Brontë portraits

 Rare painting of the three Bronte sisters due to go under the hammer at Northamptonshire auction

AN auctioneer is aiming to secure a rare hat-trick by selling an “important” picture thought to depict all three Bronte sisters.
Jonathon Humbert, of  JP Humbert Auctioneers, based in Towcester, says he is confident the painting, which he claims is of “superlative quality”, is of the three literary sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne.
The rare portrait, thought to be a hitherto unknown watercolour, is the latest in the series of unrelated items concerning the trio to be put up for sale by the same firm.
The Northamptonshire auction house’s sale of  a small portrait believed to be of Emily Bronte recently fetched £4,600. In December, JP Humbert sold another painting of the reclusive writer for £23,836.
However, Mr Humbert said the latest painting could prove to be the most important yet.
He said there was no estimate on the latest discovery, which it believed to have come from an owner in Dorset, as it was impossible to say how much it would fetch.
He added: “We just had one and then with all the media interest someone came into us with the second and now we have a third one, which is by far the most important painting.
“The evidence has been put together by the vendor for the past four years and our own investigations.
“We have been incredibly forensic about this and we believe that not only is this a hitherto unrecognised portrait of the Bronte sisters, but moreover we believe it was painted by  Edwin Landseer, who went on top become Sir Edwin Landseer.”
The piece of art is thought to contain the signature of Landseer, who was an important Victorian painter, and depicts a broach [sic] and bracelet believed to have been worn by the sisters.
The jewellery is now kept in museums.
Mr Humbert added: “It has come to us from a long way away and we are already having a lot of international press interest and what we hope is the art world will embrace it accordingly.
“We have had success from two out of two and we are hoping for the hat-trick but we have no idea what it will make because there is nothing to compare it to.”
He added: “I hope it will end up in a museum or collection, where it will be recognised for what it is.”
The painting is set to go under the hammer on April 26 as part of a two-day fine art and antiques sale.

Other portraits:

The Brontë sisters by Patrick Branwell Brontë (1817-1848) © National Portrait Gallery, London

‘We don’t think it’s a painting of Emily’
The Bronte Society has cast doubt on claims a painting being auctioned in Northampton this month [December 2011] is a portrait of the famous literary figure Emily Bronte.
Ann Dinsdale, collections manager at the Bronte Parsonage Museum, said the society doubted the provenance of the oil painting and would not be bidding on it next Thursday.
“We are not 100 per cent convinced it is Emily. There isn’t enough provenance on the painting and there is an element of doubt about it,” she said.
“There are two portraits of Emily, both in the National Portrait Gallery, and they don’t bare a striking resemblance to this one. The experts are saying the woman in the painting is wearing the kind of clothes Emily would have worn, which probably thousands of other women of that period were wearing. They have done a huge amount of research on that painting but we are still not convinced.”
But art experts, who have assessed the picture, say there is strong evidence to suggest it could be of Emily Bronte.
The oil painting, which shows a young woman wearing a straw bonnet held in place by a silk scarf, was painted earlier than previously thought.
The picture, recently given to auctioneers J P Humbert of Northamptonshire by a retired headmaster, was found to have been painted circa 1840, making it contemporary with the age of the possible subject – Emily Bronte died in 1848.
It is almost identical to a print of a portrait of the writer published in the July 1894 issue of The Woman At Home, which itself was attributed to Charlotte Bronte. It is thought the artist responsible for the newly-found picture may be John Hunter Thompson (1808-1890) of Bradford who was a portrait artist and friend of Emily’s brother Branwell.
As well as that, written on the back is “Emily Bronte – Sister of Charlotte B… Currer Bell”, and on the backing paper “Emily Bronte/Sister of Charlotte Bronte/Ellis Bell”. Currer and Ellis Bell were the pen names of Charlotte and Emily Bronte from the winter of 1845 when the sisters published their poems and adopted pen names.
Auctioneer Jonathan Humbert said the attribution confirms that the portrait is earlier than previously thought.
“After much research, we are confident this portrait, recently discovered, is of Emily Bronte,” he said.
“So many factors support this contention and, as such, this represents a very important study of one of English literature’s most perennial figures.”
The oil on panel painting is set to go on sale at JP Humbert Auctioneers in Towcester, Northants, at a provisional estimate of £10,000 to £15,000.
The sale coincides with an auction where the society will be bidding for a rare Charlotte Bronte manuscript the Young Men’s Magazine.


