Monday, 26 June 2017

Branwell Brontë's Bicentenary Birthday (1817-2017)

Self-portrait  c.1840
“Backward I look upon my life,
And see one waste of storm and strife,
One wrack of sorrows, hopes, and pain,
Vanishing to arise again!
That life has moved through evening, where
Continual shadows veiled my sphere;
From youth's horizon upward rolled
To life's meridian, dark and cold.” 
Patrick Branwell Brontë -

Branwell Brontë was the talented but troubled brother of the three famous literary sisters - Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë. They were all born in succession within five years 200 years ago, and 2017 is the second of the bicentenary years, Branwell's 200th birthday. Last year I paid tribute to Charlotte on her bicentenary here.

As the only boy in a family of six children, Branwell held a privileged status, and much was expected of him. From early childhood he showed as much artistic talent as his sisters did. Living an isolated life in a Parsonage on the edge of broody and windswept moors the children created and lived an imaginary world and wrote plays about fictional lands of Angria and Gondal. They also wrote poems, and Branwell was the first of the siblings to have his poems published. He was praised for his translations of Horace. He took up portrait painting too; was given lessons by an acclaimed artist of the time, and he worked as professional portrait painter in Bradford. Unlike his sisters, he was an outgoing and charismatic person who liked socialising and soon he came to indulge in the company of young artists and writers who met in the pubs of Bradford. Unfortunately, his career as a painter, as well as plans to apply to the Royal Academy of Arts came to nothing, and Branwell found himself looking for more mundane employment. He worked as tutor and as clerk at railway stations, but these posts ended up in disappointment too. By now Branwell was drinking heavily and had also become an opium addict. Perhaps the biggest blow in his life came when his employer's wife he allegedly had an affair with refused to marry him after the death of her husband. Unable to cope with disappointment, Branwell sank deeper and deeper into depression, alcoholism and severe drug abuse and he died tragically at the age of 31.

To mark Branwell's bicentenary Brontë Parsonage Museum have organized an exhibition named "Mansions in the Sky" - Branwell's words from one of his poems. The exhibition is curated by the English poet and novelist Simon Armitage. Part of it is an installation of Branwell's room which represents the way it probably looked in the 1830's when Branwell was an ambitious and aspiring poet and artist. Here are some of my photos I took of the room.

When I first saw this moving installation I was astonished at how good it looked. It was created in collaboration with the producers of "To Walk Invisible", a recent TV movie by Sally Wainwright on the lives of the Brontë family between the years 1845 and 1848, the year Branwell died in.
Branwell has usually been perceived mainly as failure and embarrassment to his family, so I was both surprised and pleased to see that through this elaborate and remarkable exhibition he received a very good recognition for his bicentenary year.

Branwell's clothes and his sister Emily's dress, the costumes worn by the "To Walk Invisible" actors. The costumes are currently exhibited in the Bronte Parsonage.

A recent view of the "Black Bull" public house on top of Main Street, Branwell's favourite haunt only a two minute walk from the Parsonage he and his family lived in.

Opposite  the "Black Bull" there is a shop where Branwell used to buy his laudanum (it was legal to sell/buy it in his day) I took this shot of the front of the shop just after the filming of "To Walk Invisible", when it still had its makeover to look like it had done at the Brontës time. Today the shop is called "The Cabinet of Curiosity" and sells gifts alongside handmade personal care products.

The only existing group portrait of the Brontë sisters, oil on canvas, painted by Branwell cca 1834. It was not discovered until 1906 and it has been in the possession of the National Portrait Gallery in London since 1914. The painting is popularly called a "pillar" portrait because Branwell sketched himself in as well, but, for reasons we cannot be certain about, he decided to paint himself out by leaving a shadowy pillar between Emily and Charlotte. Did Branwell already have an inkling of how life was going to unfold for him?

  “Life is a downward journey; all concur in saying it carries us downhill.”
Patrick Branwell Brontë -

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