Sunday, June 19, 2016

Celebrating Charlotte Brontë at the National Portrait Gallery, London

Celebrating Charlotte Brontë: 1816 – 1855

National Portrait Gallery, London

 February 22 - 14 August 14, 2016

Reviewed by Ed Voves

In 1847, a novel by an unknown author, Currer Bell, was published to wide acclaim in Britain. From the first, there was considerable speculation whether Jane Eyre: an Autobiography was written by a gentleman or a lady.

"Currer Bell" was of course Charlotte Brontë. This year marks two hundred years since the birth of this woman of great heart and towering talent. 

Anne Lloyd, View of Celebrating Charlotte Brontë at the National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London created a special display in her honor. Celebrating Charlotte Brontë: 1816 – 1855, is based on two of the NPG's most famous works and a sampling of artifacts on loan from the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, Yorkshire. 

Anne Lloyd, "Little Books" by the Brontë children, one on left by Charlotte, c.1826 

These Haworth treasures include several of the incredibly small books which Charlotte and her siblings created as children, and a pair of her shoes. Charlotte Brontë stood four feet, ten inches, tall and must have had the narrowest feet in Yorkshire. But genius is not subject to physical measurement.

Anne Lloyd, Charlotte Brontë's Ankle Boots, c.1854, Brontë Parsonage Museum

Celebrating Charlotte Brontë is anchored by the group portrait, The Brontë Sisters, painted in 1835 by their brother, Branwell Brontë. This oil painting, also called the Column Portrait, is almost always on display at the NPG. 

The second highlight from the NPG collection is a skillful drawing of Charlotte Brontë, posing alone. It was created in 1850, using colored chalk on beige paper. Known as the Richmond Portrait, it is seldom displayed because of its sensitivity to light.

A copy "after" the Richmond Portrait was used to illustrate the 1857 biography of Charlotte Brontë written by Elizabeth Gaskell. This work established the conventional image of Charlotte Brontë, as there are no other authenticated  portraits, including photographs, of this great author. 

Branwell Brontë, The Brontë Sisters (Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë), 1834

While the Column Portrait has been the subject of recent analysis and commentary, the Richmond Portrait is constantly viewed at second hand. It is used as a book illustration, museum print and digital jpg. - without comment.

Thanks to the NPG exhibit, the Richmond Portrait can be seen at first hand. The effect is electrifying. 

When my wife, Anne, and I visited Celebrating Charlotte Brontë, we could scarcely believe our eyes. We were stunned that the incredibly "alive" Richmond Portrait on the wall was the same as the picture that we have seen time-after-time in books. Even the excellent copy on sale in the NPG gallery shop does not do justice to  the Richmond Portrait.

George Richmond, Charlotte Brontë, 1850, (National Portrait Gallery reproduction) 

When Anne and I entered the gallery, I was particularly disoriented by the experience of seeing the Richmond Portrait at close hand. Being less expert in Brontë history, I asked where the "other" version was. Anne quickly asserted that this was THE Richmond Portrait.  

Anne took numerous photos of the Richmond Portrait. Without being able to use flash, it was difficult to get high-quality images. But what really compounded the difficulty were thin reflections of light on the glass that seemed to appear regardless of the angle of the shot.

Not to be thwarted, Anne was able to take several photographs that reveal the difference between THE Richmond Portrait and the copies on sale in the NPG shop.

Anne Lloyd, Photo of the Richmond Portrait (Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond)

Both Anne and I immediately sensed a spiritual resonance in the Richmond Portrait which does not translate into copies in any format. I really cannot account for this but some research into the history of this famous work may offer a clue.

In 1850, Charlotte Brontë was persuaded by her publisher, George Smith, to have her portrait created during a visit London. The incident is described by Juliet Barker in her definitive book, The Brontës. It was a "nerve-racking" encounter for Charlotte, ill-at-ease after a tense, unpleasant dinner party hosted by William Makepeace Thackeray.

Charlotte twice burst into tears as she posed for her portrait. The second time occurred when she saw the finished work and felt that portrait resembled her recently-deceased sister, Anne.

Charlotte was hyper-sensitive  about her looks. But she was very fortunate in Smith's choice of an artist. George Richmond (1809-1896) was a society portraitist with a talent for creating a likeness that was more than the sum of the parts.  Barker notes perceptively of his session with Charlotte:

Richmond captured the beauty of her large hazel eyes, her one redeeming feature, and played down the size of her prominent nose and mouth.With subtle shadowing too, and by turning her face slightly to one side, he reduced the squareness of her lower jaw. The resulting portrait was like and not like, a faithful reproduction of the separate features but a more harmonious rendering of the whole.

Anne Lloyd,  Photo of the Richmond Portrait (Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond)

Richmond created not an idealized portrait but an "identity" portrait of Charlotte Brontë.  

The Richmond Portrait really is an amazing image. The vitality and changeability that can transform the human countenance - and a Brontë face, to be sure! - are there. But the core values of humanity, the essence of one's individuality, the original Irish name, Brunty, lurking beneath the English Brontë are present too.