Emily Brontë portrait goes under the hammer
For the second time in two months, a previously unknown portrait captioned “Emily Brontë” is to be auctioned, showing the Wuthering Heights author as a winsome but pensive young woman.
Painted in oils and with the subject gazing directly at the artist with clear brown eyes, the picture is less formal and possibly more flattering than the smaller, bonneted study that sold in December for £23,836, exceeding the reserve price of £10,000-£15,000.
Measuring 33 by 24cms (13 by 9.5ins), the painting has been reliably sourced to the mid-19th century and has a note of the subject probably made by the artist around the time of painting. But absolute attribution is unlikely, as has been the case with most supposed Brontë portraits apart from the famous study of the sisters painted in 1835 by their brother, Branwell.
The painting has been sent for auction by the Northamptonshire firm JP Humbert, which handled the “bonnet picture” sale. Jonathan Humbert said a private owner brought the portrait into the firm’s office after reading about the previous sale. “One unknown portrait of Emily Brontë is lucky enough, but two in two months is quite remarkable,” he said. “I am amazed that both have turned up on our doorstep.”
Anything with a Brontë tag appears to sell well, although uncertainty about the authenticity of the latest picture has seen the reserve set at between £3,000 and £4,000. Last month the Haworth Parsonage museum, which has the world’s greatest trove of Brontë relics, was outbid by a Paris museum for a miniature magazine made by Charlotte Brontë when she was 14.
The dainty handwritten manuscript was bought at Sotheby’s by the Musée des Lettres et Manuscrits for £690,850, more than twice the reserve and a record for a literary work by any of the three sisters. The price of the bonnet painting was driven up on the same day by determined phone bidding to Northampton from the US.

Emily by Patrick Branwell Brontë (1817-1848)oil on canvas, arched top, circa 1833 © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Charlotte Brontë
by George Richmond
chalk, 1850
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Anne Brontë ( 1820 – 1849 ), English poet and writer by Charlotte Bronte, her sister.

Branwell Brontë by J. B. Leyland

Brontë Photographs

A photograph believed to be that of Charlotte Brontë taken in the last year of her life in 1854.  Brontë Parsonage Museum.

The Brontë sisters?

Whether it depicts them or not there’s certainly a Bronte connection. The ladies resemble them, their names are on the back and there’s a link to a photo in the Bronte Museum.

Patrick Brontë.

Update: Bronte portrait withdrawn from auction

Update: Charlotte Brontë letter

Update:Charlotte Brontë poem



Sir Charles Bell’s watercolours


The harsh reality of war and nineteenth-century surgery is encountered in the anatomical watercolours of Charles Bell. They depict his patients and their injuries, especially the horrific wounds dealt with by army surgeons in Wellington’s army.

“Johnnie! How can we let this pass? Here is such an occasion of seeing gun-shot wounds come to our very door. Let us go!”: Charles Bell to his brother.

Charles Bell (1774-1842) KGH, FRS, FRSE, was a renowned surgeon, anatomist and artist, who discovered Bell’s Palsy and produced many anatomical drawings and watercolours, some of the most important of which were produced while he was working as a medical officer at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. He was born in Scotland and came to London in 1804. He built up a private teaching practice and then bought the Great Windmill Street School of Anatomy founded by William Hunter. His association with The Middlesex began in 1814 when he was appointed surgeon there. This was followed by appointments as Professor of Anatomy and Surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons in 1824, and then as Professor of Surgery at the new University of London (now University College London). Bell left the University in 1830 and was instrumental in establishing a Medical School at The Middlesex Hospital in 1835. In 1836 Bell went back to Edinburgh to take up a post of Professor of Surgery, and died in 1842.

Born into a respectable Scottish family in 1774, Charles Bell was an accomplished anatomist, surgeon, physiologist, author and artist. His highly successful civil medical career coincided with the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars of 1792–1815. In early 1809, Sir John Moore’s Peninsular Army landed on the South Coast following the desperate retreat to Corunna. About 28,000 ill and wounded soldiers disembarked, causing consternation in the local population. The army medical services were overwhelmed and Bell was among a number of civilian surgeons who volunteered to help. He performed a similar altruistic service 6 years later in the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo where 55,000 dead and wounded were left on the field. These sudden transitions from civilian to military surgery were not straightforward and Bell’s operation results in the Brussels hospitals were not impressive. Only one of his 12 amputation cases survived—a mortality rate of 92% which was high even allowing for the more hazardous nature of secondary operations which had had to be delayed long after the initial injury.From: Howard, M. R. 2005. ‘A surgical artist at war: the paintings and sketches of Sir Charles Bell 1809-1815: review’, J R Soc Med, 98 (11): 517.

