Sunday, April 17, 2016

Sunday, April 17, 2016 12:30 am by Cristina in , , ,    2 comments

Celebrating Charlotte Brontë 1816-2016
National Portrait Gallery
22 February - 14 August 2016
Room 24
Once, many years ago (ie. 2006), we were lucky enough to see George Richmond's portrait of Charlotte Brontë in private. It's such a delicate piece of art that it's usually kept in the proper kind of storage. This year, however, it is the central piece at the celebration of Charlotte Brontë's bicentenary at the National Portrait Gallery in London, so it's a great opportunity to see the portrait face-to-face, so to speak. Our Charlotte is in good company too as by her side are two portraits by George Richmond of two of her friends: Elizabeth Gaskell and Harriet Martineau (now both have a chance to finally patch up their friendship at last).

Also at the core of the exhibition is the Pillar Portrait (which, together with Emily's fragment of the Gun Portrait, is always on display at the NPG). The National Portrait Gallery had previously announced that they would reveal the secrets of the Pillar Portrait (as far as modern techniques are concerned) at this exhibition. All evidence seems to point to the fact that - contrary to previous analysis- the pillar hiding Branwell was made by him at the time of painting the portrait, which is otherwise left unfinished in some areas too.
Infrared photography shows Branwell Brontë made an underdrawing in a carbon medium in loose, freehand lines.
Ultra violet light shows more lead white and flesh paint on the figure of Charlotte, which has been modelled and completed to a greater degree, suggesting that the canvas was never finished, and some areas, including the lower half of the canvas, are unresolved.
Paint sampling has confirmed that the figure of Branwell was sketched in an early stage of the painting, and never completed. It was painted out with a pillar at a similar tiem, by the artist himself. The most likely reason was that he considered the four figure composition too cramped. This disproves early speculation that Charlotte had obscured the figure of her brother at a later date.
Celebrating Charlotte Brontë (22 February - 14 August 2016) can be found in Room 24 at the National Portrait Gallery. It's a small exhibition which, however, manages to cover Charlotte's life. She's accompanied there by her heroes: the Duke of Wellington, Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott. And when it comes to her literary fame, three men are there as well: first and foremost, a touching canvas of an elderly George Smith which we had personally never seen before and which we found strangely moving and tender. W.M. Thackeray is there as well as is a marble bust of Robert Southey. The latter we would have placed among her heroes, but he played no role when it came to her fame. He did the opposite, if anything.

As mentioned above, Harriet Martineau and Elizabeth Gaskell are there too as is a small sketch of G.H. Lewes. Interestingly, though, the text by the sketch doesn't mention the fact that Charlotte found him really similar to Emily Brontë in looks.

But Charlotte's private life is well-represented as well: her family, her own drawings, her early writings and drawings, her job as a governess, her time in Brussels, her letters, her family tragedies, her marriage and one of her final letters - barely legible and incredibly touching to see - are all there. Even a pair of her shoes are there!

To no one's surprise, we could have stayed in Room 24 for a long, long time, lost in this celebration of Charlotte's life which we think she would have mostly loved. A fitting, moving tribute for a great author's bicentenary.


  1. Thank you for this great review.

    I'm going to London expressly to see the Richmond portrait, for as you say, it's not usually displayed. There's nothing like seeing the original of any art piece and it maybe another 100 years!

    The value of the other Richmonds,( besides representing two important people in Charlotte's life ) is one can then gage how close Richmond got to their likeness, since we have a photo of Gaskell too. Arthur Bell Nicholls felt Richmond's portrait well represented Charlotte, while the print of it used in Mrs. Gaskell's book, did not. It's to be remembered Mary Taylor only saw the print.

    All this the viewer must mix in the mind while looking at the original to gain a sense of what CB looked like.

    The exhibit looks marvelous and indeed Charlotte would have been proud. Charlotte's ambition was for them all "to get on ". That is why when personal fame came to her and she was alone, it was even more tragic.

  2. Thanks for the insightful comment as usual, Anne. I sincerely hope you will enjoy the exhibition when you get there :)