The Brontë Sisters (Anne Brontë; Emily Brontë; Charlotte Brontë)
- Extended catalogue entry
Early Victorian Portraits Catalogue
The Brontë Sisters (Anne Brontë; Emily Brontë; Charlotte Brontë)
by Patrick Branwell Brontë
35 1/2 in. x 29 3/8 in. (902 mm x 746 mm)
This portraitback to top
The figures in this painting (Anne on the left, Emily in the centre, and Charlotte on the right) are identified by Mrs Gaskell's famous description of it (Life of Charlotte Brontë, 1914, p 135):
'I have seen an oil painting of his, done I know not when, but probably about this time . It was a group of his sisters, life size, three-quarters length; not much better than sign painting, as to manipulation; but the likenesses were, I should think, admirable. I could only judge of the fidelity with which the other two were depicted from the striking resemblance which Charlotte, upholding the great frame of canvas, and consequently standing right behind it, bore to her own representation, though it must have been ten years and more since the portraits were taken. The picture was divided, almost in the middle, by a great pillar. On the side of the column which was lighted by the sun stood Charlotte in the womanly dress of that day of gigot sleeves and large collars. On the deeply shadowed side was Emily, with Anne's gentle face resting on her shoulder. Emily's countenance struck me as full of power; Charlotte's of solicitude; Anne's of tenderness.'
In a letter describing her first visit to Haworth in 1853, Mrs Gaskell made one further comment on the portrait (Life, 1914, p 619):
'One day Miss Brontë brought down a rough, common-looking oil painting done by her brother of herself - a little rather prim-looking girl of eighteen - and the two other sisters, girls of sixteen and fourteen, with cropped hair, and sad dreamy-looking eye.'
This would date the portrait to 1834. Until its discovery in 1914 it was thought that the portrait had disappeared or been destroyed. When Clement Shorter visited the Rev Nicholls at his home in Banagher, Ireland, in 1895, he came away with the impression that the NPG fragment, representing Emily (NPG 1724), had been cut from the NPG group portrait, the rest of which had been destroyed. Shorter was not aware that both fragment and group portrait were lying upstairs on top of a cupboard, the group portrait having remained there apparently since Nicholls first moved to Ireland in 1861. Nicholls clearly did not want the portrait to become known, and it is surprising that it has survived. His antipathy was apparently shared by Charlotte Brontë, his first wife, who wrote, quite untruthfully, to Mr Williams in 1850 at the time when Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights were being republished (Life, 1914, p 481): 'I grieve to say that I possess no portrait of either of my sisters'. She did not want Branwell's portraits to be reproduced, though she was prepared to show them to Mrs Gaskell. When the NPG group portrait was discovered, it had been removed from its stretcher, and was folded in four (the fold marks are still clearly visible).  Mrs Nicholls wrote about her discovery to Reginald Smith (of Smith, Elder & Co, Charlotte's publishers) in a letter of 12 February 1914 (NPG archives):
'I daresay you may wonder how I never said anything of the Portraits but till about six months ago I did not know they were in the House - They must have been put in a wardrobe (top) years ago & servants took down the panel, dusted it & put them back again but about six months ago, I was sitting in the room & my nurse was settling some things for me took down the panel and asked if I knew what was in it. I did not, so was much surprised.'
In a conversation at this time with her niece, Miss F. E. Bell, Mrs Nicholls remarked:
'"Your uncle disliked them very much", said Aunt Mary, "he thought they were very ugly representations of the girls, and I think meant to destroy them, but perhaps shrank from doing so - you see, there is only one other existing portrait of Charlotte, and none at all of Emily and Anne.”' 
In 1957, Miss Jean Nixon noticed in the group portrait the outlines of a figure underneath the pillar, which had been painted out. Infra-red photography revealed more clearly the figure of a man, almost certainly Branwell Brontë, who appears second from the right in the two other Brontë group portraits, the destroyed group from which the NPG fragment (NPG 1724) comes and the so-called 'Gun Group'. He is dressed in a black coat and cravat, and a white shirt, and apparently fits Charlotte's description of her brother, written in the introduction to one of the Angrian stories of 1834: ' ... a low slightly-built man attired in a black coat ... a bush of carroty hair so arranged that at the sides it projected almost like two spread hands ... black neckerchief arranged with no great attention to detail'.
It is not known why he painted himself out, unless he felt the composition was too cramped with four figures. There is no evidence for the theory that Branwell painted the portrait of his sisters on top of a canvas, which he had already used for the portrait of a man. The figure of the man is perfectly in scale with the other figures, and forms the logical apex of a triangular composition. The large, blurred pillar, is, as Dr Ingeborg Nixon suggested, of uncertain significance, and this provided her and her sister with the first clue that there might be another figure underneath.
Footnotesback to top
1) An early daguerreotype of the portrait, taken in Haworth before it was removed to Ireland by the Rev Nicholls, shows it in its original condition. The daguerreotype is reproduced by Mrs Chadwick, facing p 116.
2) Manchester Guardian, 17 October 1955. But see the Sphere, 14 March 1914, where a letter from a niece of Mrs Nicholls (possibly Miss F. E. Bell) states that Mrs Nicholls had seen the portrait of Emily, but had never seen the NPG group.
Referenceback to top
Mrs E. H. Chadwick, In the Footsteps of the Brontës (1914), p 116.
Mrs Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë (first edition, 1857), edited C. Shorter (1914), pp 135, 619.
Dr Ingeborg Nixon, 'The Brontë Portraits: Some Old Problems and a New Discovery', Brontë Society Transactions, part LXVIII (1958).
Wise and Symington (eds.) 1932
The Brontës: their Lives, Friendships and Correspondence in Four Volumes (Shakespeare Head Brontë, 1932) edited T. J. Wise and J. A. Symington, IV, 87.
Physical descriptionback to top
All with brown hair and darkish eyes. Anne (left) in a dark blue dress with wide white collar, Emily (centre) in green dress with wide white collar, Charlotte (right) in brown dress with wide white collar. Reddish table-cloth and books. Pillar yellowish brown. Rest of background almost black.
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; discovered by the second Mrs Nicholls on top of a cupboard, 1914, and purchased from her through Reginald Smith in the same year.
Reproductionsback to top
Mrs E. H. Chadwick, In the Footsteps of the Brontës (1914), facing p 116.
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.
See this portrait
On display in Room 24 at the National Portrait Gallery