The Brontë Sisters by Patrick Branwell Brontë
(NPG 1724 and 1725)

In view of their damaged condition and history of contention, Branwell Brontë’s two paintings of his sisters must initially have seemed particularly challenging acquisitions. Contrary to the National Portrait Gallery’s founding expectation that it would be, in the words of Sir Charles Eastlake, “a gallery...for authentic likenesses of celebrated individuals”, even the identity of each sister was open to doubt.  Paradoxically, however, all these unusual factors have proved integral to the portraits’ lasting appeal.

While the unexpected survival of any human relic significantly heightens its value, press cuttings around the time of acquisition in 1914 trace the history of these paintings with particular amazement. It appeared that, thanks to the destructive dislike or disapproval of Charlotte Brontë’s widower, the single painting of Emily was all that remained from another group portrait and the surviving group had been folded in four. Both paintings had then lain neglected in a cupboard until their miraculous rediscovery nearly half a century later.

Although the Gallery’s Director, C.J. Holmes, remembered how the need to purchase the portraits promptly “gave us some anxiety”, the damaged condition of both paintings probably seemed the most serious obstacle. Writing for The Sphere, Clement Shorter, for example, expected that by the time of their display restoration would have fully remedied the “ill-treatment derived from over forty years of neglect”.

The Gallery courageously concluded, however, that the damaged condition of the portraits was expressive in itself and merited preservation, as was attested in an illustration on the front cover of The Daily Graphic when the portraits first went on public display [fig. 1].

Neither has the artist’s crudity of characterisation, famously described by Elizabeth Gaskell as “sign-painting”, been able to detract from the compelling nature of both portraits as human documents.  While Holmes himself was moved to remark how the single portrait of Emily “has the simple tenderness of a primitive in tone and colour”, Elizabeth Gaskell, despite her earlier reservations, concluded in The Life of Charlotte Brontë, an extract from which appeared in The Sphere that “the likenesses were, I should think, admirable” [fig. 2].




Fig. 1 Front page of The Daily Graphic 6th
March 1914 (NPG Archive NPG46/18/34)

 


Fig. 2 Cutting from The Sphere 7th March 1914 (NPG Archive NPG46/18/34)

News of the new acquisitions was reported widely, even making page 2 of The Christian Science Monitor in Boston, Massachusetts [fig. 3].   At the first day of viewing visitors were so numerous that, in the words of the Yorkshire Observer, the Gallery “underwent a minor siege” and both paintings continue to attest to that spirit of survival which characterises the course of the sisters’ own lives and is after all one of the prime motives of the portraits.

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Fig. 3 Cutting from The Christian Science Monitor, Boston, Massachusetts 27th March 1914 (NPG Archive NPG46/18/34)


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