Venue: National Portrait Gallery
Closest Underground Station: Leicester Square
Admission: Free (Room 24)
2016 marks the bicentennial of the birth of Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855), one of England’s greatest literary geniuses. My fascination with the Brontë sisters began at the age of 17 while reading ‘Jane Eyre’ in an AS Level English Lit class. As avid readers of my blog may recall, last summer I visited the Brontës’ family home in Haworth which was a really great experience.
The Brontës lived in Yorkshire during the industrial revolution. While the bigger cities were coping with the changes this brought, Haworth was not blessed with the same infrastructure and so it was quite a turbulent time for this village. The child mortality rate was a staggering 40% and the average life expectancy was just 26 years old. The Brontë siblings grew up without a mother, while their poor, ageing and stern clergyman father educated them to the best standard possible (without much formal schooling). Perhaps it was for this reason that they needed such an escape. They used their desire for something greater, combined with their life experiences and the inspirational wilderness of their surroundings, to create some of the most famous and continuously relatable characters in history.
The National Portrait Gallery is holding an exhibition until the 14th of August 2016, in celebration of the life of Charlotte Brontë. I visited this exhibition over the Easter weekend, which gave a wonderful timeline through the early life, education, friendships, quirks, rejections and family life of Charlotte.
Charlotte’s first dream was to be an artist and the exhibition contains a number of examples of her work, which became increasingly more accomplished. She focused on miniatures, showing extraordinary attention to detail.
Other pieces showed her playful side, including the doodles she made for her friend Ellen Nussey. One letter in particular showed Ellen with a suitor, “The Chosen One”, while Charlotte looked on from the other side of the English Channel looking slightly hunched and strange.
The focal point of the exhibition however, was the best known portrait of the Brontë sisters, as painted by their brother Branwell. Branwell was a budding artist, having trained in his youth under the painter William Robinson.
At the age of 17, while still perfecting his craft, he created this portrait of his sisters. The NPG had conducted scientific analysis of this painting as part of the exhibition which revealed that Branwell had originally painted himself into the group, only to replace himself with a pillar further down the line.
For some time it was believed that Charlotte had been the one to obscure this painting of her brother, but it is now thought that Branwell felt the painted looked too crowded with four people in it.
I had always wondered why Branwell had done such a shoddy job of painting himself into a pillar, but learnt during this exhibition that the oil paint he had used had faded over time. The piece was in any event unfinished, as the UV light analysis showed that Charlotte’s portrait had received more work than the others and the lower section of the painting was ‘unresolved’.
The creases in the painting exist because Charlotte’s husband (Arthur Bell Nicholls) had taken the portrait, folded it up and left it on top of a wardrobe until it was found again in 1906 by his second wife.
Although not a terribly big exhibition, it is one I would highly recommend to any Brontë fan! Not only does it give some interesting insight into the thought and history behind the portraits, it shows that Charlotte had a range of talents and ambitions that she was determined to explore during her short lifetime. Seeing the little doodles and cartoons that she had made for her friend also entirely humanised her. As I mentioned in my round up of Haworth, sometimes with writers like Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austen and even William Shakespeare, it is easy to forget that they were much more than just a name, an image or a legacy. They were real people with real emotions, and while writing was a big part of them, it only gives a brief window into their lives.
For more about the lives of the Brontë siblings, you can watch a fantastic BBC 2 documentary here and for more about the NPG, you can expect another post coming soon!
Thanks for reading,