A possible Bronte Photograph?

As I have occasionally been asked about the possible “new Bronte Photograph “,it has a fascinating history and is interesting in its own right .I do not however belive it’s a photograph of the sisters.

three.sisters.ambrotype.x400Photo from   http://www.brontesisters.co.uk/ please follow the link to find our more about its discovery and the case put forward by the owners for its authenticity.

I firmly belive the photo is from the early 1860s or late 1850s ,depending on where it was taken.This is primarily because of the hat the standing girl is wearing .This style of hat only became widely fashionable for women  in the very late 1850s and outside  of fashionable circles would have been common only in early 1860s.Hats were  extremely uncommon for formal wear in the 1840s .

I know this is a point the photographs owners have considered and their views and research are here


I  would disagree with their  findings as they have not closely considered context, not considered that the word  hat might  be exchanged for bonnet in some accounts and not examined stylistic details  closely enough, small details that seem irrelevant can distinguish  styles separated by decades, fashion often revisits the past for inspiration ,consider the 1980s  and late 1990s when 1940s style fashions were popular with designers and the high street stores alike ,its easy to pass many of these clothes off as genuine 1940s clothes at 40s weekends and often an 1980s 40s revival jacket can be impossible to distinguish from an 90s jacket  unless you pay attention to the fabrics ,colours and small details like labels  buttons or pockets finishes

.Likewise  they have not fully included relevant details probably because they are not experts on the Bronte’s life and letters so  were not aware of them ,eg the comment on the site supporting the wearing of a hat by the Brontes includes an incident in London.

When Charlotte Bronte visited the studio of George Richmond in 1850 she was asked to remove her hat, not a bonnet. (,my note this is true but in this quote Richmond goes onto to mention that he mistook Charlotte’s very poor quality hair piece for a small cap or hat ,,)

An assortment of 1840s and early 1850s images

I have collected together a diverse group of images  from 1840s and 1850s  which show bonnets in assorted styles were the usual form of headwear for women of all classes, though I have focused primarily on the middle classes as the Bronte were from roughly this strata of society

Ford.madox.brown.last.emma.study 1853(Photo wiki commons from Wikipedia’s fashion page

this is a preliminary sketch for

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victorian_fashion . I  use a lot of Wikipedia’s images as they are  non copyright but I don’t in any way endorse Wikipedia as a reliable source of information)

1840s-hatsThe photos above are from an excellent post which can be seen if you click the link below ,the post there also shows a later image of an almost identical hat to that in the photo of the three young lady’s


Costume collections  don’t have any extant hats like that in the photo from 1840 they do however have lots of bonnets.

Below is an early 19thc bonnet

green and white silk bonnet

The bonnet below is from the Bronte parsonage museum collection

bronte-bonnet-parsThere are at least two possibly three bonnets in the museum collection and the sisters mention buying bonnets but never mention buying hats.(The only hat in the collection is a quite pretty  petite straw one worn by Ellen Nussey )

True small hats in a similar style were fashionable in earlier decades in the  1760s /1770s.These were Berger hats ,shallow crowned and usually flat rimmed ,there are only a very few 18thc hats have turned back rims.The hat below from the Met Museum (metropolitan museum of art )shows the common style and shape of the hat which varied only in size ,fabric and trims across classes.

Bergère-hat-18th-century-British-straw-Met-401x500(Theres a full description with images of the Berger hat  in all its forms here http://thedreamstress.com/tag/terminology/page/3/


It’s true that  quite similar hats were worn from time to time in the early Victorian era. However  in Britain  they were not usually worn not for everyday wear and not often at other times .The fashion plates below show the difference in both shape and use .The fashion plate below is from Goodeys ladies magazine 1842 and indeed both women wear hats not bonnets

goodys 1842However one lady is riding and hats not bonnets were always worn for riding as bonnets would interfere with the riders vision and would also be quite hot and cumbersome ,the other lady is in summer  wear and does again wear a hat but  though its a wide-brimmed hat,it has a much deeper crown and  has ribbon ties and lace trims ,It’s probably showing the kind of clothing ladies would wear in their gardens etc as the woman is wearing neither gloves ,mittens or a shawl and no lady would leave the house without gloves and a shawl or mantle .

