Brown Bag Session 29 January 2014: “Charlotte Brontë and the Author Portrait” by Ryan Nutting

Dr. Julian North (from the School of English at the University of Leicester led a fascinating Brown Bag session on 29 January 2014 titled “Charlotte Brontë and the Author Portrait”.  In this session Dr. North focused on how Charlotte Brontë carefully managed and manipulated the image she presented to the public during her lifetimeDr. North looked at the wider culture of author’s images during the early nineteenth century, the known portraits of Charlotte Brontë, the display of the Richmond portrait in Charlotte Brontë’s home, and examined the possibility of the existence of a photographic portrait of Charlotte Brontë.

In the first section of this talk Dr. North focused on the proliferation of author portraits in the first half of the nineteenth century, which made writers visible to the public. She stated that images of authors often appeared as the frontispiece in biographies. Additionally, images of authors appeared publications such as Fraser’s Magazine that provided the “Gallery of Illustrious Literary Characters” which allowed readers to collect images of well-known authors. Dr. North stressed that although these portraits allowed authors to gain public visibility and that Fraser’s published images and accompanying descriptions of both male and female authors, these illustrations often stressed the physical characteristics the authors shared with their works that led to jokes about women’s masculine appearances or sexual appetites.

In the next section, Dr. North examined Charlotte Brontë’s reactions to period portraits including portraits of herself.  Dr. North began this section by noting that Brontë was painfully self-conscious of her appearance, disliked standing out in a crowd, and wrote under a pseudonym for many years. She also mentioned that Brontë was aware of the portraits of well known figures even going so far as describing her novels as character portraits, meticulously copying portraits out of magazines, and creating a set of portraits for fictional authors most likely partially based upon well known portraits of the time while she was a teenager. Dr. North contended that the portrait of Charlotte Brontë by her brother Branwell is a practice for an author portrait. 

She further states that Charlotte Brontë agreed to a portrait by George Richmond as she was aware of his reputation as an artist who would present a flattered, but not excessively flattering image.

Dr. North then moved on to examining how Charlotte Brontë displayed the Richmond portrait in her home.  Based upon Charlotte’s own writings, Dr. North argues that Charlotte hung her portrait in the living room of her home between a portrait of the Duke of Wellington (to the left of the portrait) and William Makepeace Thackeray (to the right of her portrait) both also sent to her by George Richmond. Dr. North argues this placed her in a domestic ‘gallery of heroes’, between the most well known British military hero in the early nineteenth century (Wellington) and Charlotte’s favorite author (Thackeray).

In the final section of this talk Dr. North focused on the possible existence of photographic portraits of Charlotte Brontë.  Based upon a letter Charlotte Brontë wrote to her publisher, dated the same day she sat for Richmond’s portrait, in which Charlotte denies a request to sit for a daguerreotype portrait, Dr. North believes that there are not any photographs of Charlotte Brontë in existence. She further cited Charlotte’s negative views towards daguerreotypes and her self-consciousness about her appearance, as further evidence that she  did not sit for a photograph. She also mentioned the stark differences between Charlotte’s appearance in the Richmond portrait and eyewitness descriptions of Charlotte.  

At the conclusion of the session Dr. North answered questions from the audience. The first question focused on Charlotte’s gaze in the Richmond portrait in which Charlotte is looking up and to the left. Dr. North stated that she believes this gaze this is a manifestation of the Romantic idea of genius. The next question focused on Charlotte’s age at the time of the Richmond portrait.  Dr. North stated that Charlotte was 34 years old at the time she sat for the portrait. The next question praised Dr. North’s empirical approach to this topic and focused on the study of portraits in nineteenth century literature. The fourth question focused on the idea Dr. North mentioned earlier that the Branwell portrait was viewed as a practice or rehearsal for a literary portrait.  Dr. North agreed that word experimentation, rather than rehearsal, is better way to describe the activities of the Brontë children as teenagers.  She stated that Branwell expressed an interest in creating portraits early in his life and all the children created publishing worlds in miniature during their youth through their meticulous copying and creation of fictional literary magazines that anticipated their future literary careers. Next, Dr. North referenced the display of the three portraits in the Brontë home and asked if anyone in the room previously studied or could recommend works on private displays within nineteenth century homes. 

The group then discussed how several individuals, including Sir John Sloane and Frederick Horniman, opened their homes as museums during their lifetimes as well as displays created within Royal Palaces during this period and the differences between public and private spheres in nineteenth century homes.  The final question focused on the idea of celebrity during the nineteenth century and asked about the images of female authors in the public domain. Dr. North responded that while authors were considered celebrities and people collected their portraits from publications such as Fraser’s very few opportunities existed at the time for members of the public to meet authors. While there were no book signings, like we have today, during the time, the general public possessed opportunities to meet authors at salon type parties where authors mingled with members of the general public (although Charlotte Brontë rarely attended these events). Furthermore, members of the public often times discovered the addresses of authors and would arrive at their homes unannounced in other to meet their favorite authors. Dr. North knows of at least one instance when Charlotte Brontë received unannounced visitors at her door who sought to meet her. During this visit Charlotte made tea for the visitors and patiently answered their questions and requests for autographs. 


QPT said…
Google Doodle honoring Charlotte Brontë on her 198th Birthday.

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