 Watercolour of the brain by Sir Charles Bell

Wellcome Collection (not for the squeamish).

Further reading:

Crumplin, M. K. H. & Starling, P. original 1819 (2005 reprint). A Surgical Artist at War: The Paintings and Sketches of Sir Charles Bell 1809-1815, Royal College of Surgeons (London).

Vermeer’s Women: Secrets and Silence

Mellon Gallery

Fitzwilliam Museum
Trumpington Street
Cambridge CB2 1RB
Wed 5 October 2011 to Sun 15     January 2012







At the heart of this visually stunning exhibition is Vermeer’s extraordinary painting The Lacemaker (c.1669-70) – one of the Musée du Louvre’s most famous works, rarely seen outside Paris and now on loan to the UK for the first time.

New improved XRF

X-ray technique peers beneath archaeology’s surface
Striking discoveries in archaeology are being made possible by strong beams of X-rays, say researchers.
A report at the  American Physical Society meeting in Dallas, US, showed how X-ray sources known as synchrotrons can unravel an artefact’s mysteries.
Light given off after an X-ray blast yields a neat list of the atoms within.
The technique can illuminate layers of pigment beneath the surfaces of artefacts, or even show the traces of tools used thousands of years ago.
This  X-ray fluorescence or XRF works by measuring the after-effects of X-ray illumination.
As atoms absorb the X-rays, the rays’ energy is redistributed, and very rarely some is re-emitted as light.
Each atom releases a characteristic colour of light, yielding a full chemical analysis, and as such the XRF technique is gaining ground as a means to meticulously analyse artefacts from the past.
Small X-ray sources have been used in the past to get a laundry list of atoms generally present in art, but Robert Thorne of Cornell University in the US told BBC News that the intense, focused X-rays from enormous sources known as synchrotrons have more recently shown their potential.
“These give you extremely intense X-ray beams, and what that allows you to do is not just collect a spectrum from one point, but you can ‘raster scan’ your sample in front of the beam and collect the full chemical analysis at each point.”
The technique has already been used to elucidate Roman and Greek inscriptions
Compared to handheld sources, he said, “you can get months’ worth of photons delivered in a second, and that’s critical”.
Professor Thorne and his collaborators were in  2005 the first to use the technique to analyse inscriptions  from Greek and Roman pottery.
The technique has been shown to shed light on layers of glaze beneath the surface of finished pottery.
It has even shown, in the case of an inscription that had worn entirely away, that minuscule amount of iron left by the chisel showed a pristine version of the inscription on what appeared to be smooth stone.
“We did an experiment at  Diamond [Light Source in Oxford] last year on a heavily-worn surface, and we couldn’t quite guess what the letters were,” he said.
The translation said it was a decree involving three different individuals. We looked at the pattern of iron we saw from tool wear and pigments that one letter couldn’t be consistent with the letter that had been put there – it turns out that letter changed the name of one of the people, and the story was about three brothers – just down to that one simple change.”
More recently, the team – including Cornell physicist Ethan Geil and archaeologists Kathryn Hudson and John Henderson – has turned its attention toward the Americas. The technique is best used on artefacts whose inscriptions or decoration has worn away completely – but these, Professor Thorne said, are much harder to find because collectors and museums have until now viewed them as less valuable.
“That’s what’s exciting about working on pottery from Mesoamerica, because there’s a ton of it in American collections, much of which we can get access to,” he said.
“We’re looking at some Mayan artefacts with some collaborators at Cornell and they’re interested in the iconography of a particular subgroup within the Mayans.
“On the pottery a lot of the glaze has flaked off, so what you see is little black dots on the surface; it’s very hard to tell if those black dots are glaze or dirt, but with the XRF you can tell.”
Dr Thorne was guarded about the most recent results from the Mayan studies, which will be published soon.
“The message here is that physicists have developed this really fantastic technique to do full XRF imaging of objects.
“It’s not a magic bullet – there never is in this business. But I think as a general tool for art and art historical and archaeological exploration, it’s the best new thing to come out in a very long time.”

