"I am no bird and no net ensnares me. I am a free human being with an independent will."
-- Charlotte Bronte, Jane EyreSometimes I think the National Portrait Gallery in London and I are on the same wave length. Every time I turn around they are mounting an exhibition of one my favorite writers. And because I'm planning a trip to London in the spring my radar is attuned to all that is happening there! I am very excited about a new exhibition that has just opened: "Celebrating Charlotte Bronte: 1816-1855." This year marks the 200th anniversary of her birth and the National Portrait Gallery is celebrating with an historic exhibition. I love the exhibitions put on by the National Gallery. Last year I saw one on Virginia Woolf and it was spectacular. This exhibition on Charlotte Bronte promises to be just as special. As an assistant curator at the National Portrait Gallery said, "We wanted to bring her to life because we are the museum of biographies, the museum of people, and she is one of the most important people in British Literature."
The exhibition will include the author's letters, journals, and drawings as well as a first edition of Jane Eyre. There will be 26 personal items from the Bronte Parsonage Museum, the Bronte sisters' home, on display alongside portraits from the National Portrait Gallery's collection. It is the museum's largest-ever loan, with some of the paintings, drawings, letters and journals previously unseen. Key items in the exhibition include the famous "little books" written by the Bronte sisters as children.
But the centerpiece of the exhibition will be the only surviving group portrait of Charlotte and her sisters painted by their brother Branwell. This haunting painting of the Bronte sisters, which includes Branwell's own ghostly shadow in the middle, resides in the National Portrait Gallery and is a piece I visit whenever I am there. I have been reading the Bronte novels and biographies since my early twenties. The story of their lives is almost as riveting as their novels. They all died young: Anne at 29, Emily at 30, Branwell at 31, and Charlotte at 38, just two months after getting married. And yet she and her sisters wrote classic novels that will live forever.
This portrait is fascinating because it is the only one to show the three sisters together. It seems that Branwell began sketching himself only to change his mind immediately. And it is a painting that was almost lost. It was found folded carelessly on top of a cupboard in 1906 by the second wife of Charlotte's husband Reverend A.B Nicholls. The museum acquired it in 1914.
For this exhibition experts have worked hard to show the most accurate image of what Branwell's picture would have looked like before he painted a solid pillar over his own face and took himself out of the family group. The curators have used the latest technology to show what the original image looked like in its most detail yet and tell the full story of how it came to the public eye. They will explore the intriguing story of its discovery folded on top of a cupboard, subsequent acquisition by the gallery and restoration.
Juliet Barker, former curator of the Bronte Parsonage Museum and Bronte biographer has written, "It is the iconic portrait of the Brontes and anything more we can learn about it is obviously of great interest."
I look forward to learning about the new research on this piece. It will be so interesting to see it in the context of the many personal treasures from the Bronte Parsonage Museum. I have always wanted to visit Haworth and hope to make it there one day. In the meantime, I have been reading a fascinating book on the Brontes: The Bronte Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects by Deborah Lutz. The author examines the meaningful objects in the Bronte family home and through them recreates the sisters' daily lives. It will be wonderful to see some of these objects at the National Portrait Gallery. They are sure to illuminate Charlotte Bronte's life. The curators wanted to illustrate her literary career and success but also her home life which is lesser known. I cannot wait to see this exhibition!
The Bronte sisters lived in Yorkshire
Go here to see a beautiful series of photos of this part of England
Since this is the two hundredth anniversary of Charlotte Bronte's birth, I am planning to reread Jane Eyre. Have you read it lately?