Thursday 7 October 2010

Literary weekend in London 18-19 September

The group in the National Portrait Gallery with Tim Moreton

Near Temple Bar in Paternoster Square, on the walk led by Margaret McCarthy

A new initiative for the Brussels Brontë Group

This was a first for the Group. We’ve had weekends of events in Brussels, and groups of us have attended the Haworth weekend, but this was the first weekend excursion organised by us. There were 23 of us in the group. The first day of our Literary Weekend in London was dedicated to the Brontës, and the second to Dickens’s London, Dickens being the obvious writer to explore for a group of 19th century literature enthusiasts on a trip to London.

Day 1: Brontë Day
Overview by Helen MacEwan

Most of us travelled on the Eurostar arriving around 9 a.m. on Saturday. At 11 a.m. we had a rendezvous with Tim Moreton, Collections Manager in the National Portrait Gallery, who took us to Branwell Brontë’s “Pillar Portrait” of his three sisters and talked to us about it for an hour. He also showed us something we weren't expecting to see (see reports below!) We went on to lunch with members of the Brontë Society’s London Branch in the Strand Palace Hotel on the site of the spot where Charlotte Brontë and her publisher George Smith, posing as a Mr and Miss Fraser, consulted a phrenologist.

Margaret McCarthy then took us on a walk retracing the footsteps of Charlotte and her sisters’ visits to London – Paternoster Square by St Paul’s where they stayed in the Chapter Coffee House, St Stephen Walbrook where Charlotte and Anne worshipped, Cornhill where they went to George Smith’s offices on their visit to introduce themselves to him. By the site of London Bridge Wharf where Charlotte got a waterman to row her to the Ostend packet when returning for her second year in Brussels, Margaret’s husband Jerry told us about the Thames watermen in her time.

The National Portrait Gallery
Patricia De Gray

In the National Portrait Gallery just off Trafalgar Square there is a room devoted to early19th century literary figures. In the midst of large, stylised portraits of Dickens, Tennyson and Browning there are two smaller, more modest portraits of the Bronte sisters and it was here that the Brussels Bronte Society started their weekend trip to London on Saturday 18th of September 2010.

Most of the group had journeyed to London early that morning and it was fitting that this was the first stop of the group since it gave us time to reflect and think about the sisters and their tragic life. Tim Moreton, the gallery's collection manager, gave us a very interesting talk on the background of these two portraits: the first known as the Pillar Portrait depicts the three sisters modestly dressed and looking pensively at the artist, while the second is a profile portrait of Emily which was probably part of a larger ensemble piece known as the 'Gun Group Portrait'.

The artist of both portraits was their brother Branwell. One can see quite clearly that he was not a professional or particularly gifted artist, particularly when compared with the rest of the professional portraits in the room. Another stark contrast is the condition of the portraits. These portraits were taken to Ireland by Arthur Nicholls, Charlotte's husband, after the death of Patrick Branwell, folded and placed on top of a cupboard in a suitcase. The colours have faded and the crease folds are very evident. After the death of Arthur Nicholls the paintings were sold to the National Portrait Gallery by his widow.

Tim Moreton told us that the Gallery had made a conscious decision not to restore these paintings since it is felt that their condition is a part of their story and journey. He also discussed at length the famous 'pillar' which is at the center of the first portrait. One can see clearly that originally another figure (probably male) had been painted in but than painted over. Was this Branwell himself or someone else, one can only speculate.

Elizabeth Gaskell describes the 'Pillar Portrait' in great detail in her biography The life of Charlotte Bronte. She writes "I have seen an oil painting of his, done I know not when….It was group of his sisters, life size; three-quarters' length; not much better than sign-painting, as to manipulation; but the likenesses were, I should think, admirable. I could only judge of the fidelity with which the other two were depicted, from the striking resemblance which Charlotte, upholding the great frame of canvas, and consequently standing right behind it, bore to her own representation, though it must have been ten years and more since the portraits were taken. The picture was divided, almost in the middle, by a great pillar. On the side of the column which was lighted by the sun, stood Charlotte, in the womanly dress of that day of jigot sleeves and large collars. On the deeply shadowed side, was Emily, and Anne's gentle face resting on her shoulder. Emily's countenance struck me as full of power; Charlotte's of solicitude; Anne's of tenderness. The two younger seemed hardly to have attained their full growth, though Emily was taller than Charlotte; they had cropped hair, and a more girlish dress. I remember looking on those two sad, earnest, shadowed faces, and wondering whether I could trace the mysterious expression which is said to foretell an early death. I had some fond superstitious hope that the column divided their fates from hers, who stood apart in the canvas, as in life she survived…. They were good likenesses, however badly executed."

Tim than lead us to an adjoining room where there was a temporary showing of two official portraits of Charlotte Bronte and Elizabeth Gaskell by George Richmond commissioned by their publisher George Smith. This portrait of Charlotte is more stylised and formal, depicting a more worldly woman though still shy and apprehensive.

The entire group was mesmerised by the portraits we had seen and the informative talk by Tim. I am sure that the National Portrait Gallery and these portraits have become a 'must revisit' on all future visits to London for the whole group. I will definitely be returning again and again.

The Richmond portrait

Quietly extraordinary
Peter Workman

I have always marvelled at the fact that three sisters born into English provincial obscurity whose combined output of novels and poems would barely fill half a library bookshelf should nonetheless have taken the literary milieu of their day by storm and should to this day continue to fascinate and enrapture readers throughout the English-speaking world – and beyond.

To attribute all of that to their 'genius' is a commonplace and a cliché (and in any case, 'genius' is an impossibly elusive, intangible quality which we can at best intuit; trying to pin it down is a futile exercise). My preference would be to describe the Brontë sisters as 'quietly extraordinary': three young women who did quite remarkable things is a most modest, unassuming fashion.