“What ho, Giotto!”*

Giotto masterpiece crucifix restored to former glory

Giotto’s 14th century masterpiece, the Ognissanti crucifix, has been put back on public display in Florence after a seven year restoration.
A small team has worked thousands of hours to remove centuries of dirt from the painting.
Giotto is regarded as the father of the Italian Renaissance, but it was only through the restoration that it became clear the crucifix really was one of his works.

*Stanley Spencer’s response to being given the commission to paint the walls of Sandham Memorial Chapel, Burghclere, Hampshire

Artists’ palette from medieval Dereham

Oyster shell holds clue to medieval Dereham

An oyster shell found among rubble unearthed when a Dereham church wall was demolished could have been collected on the Norfolk coast and used by a medieval artist creating wall paintings.

The shell, one of two found in the rubble, contains residues of two colours , a rich yellow and a reddish, earthy brown colour and there is also a small spot of black.

Archaeologists believe that these palettes are of the medieval period, stretching back to the 12th and 13th centuries, and usually associated with church sites.

According to a report of the archaeological survey carried out on the southern boundary wall of  St Nicholas’ parish church, it is probable that these shells provided medieval artists with a free, readily available and disposable supply of palettes.

The connection of painters’ palettes with archaeological sites reflects the fact that during medieval times the church was part of the minority within the community able to afford to commission art.

According to the report, the discovery of this palette among the waste from this trench indicates either church waste or rubbish from a high-status household.

Two of the other interesting finds found in the rubble when the wall was demolished last year were an ivory handle and a tang knife with antler handle. These items suggest higher status remains than would be expected from a small cottage.

According to the report compiled by assistant project officer Suzie Westall, the animal bones indicate that every part of the animal was being utilised and it may also point to the fact that – with the inclusion of wild game – even poorer members of the community ate a diet rich in meat.

The presence of two fragments of human bone may be explained by the fact that the edges of the new foundation trench for the wall cut slightly into the churchyard soils.

NAU Archaeology prepared a project design for the survey work and it is likely that the items found will be offered to the church and may end up in  Dereham’s Bishop Bonner Cottage museum.

Ms Westall explained that demolition of the 11-metre stretch of wall revealed remains of former buildings on the outside of the wall and showed that the wall itself had been built on to the remains of those buildings. This indicates the collapsed wall was a 20th-century construction.

