resemblance between the NPG fragment and the figure on the right of the 'Gun Group' identified as Anne, and it is on the basis of this that the NPG fragment has been said to represent her. They are both in profile, but their clothes, hairstyles, the relation of their bodies to the table, and the accessories, are all quite different. Those eager to add weight to the theory that the fragment represents Anne are forced to go further for proof, and to compare the other figures in the 'Gun Group' with the tracings of the two lost figures from the destroyed group. Charlotte, apparently wearing the same clothes in both tracing and 'Gun Group', and her pose being similar, is the strongest argument for linking the two groups. The link between Emily in the 'Gun Group' and the so-called tracing of Anne is much more tenuous. If it could be established, then Anne could be identified with the so-called tracing of Emily, and hence with the NPG fragment. Facial likenesses have been listed to support this theory, [8] but evidence of this kind, particularly with crude and derivative images, must remain speculative. In any case the reason for linking the two groups only rests on their apparent similarity. [9] Branwell Brontë clearly liked painting family groups, and there is no reason why Anne should not have been on the right in one group, and Emily in another, as Charlotte is on the right in the NPG group. It also seems illogical to use the tracings to support one part of the argument, and then to dismiss them as being inaccurately labelled and dated. Once it is denied that the tracings are what they say they are, the reasons for granting them any validity have disappeared.

Footnotesback to top

1) Mrs Gaskell's Life (1914), pp 135-6 n.
2) British Weekly, XLV (29 October 1908), p 101.
3) Letter of 52 February 5954 (copy of original letter, NPG archives).
4) The right hand figure of the 'Gun Group' (in profile) was reproduced as the frontispiece to Wuthering Heights, having apparently been identified by the Rev Nicholls as Emily (see Mrs Gaskell's Life (1914), pp 535-6 n). It almost certainly represents Anne.
5) See the Sphere, 14 March 1914, where a letter from a niece of Mrs Nicholls is quoted: 'On examination Mrs Nicholls recognized the portrait of Emily as one which had been cut out of a group by Mr Nicholls, but the second picture, the group of the three sisters, she had never seen till then notwithstanding the many years it must have been in the house.'
6) See King's County Chronicle, 12 March 1914, which quotes a letter from Sherrard. Sherrard cannot have seen the fragment which Martha possessed for over twenty years, and it is doubtful if he had studied it very closely.
7) See Mrs Edgerley's article, Brontë Society Transactions, part XLII (1932).
8) See in particular the article by Dame Myra Curtis, Brontë Society Transactions, part LXIX (1959), the most recent defence of Anne as the figure represented in the fragment. This theory was first put forward by Mrs Chadwick in the Morning Post, March 1914. In support of Emily, however, one could cite Charlotte Brontë's comment that G. H. Lewes' face reminded her of Emily (see Winifred Gérin, Charlotte Brontë (1967), p 431); there is a certain similarity between the fragment and an early drawing of Lewes in the NPG (1373). Also if the profile water-colour of Anne by Charlotte Brontë in the Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth, is correctly identified, as seems likely, this would again argue for Emily; the water-colour and fragment show a quite dissimilar cast of features. I am grateful to Winifred Gérin, the recent biographer of Anne and Charlotte Brontë, for these suggestions; she firmly believes that the fragment is Emily.
9) See Dr Nixon's excellent summary of the evidence for and against Emily and Anne, Brontë Society Transactions, part LXVIII (1958). She comes down on the side of Emily.

Referenceback to top

Curtis 1959
Dame Myra Curtis, 'The "Profile" Portrait', Brontë Society Transactions, part LXIX (1959).

Edgerley 1932
Mrs M. Edgerley, 'Emily Brontë: a National Portrait Vindicated', Brontë Society Transactions, part XLII (1932).

Gaskell 1857
Mrs Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë (first edition, 1857), edited C. K. Shorter (1914), pp 135-6 n.
Nixon 1958
Dr I. Nixon, 'The Brontë Portraits: Some Old Problems and a New Discovery', Brontë Society Transactions, LXVIII (1958).

Physical descriptionback to top

Dark eyes, pale complexion, brown hair. Dressed in a greenish-grey dress with a low-cut neck. Three books on the table, the top one orange. Background colour greyish-brown.

Provenanceback to top

Haworth Parsonage; inherited by the Rev A. B. Nicholls (Charlotte Brontë's husband), on the death of the Rev P. Brontë, 1861; possibly the picture given to Martha Brown; discovered by the second Mrs Nicholls on the top of a cupboard in 1914, and purchased from her, through Reginald Smith, in the same year.


This extended catalogue entry is from the out-of-print National Portrait Gallery collection catalogue: Richard Ormond, Early Victorian Portraits, Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1973, and is as published then. For the most up-to-date details on individual Collection works, we recommend reading the information provided in the Search the Collection results on this website in parallel with this text.

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