Two aspects of their 'extraordinariness' became apparent to me in the course of the Brussels Brontë Group's recent weekend visit to London (which was, incidentally, my first contact with that group and, indeed, with the Brontë Society as a whole). Our first port of call was the National Portrait Gallery, where we viewed the famous 'Pillar Portrait' in which the three sisters appear seated in the presence of a subsequently blanked-out figure looming over them (presumed to be their brother Branwell, who painted the picture). To be perfectly frank, I find this painting rather amateurish in both conception and execution; the sisters look like Victorian 'young maiden' stereotypes and they are about as distinguishable from one another as are Russian dolls. However, awaiting us in an adjacent room of the gallery was an artwork of a very different calibre: namely, the rarely-displayed chalk portrait of Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond. Even allowing for the artist's alleged tendency to flatter his sitters by 'improving' their looks, I was struck at first sight by Charlotte's extraordinary (that word again) beauty and grace and, above all, by the remarkable sense of her presence and her strength of character which the portrait exudes. Whereas the sisters in the 'Pillar Portrait' resemble cardboard cut-outs, the solo portrait of Charlotte radiates the humanity of its subject; it is truly 'lovely', in the literal sense of the word ('inspiring love', 'worthy of being loved').

Charlotte's strength of character was brought home to me again at the very end of our guided tour of 'Brontë London': we were taken to the place on the north bank of the Thames at which Charlotte would have boarded a river boat – the first stage of her journey across the English Channel to Ostend and thence to Brussels. Our guide portrayed a highly atmospheric scene of Charlotte arriving at the water's edge in the cold and dark, negotiating her passage with the boatmen and being conveyed downstream along a sometimes treacherous tidal river, only to be grossly overcharged for the privilege by her unscrupulous ferryman.

Not until the latter part of the twentieth century did international travel become straightforward and routine. In the nineteenth century it still constituted an epic undertaking, fraught with hazard and of uncertain outcome. A young woman who was prepared to embark upon such a journey unaccompanied must have been possessed of a character whose strength can only be described as ... extraordinary.

Much more could be written about our literary weekend in London – but I shall leave that to other, more competent hands. I shall conclude by thanking Helen MacEwan for going to such extraordinary (I can't get away from that word) lengths to organise such a worthwhile event and for bringing me back into contact with three lasses who could justifiably be described as 'the Pride of Yorkshire'.

In front of the Dickens House Museum with Anthony Burton of the Dickens Fellowship

Day 2: Dickens Day
Helen MacEwan

The second day of our stay was devoted to Dickens, and our reading group had been reading Oliver Twist in preparation for it. At the Dickens House Museum we were met by Anthony Burton of the Dickens Fellowship, who used to be a curator in the Victoria and Albert Museum and is active on the museum committee.

Anthony guided us on a marathon walk that explored the theme of Dickens’s London. We had asked for the walk to start at the Dickens Museum, our first port of call on Sunday, and finish at The George Inn in Southwark, where we wanted to have lunch – the only surviving example in London of the galleried coaching inns common in Dickens’s time.

Anthony rose to the challenge and devised a walk to fit our requirements. Leading us at a brisk pace and imparting an impressive amount of information all along the way, he got us to the George at 1.30 pm in time for our roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.

His walk took in many aspects of the city Dickens depicted, for example the Inns of Court where some of his characters lived and worked and where he himself was miserable for a time as a solicitor’s clerk. They are all still standing, unlike the Inns of Chancery that were associated with them, only some of which have survived. We did see the striking half-timbered Staple Inn, but the site of Furnival’s Inn where Dickens lived while writing his first novel Pickwick Papers is now occupied by the splendid Victorian neo-Gothic Prudential Assurance Company building. We went in and looked at a bust of Dickens in this building. He would probably not have approved, since his will specifically forbade monuments to him – one of the many pieces of information we gleaned from Anthony’s commentary.

In fact it’s a miracle that any of the buildings Dickens knew survived the developers and the Blitz of the second world war. Where the Victorian sites have disappeared, Anthony used old paintings or engravings and readings from the novels to give us the feel of the places Dickens knew: for example the filthy Fleet river, now underground, that used to run under where the Holborn viaduct now rises, through the slum area where Fagin operated. To build up the grim picture Anthony told us of the prisons where rather a lot of Dickens’s characters ended up – Newgate on the site of the Old Bailey, where Fagin was hanged; the Marshalsea, home to Little Dorrit, which stood in Southwark.

Why a Dickens Day for a Brontë Society group? Well, why not. Dickens was a contemporary of the Brontës and his London was the one Charlotte visited. She herself was interested in its institutions and visited Newgate as well as the hospital for the insane, Bedlam. In our reading group we explore a range of 19th century writers whose works put those of the Brontës in context. And fostering links with other literary societies whose members share our interest in the 19th century can only be a good thing.

We arrive at The George Inn

Overall impression of the weekend
Marina Saegerman

I have been to the National Portrait Gallery on many occasions before and knew the portraits of the Brontës to be seen there. I was very excited however at seeing (for the very first time) the original Richmond portrait of Charlotte and Mrs Gaskell. This was a real bonus for our visit to the National Portrait Gallery. And on top of that we had a very passionate guide who could tell us so many interesting facts about the portraits (how they came into the possession of the NPG, how restoration work had been done, etc…).

The whole weekend was just great and exciting (both walks, lunches, company, theatre visit including my surprise conversation with Bud, the American calligrapher who happened to sit just next to us in the theatre (life really is full of surprises!!!!, …) but if I have to pick out one particular thing – the Richmond portrait is it!

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