Monday, April 11, 2016

Monday, April 11, 2016 12:11 am by M. in ,    No comments
Charlotte Brontë at the Soane
15 Mar 2016 to 07 May 2016
Sir John Soane's Museum
13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London, WC2A 3BP

The relation of the artist and writer Charlotte Cory to the Brontës is intense. In 2002 she penned for Radio 4 a radio play, The Day I Finished Charlotte Brontë, where she discussed the mysteries around the writing of the unfinished Emma. In it, Charlotte Cory imagined a mutual romantic interest between James Taylor, who worked for Smith & Co., and Charlotte Brontë. The interest became almost an obsession and Charlotte Cory visited Bombay in order to find the grave of James Taylor and then on to the final residence of Arthur Bell Nicholls in Hill House in Banagher, Ireland(1).

Almost ten years later, in 2013, Charlotte Cory put together Capturing the Brontës at the Brontë Parsonage Museum (and also, with obvious parallels, Visitoriana at the Mercer Art Gallery in Harrogate) where she applied her 'visitorian' techniques (i.e. the use of nineteenth-century cartes-de-visite digitally manipulated to introduce anthropomorphic images reminiscent of Victorian taxidermy and surrealism).

In 2016, Charlotte Brontë's bicentenary has triggered a Cory-Brontë explosion: a couple of exhibitions, a radio play and a book: Charlotte Brontë at the Soane (15 March-7 May), Jane Eyre at the Woolff  (14 April-7 May), Charlotte Brontë in Babylon (BBC Radio 4) and A Visitorian Jane Eyre (Colville Press, 2016).

Charlotte Brontë at the Soane maintains a tight relation with Charlotte Brontë in Babylon. In her radio play for BBC Radio 4, Charlotte Cory explored the five visits of Charlotte Brontë to London (as a published author, because Charlotte already visited London before in her two trips to Brussels)(2). Charlotte Cory tells in her introduction to the highly recommended catalogue of the Soane exhibition,  about her disappointment in finding out that Charlotte Brontë apparently never visited the John Soane Museum during any of her stays in London (although her personal London guide, which can be seen at the exhibition, fervently recommended a visit). But in the best 'never let the truth stand in the way of a good story' tradition Charlotte Cory 'imagines' a possible visit of Charlotte Brontë to John Soane's Museum. We know it didn't happen, but it could have and should have. Charlotte Brontë would have enjoyed the eccentric, jumbled but irresistible little not-so-well known gem of London museums. Charlotte Cory only provides the means for the collective image of Charlotte Brontë that we have shaped in these 200 years of Brontë cult to visit Lincoln's Inn Fields at last.

The exhibition occupies a small room of the Soane, by the gift shop. It is full of objects and information (which cannot be otherwise in a museum such as this one). Objects that 'actually' were and objects that 'could' have been or 'should' have been. Two objects (real and should-be) preside the room: the white delaine dress ('with a pattern of tiny bright blue leaves, and small tendrils, joined together with a faint line'(3)), that Charlotte Brontë wore on 12th June, 1850 to the (in)famous Thackeray dinner-party and one of the visitors' books of the Soane Museum opened by a date on which Charlotte could have visited the museum (with even a signature of the wrong George Smith!)

A desk (the desk of the missing stuff) and a couple of chairs (Visitorian Mrs Gaskell and Charlotte Brontë having a gossip) come straight from the Capturing the Brontës 2013 exhibition. The first one commemorates all the possible missing Brontë items that will never return to the Parsonage filtered and inserted in the Cory anthropomorphic/surrealist aesthetics) and is watched over by a young giraffe (who happens to symbolize George Smith) which Charlotte Cory seems to be quite proud of(4).

A big map with all the locations visited by Charlotte Brontë in her London visits hangs in one of the walls of the room and inevitably compels the visiting Brontëite to create his own London tour following in the footsteps of the author of Jane Eyre. On the opposite wall, two showcases contain in excellent company the real deals and the what-ifs: Charlotte Brontë's Account Book from 1848, her own London 1851 guidebook, tantalizing doodles made by Anne Brontë in a zoological book owned by the Brontës, the Richmond portrait as seen by Charlotte Cory or as it might have been if Millais, who happened to be in that Thackeray dinner, had painted Currer Bell, a letter by Harriet Martineau...

And last but not least, La Fontaine's Fables Vol II, a gift from Thackeray to Charlotte Brontë which found its way to Arthur Bell Nicholls, whose signature figures on the inside page. This gorgeous volume is illustrated with the famous anthropomorphic illustrations by Jean Isidore Gérard Grandville, which fittingly connect with the visitorian techniques of Charlotte Cory.

A little gem in this hidden gem that is the Soane itself.  The Italians have a lovely way of putting it: Si non è vero, è ben trovato... In the American West, they simply say, print the legend(5).


(1) Charlotte Cory, In search of a lost classic, The Guardian, July 4, 2002.
(2) The first time with Emily Brontë and their father. The second time she travelled alone but only spent a night in her ship in London on her way to Brussels.
(3) Ellis H. Chadwick, In the Footsteps of the Brontës, 1914 p.398
(4) The News Hub, March 22, 2016. Charlotte Brontë at The Soane And In Babylon. In Conversation With Show Curator And Charlotte Bronte In Babylon Writer, Charlotte Cory.
Q What are you hoping visitors will remember from this exhibition?
A The stuffed giraffe. the desk full of missing Brontë items.
(5) The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Directed by John Ford. 


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