In 1839 [Patrick] Branwell Bronte, brother to the three Bronte sisters, wrote to his friend and fellow artist in Bradford, John Hunter Thompson:
Mrs Kirby’s name is an eyesore to me – what does the Woman mean? – How can I come paddling to Bradford with my wallet on my back in order to varnish her portraits? …I would give the amount contained in this letter or twice it to silence her chattering.
Branwell Bronte’s low opinion of his landlord’s wife, Mrs Isaac Kirby, shows in his unflattering portrait of her (shown above) painted between 1838-9 during his short-lived attempt to earn a living through portrait painting in Bradford. The painting, now in the Bronte Parsonage Museum, presents a vinegary tight-lipped image of his landlady in a rather incongruous frilly bonnet, although the detail of this is impressive. The red of her scarf also brings a striking note of colour to the sombre tones of her dress
It does show, however, that Branwell could paint if he set his mind to it.
Encouraged and funded by his father, Branwell had received art tuition from the Leeds artist, William Robinson, whose work had first been seen at the 1834 Summer Exhibition of the Northern Society for the Encouragement of the Arts. Robinson had been a student at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and a pupil of Sir Thomas Lawrence, an eminent English portrait painter in the early 19th century. However, there is a question mark over how diligently Robinson instructed Branwell in the technical aspects of mixing paints (see later).
Branwell had now set his sights on becoming an artist. From June 1838 until May 1839, by now in his early twenties, Branwell tried to make a living as a portrait painter in Bradford. He had even toyed with the idea of studying art in London, but had decided to take his chances closer to home in Bradford, by this time a rapidly developing town with a growing middle class community of merchants able to afford the cost of a portrait.
A family friend, the Reverend William Morgan, found him lodgings and a studio at 3 Fountain Street in the home of Isaac Kirby, a beer merchant. At first, William Morgan and others rallied round to set portraits up for Branwell, and Morgan was one of first first commissions. Other commissions included one of Isaac Kirby and Kirby’s niece, Margaret Hartley. The portrait of Margaret (shown below) is considered one of Branwell’s best works. It conveys a sense of the innocent shyness of the sitter, albeit with her head cast into a rather unnatural pose.
Margaret later wrote about Branwell after his death that he was a ‘very steady young gentleman, his conduct was exemplary, and we liked him very much’.
However, Branwell was increasingly drawn to the company of fellow artists and to the social scene in Bradford’s inns, particularly the George Hotel in Market Street and Queen’s Hotel in Bridge Street. Other artists in Bradford managed to scrape a living, whilst enjoying a social life, but Branwell was ill-prepared for the hard work that was needed to find work, complete it on time, and to the satisfaction of his clients. With the ‘Mrs Isaac Kirby’ portrait, for example, Mrs Kirby constantly badgered him to finish the work, and in the end he paid John Hunter Thompson to varnish and finish the work for him. The more prosperous Bradford merchants were more inclined to look for portrait painters in Leeds, rather than Bradford, so Bradford artists needed to be particularly persistent to find any work at all. But perseverance at any arduous task was not one of Branwell’s strengths.
After less than a year, Branwell gave up his studio and returned to Haworth. Art played little part in Branwell’s career thereafter. From 1840 onward he tried unsuccessfully to stick at work, first as a tutor, then as a clerk on the new Leeds-Manchester railway at Sowerby Bridge station. He was dismissed from his position on the railway, and dismissed too, from another tutor post in Thorp Green, near York, allegedly after his affair with his employer’s wife, a Mrs Lydia Robinson.
After this, his life went rapidly downhill as he became dependent on alcohol and drugs. He died in September 1848, aged thirty-one.
In 1886 Francis Leyland, a Halifax artist and author of ‘The Bronte Family, with special reference to Patrick Branwell Bronte’ (1886) wrote insightfully about the failure of Branwell to succeed as an artist:
Being gifted with a keen and distinct observation, combined with the faculty of retaining impressions once formed, and being an excellent draughtsman, he could with ease produce admirable representations of the persons he portrayed on canvas. But it is quite clear that he had never been instructed either in the right mode of mixing his pigments, or how to use them when properly prepared, or, perhaps, he had not been an apt scholar. He was, therefore, unable to obtain the necessary flesh tints, which require so much delicacy in handling, or the gradations of light and shade so requisite in the painting of a good portrait or picture. Had Branwell possessed this knowledge, the portraits he painted would have been valuable works from his hand; but the colours he used have all but vanished, and scarely any tint, beyond that of the boiled oil with which they appear to have been mixed, remains.
See also the profile of Branwell Bronte at http://www.notjusthockney.info/bronte-branwell/