Brontë Society and National Portrait Gallery combine for Brontë200 celebrations

By Richard Moss | 02 January 2016

Major exhibitions, displays and events mark the bicentenary of the birth of Charlotte Brontë in 2016

a lightly coloured pencil sketch of Charlotte Bronte with her hair gathered and a lace dress
Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond, 1850© Copyright: National Portrait Gallery, London
Precious relics of the life of Charlotte Brontë are to go on display in 2016 for Bronte200, as the National Portrait Gallery and the Brontë Parsonage in Haworth pool their resources to celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of the famous author of Jane Eyre.

Among the treasures displayed at the NPG are paintings and drawings by Charlotte, letters and journals, the famous ‘little books’ created by the Brontë sisters as children, including the first book Charlotte ever made and a pair of cloth ankle boots worn by Charlotte.

The free display will also feature first editions of Jane Eyre, her first published novel, which enjoyed immediate and enduring popularity as well as Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography, Life of Charlotte Brontë.

The daughter of an Anglican clergyman, Charlotte (1816–1855) and her siblings; Emily (1818–1848), and Anne (1820–1849) are today regarded as one of the most important literary families in English literary history with Emily's Wuthering Heights and Anne's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall also acknowledged classics.

a photo of a notebook with scribbled words and a drawing of a house interior
Illustrated manuscript (the first ‘little book’) by Charlotte Brontë, c1828© The Brontë Society
But it was Charlotte’s Jane Eyre (1847) that first offered a new emotional range in English fiction of the period. Through it the acutely shy author fearlessly questioned social conventions, drawing on her experience as a teacher and governess.

By the end of 1847 the first novels of all three sisters had been published and following the publication of Shirley in 1849, the public knew her identity, and Charlotte became a celebrity in literary circles, something which the publication of Villette (1853) only enhanced.

New research about the famous painting of the literary Brontë sisters, by their brother Branwell, will also be revealed, exploring the intriguing story of its discovery folded on top of a wardrobe, subsequent acquisition by the gallery and its restoration.

The display will also include the chalk drawings of Charlotte and her friend and first biographer Elizabeth Gaskell by George Richmond, alongside portraits of Charlotte Brontë’s heroes and associates such as the Duke of Wellington, poet Lord Byron and novelist William Thackeray.

a group portrait of three young women in Georgian-era dress
The Brontë Sisters (Anne Brontë; Emily Brontë; Charlotte Brontë), by Patrick Branwell Brontë, c. 1834© National Portrait Gallery, London
Celebrating Charlotte Brontë 1816-1855 is curated by the National Portrait Gallery’s Associate Curator Rosie Broadley and assisted by Lucy Wood, Assistant Curator who said, “This rare chance to see the only painted portrait of Charlotte Brontë alongside illuminating personal treasures from the Brontë Parsonage Museum provides a fascinating opportunity to celebrate her life and remarkable achievements as one of the most celebrated authors of the 19th century”.

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In Yorkshire, at the epicentre of the thriving international Brontë industry, the Brontë Society and the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth have invited the novelist Tracy Chevalier to be a “creative partner” for the bicentenary year, to explore creative ways of responding to the Brontë legacy.

The acclaimed writer, whose works include Girl with a Pearl Earring, has developed an exhibition called Charlotte Great and Small which, through objects and quotations “explores the contrast between Charlotte’s constricted life and her huge ambition”.

At Haworth Charlotte and her sisters lived in confined spaces, sharing beds and all working together in one room. They created miniature books and magazines, and Charlotte ruined her eyesight by writing, drawing and painting on such a small scale. Despite being so contained, however, she also had big ideas about the kind of life she wanted and the contribution she expected to make to literature.

a pair of ankle boots with purple-pink fabric and leather toecaps
Charlotte Brontë’s cloth ankle boots with leather toes, heels and side laces© The Brontë Society
Highlights on display include Charlotte’s child-size clothes, tiny books and paintings she made, a scrap from a dress she wore to an important London dinner party, and a moving love letter loaned by the British Library especially for the bicentenary.

Quotes from her letters and writings will be projected onto the walls to demonstrate the scale of her hopes and dreams.

“I have long loved Charlotte Brontë and am thrilled to be involved in the upcoming celebration of her bicentenary,” said Chevalier. “The Parsonage is a unique house; it’s incredible to see the place where so much creativity arose.

"I’m hoping to sprinkle some surprises in amongst the dresses and writing desks – including a Twitter tour of the house and exhibition, and even a knitted Jane Eyre!”

a photo showing a fragment of dress fabric with blue flowers overlaid across a manuscript
A fragment of Charlotte Brontë’s dress at Haworth© The Brontë Society
Chevalier has also been working on a new collection of short stories influenced by the writing of Charlotte Brontë. ‘Reader, I Married Him’ will be published in the spring of 2016 by the Borough Press and will comprise stories by British and North American women writers including Helen Dunmore, Susan Hill, Emma Donoghue, Audrey Niffenegger and Jane Gardam.

The Brontë Society has also launched the #seekingcharlotte social media campaign to track down Charlottes who share the famous author’s birthday.

“We often have visitors to the Museum who tell us that they were named after one of the Brontë sisters, so we thought it would be fascinating to find women of all ages called Charlotte who share her birthday,” explained Marketing Officer Rebecca Yorke. “We are asking Charlottes born on or near 21st April to contact us at so that we can invite them to share our celebrations in 2016.”

Many of the loans from the Parsonage Museum as well as works from the National Portrait Gallery Collection will be exhibited in the United States for the first time at the Morgan Library in New York in autumn 2016 as the Bronte Society looks to “bring the Brontës to the world and the world to Yorkshire” through events, exhibitions and partnership projects.

a side profile drawing n of a woman with wavy hair and silk dress
Drawing of Anne Brontë by Charlotte Brontë, 17 June 1834© The Brontë Society
Celebrating Charlotte Brontë 1816-1855 is at the NPG, February 22 - August 14 2016, Room 24, Admission free.

Charlotte Great and Small, opens at the Brontë Parsonage in February 2016. See for more.

For more information on Brontë200 see, for all events and activities connected to the programme, which will also celebrate the bicentenaries of the Brontë siblings: Charlotte in 2016, Branwell in 2017, Emily in 2018 and Anne in 2020. The Society also plans to commemorate Patrick Brontë in 2019, 200 years after he was invited to take up the Parson’s role in Haworth.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

More on the Brontës:

Public floggings, embezzlements and shocks: Unpublished Charlotte Brontë manuscripts bought by museum

Patti Smith makes literary pilgrimage to play benefit gig for Brontë Parsonage Museum

"Little gem" portrait of Charlotte Brontë buddy Mrs Hudson back at Parsonage Museum

Brontë Society secures Charlotte Brontë letters used by Elizabeth Gaskell
Latest comment: >Make a comment
I am very happy of this ! I am an fine art's artist and I have creations as regards Charlotte because I am a fan since my thirteen years and as the possible event I can be an “creative partner” for the bicentenary year; This may be of interest to you, contact me on FB Hélène PY (painter and writer) or on Pinterest: THANK YOU to transmit to organizers !
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