Where outdoor  public or formal wear is shown the women always  have on bonnets as can be seen from the fashion plate below which is from a few months later in 1843.Note the ladies are also either in mantles or in the case of the lady in blue carrying one

1843 fashion plateLater fashion plates  from around the time the photo was supposed to have been taken also show hats  but again  they are not everyday wear  and those on adults don’t resemble that in the photograph,one lady is in riding habit .The  plat does show one other hat which is on a young girl  and as  the photographs  owner show a photograph of a child in a hat ,I thought this worth commenting on ,young girls did wear straw hats  and often similar hats to that in the photo but they were not adult clothing  and would have been seen as such ,ladies wouldn’t dream of wearing a children’s  fashion  just as the ladies in the fashion plate would not dream of wearing knee length skirts .

journal des femmes 1847What is also noteworthy in this image is that despite the range of headwear  the woman in her everyday clothing has on a close-fitting bonnet .This fashion plate is from 1847 and is around the latest time the photo if genuine could have been taken .It’s also unlikely the Brontes would have followed fashion closely enough to have the new seasons clothing ,indeed we know they were usually considered if anything  old fashioned.In the two years 1846 and 1847 there is no major fashion magazine showing hats as everyday wear



The first time a hat of a vaguely similar style starts to appear is in the late 1850s .

450_1859_FashionPlateAThese hats  are still flat brimmed with fairly shallow crowns  and most importantly still have ties. It’s not until the early 1860s you see fashion plates regularly show hast of a style identical to the hat on the standing figure in the photo and minus their little ties.

godey's summer 1862(Goodys magazine summer 1862)

1862 hats

For a more in-depth collection of fashion plates try the page link below


The girls cloaks

Another problem with the girls clothing is the mantles or cloaks they are wearing .They may be early Victorian  but one seems to be made of velvet .This is the one on the seated face on girl ,velvet was extremely expensive and a fabric outside the reach of the  Bronte sisters for everyday clothing .

Patrick does seem to have treated his children  to the odd luxury Anne wears a fine gauze overgrown for her  16th birthday portrait painted by Charlotte and  a fairly plain brown gown does exist at the parsonage which has a quite wide band of velvet added at  its hemline which was probably  to make the gown longer  so its possible they may have had  some velvet item of clothing  in the past but it seems unlikely that was something as mundane as a cape ,,it would also have been unseemly for a governess to wear something as luxurious as a velvet cape or mantle and it would have definitely been considered uppity in a middle class parsons daughter.

The mantles  could possibly be late 1840s are its hard to see but they seem much more like these below from 1859

1858 fashion plate

for descriptions of Victorian outer layers and more images please check out the excellent fashion era website which as lots of fashion plates and articles


The girls gowns

All the girls  in the photo are wearing full-skirted gowns these were becoming fashionable in the late 1840s but were not often this wide and  its unlikely that the three sisters would all have had such full skirts as you need a lot of  fabric .Fabric was  the main expense for any item of clothing ,the fabric  for a gown often cost more than a seamstresses wages for making a gown,we know from Bronte correspondence that even when Charlotte was becoming financialy comfortable she was thrifty about fabric costs and Emily and Ann would certainly not have enough disposable income for yards and yards of surplus fabric .

They are also wearing  a lot petticoats to create the dome shape in the photo.The standing figure in particular  is wearing a lot of petticoats ,you can see the curve of them under her mantle ,assuming  as is suggested that the standing figure is supposed to be Emily then this directly contradicts what little we know of Emily .She  did not wear a large number of petticoats and in fact objected to wearing even enough to look fashionable.She was described as refusing to wear extra petticoats in Brussels as she wished to be “as god made her” Mrs Gaskel comments on Emilys skirts being straight and Emily as the housekeeper would be unlikely to have worn bulky and hot surplus layers ,all of which would need laundering and starching and ironing.

A final note of costume

I belive the owners suggest a date shortly after Branwells death ,but if that were the case the girls would all be in full mourning this was always head to toe black and the girls in the photograph are not in mourning  ,sadly Emily and Anne both spent their final months waiting for their own deaths dressed in mourning for those who they had lost.

