Photo: National Portrait Gallery
By Hannah Furness, Arts Correspondent:
For decades, he has been the shadowy figure gradually emerging in between his sisters in the only existing group portrait of the Brontes. Now the National Portrait Gallery is set to reveal the mysteries behind Branwell Bronte’s self-portrait, after using the latest scientific techniques to reveal how he began sketching himself only to change his mind immediately. Experts expect to be able to show the most accurate images yet of what his picture would have looked like, before he painted a solid pillar over his own face and took himself out of the family group. The painting, which hangs in the gallery and shows Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte together, is to be the centrepiece of a new exhibition to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Jane Eyre author’s birth.
Painted by Branwell, who hoped to become a professional artist, it is well-known to scholars of the Brontes, first mentioned by author Mrs Gaskell in 1853 when it showed just the three sisters separated by the pillar. The portrait itself disappeared, before being found folded carelessly on top of a cupboard in 1906 by the second wife of Charlotte’s husband Reverend A.B. Nicholls. Since being acquired by the NPG in 1914, fading paintwork and the steady march of time has gradually unveiled a shadowy male figure in the middle of them, widely believed to be Branwell. The painting is now undergoing scientific testing to tell the true story behind how the painting was constructed, and give fans of Charlotte Bronte a deeper insight into her home life.
A study of paintwork, which allowed experts to date different part of the portrait, has shown Branwell only made the briefest of sketches of himself, and did not begin painting his skintone at all.
The pillar is now believed to have been painted on immediately by Branwell, likely as an artistic decision, rather than seeing him covered up at a later date. By February, when the exhibition opens, curators hope to use the latest technology to show what the original image looked like in its most detail yet, and tell the full story of how it came to the public eye. A spokesman said: “Central to the display will be the presentation of new research into the only surviving painted portraits of Charlotte with her two sisters, Emily and Anne, by their brother Branwell, in the Gallery’s Collection.
“This will explore the intriguing story of its discovery folded on top of a wardrobe, subsequent acquisition by the Gallery and its restoration.” Lucy Wood, assistant curator of the exhibition, said latest research had shown there was no sign of “flesh paint” under the pillar, adding: “It appears that he was only ever loosely sketched and never fully painted up. “The pillar was added in at an early stage, so it appears he painted himself over.” The painting will go on display alongside dozens of items loaned from the Bronte Parsonage Museum, home of Charlotte and her siblings. It includes paintings and drawings by Charlotte, letters and journals, the famous ‘little books’ created by the Brontë sisters as children and the first book Charlotte ever made.
Other items include a pair of cloth ankle boots worn by Charlotte, first editions of Jane Eyre, chalk drawings of the author and Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography, Life of Charlotte Brontë. Ms Wood said: “This rare chance to see the only painted portrait of Charlotte Brontë alongside illuminating personal treasures from the Brontë Parsonage Museum provides a fascinating opportunity to celebrate her life and remarkable achievements as one of the most celebrated authors of the 19th century. “It will enable visitors to learn more about her private life, her influences and come away with a real sense of who she was.”
Juliet Barker, former curator of the Bronte Parsonage Museum, biographer and author of the forthcoming The Brontes: A Life in Letters, said the image of Branwell is already well-known, but said new techniques may allow experts to uncover more. .telegraph/National-Portrait-Gallery-to-reveal-mysteries-of-shadowy-Bronte-brother