I believe that an object can retain traces of a person's soul or being. I believe that this "resonance" can be appreciated when in close contact with the object. Skeptics will say that this is superstition or impressionable behavior at work. Yet the difference between Richmond's actual portrait of Charlotte Brontë and high-quality reproductions confounds all expectation.

Exhibit B and Exhibit C in the investigation are Richmond's portraits of Elizabeth Gaskell and Harriet Martineau on display next to Charlotte's. Both are excellent works, executed with the same colored chalk on beige paper. Both date to the same period, Gaskell's in 1851, Martineau's in 1849. However, what you see on the wall of the National Portrait Gallery with these two portraits is what you get in reproductions.
The key to this difference may well be elements in the character of George Richmond which enabled him to achieve an emotional affinity with Charlotte Brontë. Both artist and subject were charter members of the Romantic generation, rather than eminent Victorians. The Brontë family saga is the last flourish of the passionate and tormented age of British Romanticism. 

George Richmond, George Richmond (Self-portrait), 1853
Not on view in Celebrating Charlotte Brontë exhibit

As a young man, George Richmond had been a disciple of William Blake, the great pioneer of Romanticism. Richmond, Samuel Palmer and Edward Calvert banded together in 1824 to form a group called "the Ancients." Blake was their muse, their "interpreter." Like the art of Blake, the Ancients evoked spiritual qualities in their work, rather than naturalistic detail. 

Richmond compared Blake to the prophet Isiah and named his son after Blake. Richmond was present at Blake's death and wrote a moving letter to Samuel Palmer in which he said that Blake had died, hoping for redemption through Christ.

"Just before he died His Countenance became fair," Richmond wrote of Blake. "His eyes Brighten'd and he burst out Singing of the things he saw in Heaven."

Those "eyes Brighten'd" are what we see in Richmond's portrait of Charlotte Brontë. He positioned her, as Barker notes, to accentuate the positive, but the "portals to the soul" will make their presence felt however the sitter is placed for her portrait.

In 1831, Richmond married and the demands of providing for his family set him on the course of society portraiture to earn his living. In 1833, Richmond did a watercolor portrait of the great Abolitionist, William Wilberforce, which was then engraved and became a hugely successful print. With that, the spiritual influence of Blake receded, replaced by Victorian respectability and financial success.

Then in 1850, the publisher, George Smith, came knocking on Richmond's door, bringing Charlotte Brontë for her portrait. The Romantic Age had returned and Richmond responded with the radiant, haunting "identity" portrait of Charlotte that is on view in the NPG exhibit. 

The Romantic Age remains, resonating from the wall of the Celebrating Charlotte Brontë exhibit. The spiritual force that beams from those eyes is still here, still greeting those fortunate enough to see it.

Generally, I dislike using the adjective "iconic" except when discussing actual religious icons. But for that very reason, I believe that such usage in this review is appropriate indeed.

Anne Lloyd, Close-up of the Richmond Portrait

Look into the eyes of Charlotte Brontë in George Richmond's portrait. Those are the eyes of an Icon.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 
Images courtesy of the National Gallery, London, and Anne Lloyd   
Introductory Image:
Anne Lloyd, Photo of the Richmond Portrait (Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond, National Portrait Gallery Collection, London), digital photograph, 2016

Anne Lloyd, View of Celebrating Charlotte Brontë at the National Portrait Gallery,London, digital photograph, 2016

Anne Lloyd, "Little Books" by the Brontë Children, Brontë Parsonage Museum Collection, Haworth, Yorkshire, U.K., digital photograph, 2016

Anne Lloyd, Charlotte Brontë's Ankle Boots, c.1854, Brontë Parsonage Museum Collection, Haworth, Yorkshire, U.K., digital photograph, 2016

Patrick Branwell Brontë (British, 1817-1848) The Brontë Sisters (Anne Brontë; Emily Brontë; Charlotte Brontë) oil on canvas, circa 1834, 35 1/2 in. x 29 3/8 in. (902 mm x 746 mm) Purchased, 1914. Primary Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 1725

George Richmond (British, 1809-1896) Charlotte Brontë, 1850, chalk on paper, 23 5/8 in. x 18 3/4 in. (600 mm x 476 mm) Bequeathed by the sitter's husband, Rev A.B. Nicholls, 1906. Primary Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG  1452

Anne Lloyd, Photo of the Richmond Portrait (Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond, National Portrait Gallery Collection, London), digital photograph, 2016

Anne Lloyd, Photo of the Richmond Portrait (Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond, National Portrait Gallery Collection, London), digital photograph, 2016

George Richmond (British, 1809-1896) George Richmond (Self-portrait), 1853, oil on canvas laid on board, 1853, 13 7/8 in. x 10 3/4 in. (352 mm x 273 mm) Given by wish of the sitter's son, Walter Richmond, 1931. Primary Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 2509

Anne Lloyd, Photo of the Richmond Portrait (Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond, National Portrait Gallery Collection, London), digital photograph, 2016


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