Purely subjective and personal thoughts on the photo

I don’t think Emily would have chosen a hat when she could wear a bonnet they wouldn’t stay put for more a few seconds once outside the parsonage without a hat pin and even then it would be difficult.They are cold and the wind would make your ears sting once outside on the moor they would get wet and ruined and they don’t properly shield your eyes from the sun in summer.


The background of brick is out-of-place for Yorkshire I can’t think of anywhere in Haworth with light coloured brick walls and there’s nowhere else that all three sisters would have been at the time possible for the photo.Its just possible the “bricks” are stone but even so they seem to me to be the wrong texture ,size and shape and colour for the locality, I include a photo of the parsonage front for comparison  ,while had the photo been taken at the Red house in Gomersal ,which was  charlotte’s friend the Taylors home, then the brickwork is too light .

Emily Bronte Parsonage

Its far too “staged” for a normal family portrait compared to most other similar photos of the time .It looks to me like girls “playing dress up “for a fun photo or perhaps its part of a posed photo for an event or play.I doubt however the girls in the 1860s were dressing up as the Bronte sisters as not  all  the three sisters were not popular then .I would buy the idea that it’s a photo to use as a  preliminary  “sketch ” for a line  drawing for a book perhaps Mrs Robinson’s “Emily Bronte” but not a photo of the sisters or a copy of a photo of the sisters.


If the  standing figure is Emily she’s quite plump and curvy ,not something anyone ever described Emily as being and  if this was after Branwells death Emily was already ill ,shes not reported as being seen outside the Parsonage again after Branwells funeral and though Charlottes letters talk about her own  and her family’s ill health in general just after Branwells death  which  also makes the photos dating seem unlikely and its not very long after Branwells funeral she begins to worry  more specifically about Emily’s health  in the final months of her life she  quite quickly became extremely thin and finally utterly emaciated.


all the girls have thick glossy hair.Emily does seem to have had thick and lovely hair which she wore up in a similar style to the  standing lady in the photo but Charlotte had very fine hair and Anne’s hair was never described as being thick or full.


Lastly the photo seems too clear to be an early photograph  from the 1840s most early photographs /daguerreotype ,tintype ambrotype etc all lack a certain clarity and the poses are more set it seems much more likely to be an 1860s photo.

Theres a great collection of Victorian portrait photos here for comparison

Or perhaps it a post-mortem photo of the girl seen side on these photos were occasionally quite staged looking more so than normal photos and post-mortem photos were very still very common in the 1860s .

I feel sure the owners genuinely  belive the photo genuine but I don’t belive it to be a Bronte photograph

Further reading

There is an excellent post on Victorian straw hats here


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About hathawaysofhaworth

I am a Historian and author living in the north of England. I am the owner of Hathaways of Haworth ,a company which specialises in Historical re-enactment and entertainment . I am married with two Children .
This entry was posted in 19thc, brontes, costume research, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A possible Bronte Photograph?

  1. I am intrigued by the German hats they show – I would have loved to know where they found those images… Not so much for the Brontë mystery (though that’s fascinating), more because I am Czech and German fashions were a strong influence here.
    I know next to nothing about the Brontës lives and cannot presume to know, but if hats were more widely worn in Europe and they had visited Europe, could they have not adopted the hat?
    I’m not really trying to prove you wrong and the photo genuine; my first instinct, also based on the hat, was the same as yours. It’s more because I am now intrigued by the possibility of an earlier hat fashion in Germany that I was previously unaware of…

    • Hi
      Sorry this is a late reply I am overseas at the momement ,I am not sure where the site found the hats images ,,though they might give you details if you asked,,I doubt the Brontes would have adopted european hats styles,itsca really interesting idea which I had not thought of and if it was spmething smaller I think perhaps they would ,charlottecdid buy brussels lace ,I assume for collars and cuffs and she asks for money to buy unspecified items before she comes home ,,items thqt are easier to buy in Brussels and from the context it seems likely it was at least partly to buy brussels lace items .Hats would have been much harder to travel with as they would need boxes ,that would also I think make them expensive to buy in England as they would need to be boxed to export ,,and they wouldnt be practical in Yorkshire as it rains a lot and also on the moors above Haworth its usually quite windy even on a summers day its slightly windy just above the parsonage on the moor ,,the hats would need very long hat pins to keep them on and even with two hat pins sometimes hats blow off ,,,

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