Flickr pics of excavation in progress by Sue White

Finding Shakespeare


Is this the real Shakespeare at last?
A PORTRAIT owned for nearly 300 years by a family will tomorrow be claimed as the only known picture of William Shakespeare painted during his lifetime.
No other image, executed at first hand, is thought to exist of Britain’s greatest writer.
The claim will be supported by the world’s foremost expert on Shakespeare, Stanley Wells, emeritus professor of Shakespeare studies at Birmingham University and general editor of the Oxford Shakespeare series for 30 years.
The portrait, which was painted in 1610, six years before the playwright’s death, has been in the possession of the Cobbe family since the early 18th century. It was initially kept at a property in Hampshire but more recently in Hatchlands, the family house in Surrey, which is run by the National Trust.
For three centuries the family was unsure of the identity of the figure in the portrait. According to Alec Cobbe, an art restorer, at one time it had been thought to be of  Sir Walter Raleigh.
In 2006 Cobbe visited the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition Searching for Shakespeare. On display were  several pictures, which over the years some had suggested were of Shakespeare.
His attention was caught by one known as the Janssen portrait because it is thought to be by Cornelis Janssen, a Flemish painter who worked in England in the early 17th century. The picture was on loan from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, which has the world’s greatest collection of Shakespeare memorabilia.
Cobbe was amazed that the Janssen portrait was almost identical to the painting at Hatchlands. He took his picture to the National Portrait Gallery for comparison. “We had it for two days, and they certainly looked very, very similar,” said Tarnya Cooper, curator of the 16thand 17th-century collections at the gallery. “But we did not do any tests on it.”
Cobbe has since used a variety of tests and scientific imaging to check if it is an original or has been altered from its original composition.
In its favour, the portrait looks very similar to the only two other images of the playwright accepted as having been by people who knew Shakespeare when he was alive. These are the bust of him in Holy Trinity church, Stratford-upon-Avon, where he is buried and which was erected not long after his death; and the engraving of his image, made in 1623, at the front of his First Folio.
This weekend both Wells and Cobbe declined to divulge any more information. However, tomorrow they will unveil what they regard as very strong evidence that the portrait is of Shakespeare and that it was painted when he was 46 years old, six years before his death in 1616.
They will also claim that the portrait initially belonged to the third Earl of Southampton, who was Shakespeare’s patron and, according to some, the “fair youth” of his sonnets. Wells and Cobbe are writing a book on Southampton and Shakespeare. Their claims, however, will cause controversy, especially since some experts doubt the Janssen portrait is Shakespeare.
The first known owner of the Janssen portrait was a certain Charles Jennens who lived in Leicestershire. He bought it in 1770. The painting appeared on an edition of King Lear, which was also published by Jennens that year. It is obvious that he had only acquired the picture in 1770 because the portrait was not mentioned in two accounts of his collection compiled in the late 1760s.
The Folger Library bought that painting at auction in 1932, believing it might portray the playwright. Since then some argued that it might be of  Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, who some have suggested was the “real” author of Shakespeare’s plays even though he died before several of them were written.
Since the late 1960s the Folger painting has been described by the library as being of  Sir Thomas Overbury, a courtier and poet, who died in 1613 after being poisoned by Frances Howard, countess of Essex, after she was infuriated that Overbury tried to stop her from remarrying. When the painting was displayed at the National Portrait Gallery in 2006, it was labelled as probably of Overbury.
To complicate matters further, the Folger painting has been altered. In 1988 the overpainting was removed to reveal a lower hairline. “The higher hairline must have been done at some stage to make the sitter a bit more bald to reflect his age,” said Erin Blake, curator of art at the Folger.
Neither Blake nor Cooper are as convinced as Wells and Cobbe that the Hatchlands picture is of Shakespeare and done during his lifetime.
Over the centuries many portraits allegedly of Shakespeare have been presented as that of the writer. Some are fakes, produced simply to make money.
The National Portrait Gallery owns what is known as the Chandos Shakespeare, which also bears some facial resemblance to the 1623 engraving on the folio. “But we still probably don’t think it is Shakespeare though it was done between 1600 and 1610,” said Cooper.
Others portraits at the Searching for Shakespeare exhibition included the Sanders, which makes Shakespeare look too young; the Flowers, which is now owned by the Royal Shakespeare Company; the Grafton, which is in the John Rylands gallery in Manchester; and the Soest, which was clearly painted at least 50 years after the writer’s death. None have been proven to be of Shakespeare.
“It would be wonderful if this is shown to be a picture of Shakespeare painted when he was actually living,” said Blake. “People so want there to be such a portrait.”


Mystery relic found during London excavation is linked to Shakespeare
The bearded Tudor face, framed by long hair and a ruff, certainly looks familiar. As the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust prepares today to unveil what it says is a portrait of the Bard painted during his lifetime, archaeologists may have beaten them to it.
A team working on the site where Shakespeare learned his trade has discovered a piece of 16th-century pottery that features a face resembling that of the great man.
It was found during excavation work in Shoreditch, east London, at the site of what used to be The Theatre, lost for more than 400 years and where Shakespeare performed as an actor, as well as staging his earliest plays.
Archaeologists unearthed the Tudor structure last summer while working at the site – which, by coincidence, is to be turned into a new theatre.
There is no proof that the face on the fragment of Beauvais pottery is that of the Bard’s, but insiders are excited by the discovery.
“We knew we would be somewhere near Shakespeare’s theatre when we got this site for our new building, and that was thrilling enough,” said Penny Tuerk, a director of the Tower Theatre Company. She added jokingly that the face could have been from an ale mug sold in The Theatre’s souvenir shop – and that it could make another appearance one day when the new Tower theatre opens in 2012.
The Theatre was originally built by James Burbage, father of Richard Burbage, Shakespeare’s friend, fellow actor and business partner in 1576. It was located just outside the walls of London in an area consisting of taverns and slum houses. The Burbages fell out with their landlord, and in 1598 with Shakespeare’s help, they dismantled the building and took it across the Thames to Bankside where it rose again as a far more famous theatre: The Globe.

BBC video of The Theatre archaeology

new film questioning Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays