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Bronte childhood portraits at stake as UK museums and libraries race to save literary treasures

Sotheby’s has postponed auction of extraordinary Honresfield Library as a consortium seeks £15 million to buy it

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Charlotte Brontë Juvenile watercolour portrait of a Glass Town peasant woman (around 1828) Image: courtesy of Sotheby's

Charlotte Brontë Juvenile watercolour portrait of a Glass Town peasant woman (around 1828) Image: courtesy of Sotheby's

Two portraits by the young Charlotte Bronte—including a watercolour of a peasant woman made when she was about 12—are among the treasures in the Honresfield Library, now the target of a £15m fund-raising effort by a consortium of English and Scottish libraries and writers’ museums.

Sotheby’s was due to sell the collection in three auctions in July, but announced it would postpone the sale. Work has now begun to check the value of some 500 items in the extraordinary collection, which has been out of public sight for 80 years. It includes manuscripts and letters by the Brontes, Jane Austen, Walter Scott, Robert Burns and Lord Byron. Sotheby’s and the family owners agreed the £15 million figure on Monday, but a curatorial team within the consortium led by the Friends of the National Libraries will now carry out “due diligence” on prices even as it raises money for the purchase.

The library was put together in the late 19th century by the Lancashire mill owners William and Alfred Law for their home at Honresfield House, 20 miles from the Bronte home at Haworth, now the Bronte Parsonage Museum. Their suppliers included the notorious bibliophile, dealer, and later exposed forger Thomas J Wise, who bought and sold Bronte materials from Charlotte’s widower Arthur Bell Nicholls.

Charlotte Brontë Profile portrait of a woman, possibly Elizabeth Branwell, quarter length, in a white dress with a red beaded necklace ( around 1833-34) Image: courtesy of Sotheby's

The collection, which moved with the distant heirs of the childless brothers to Buckinghamshire and then Jersey, includes a second more sophisticated profile portrait, probably made when Charlotte was a young teenager and studying to be a miniaturist. Also in the planned sale is a box of nine items of Bronte clothing, including a pink shawl with floral pattern on red-, white- and green-coloured squares.

The Bronte scholar Christine Alexander, the author of The Art of the Brontes, whose attributions are used in Sotheby’s listings, is one of a handful of scholars, sworn to secrecy, who worked on materials from the library. The collection had also included paintings by the Victorian artists Helen Allingham and Kate Greenaway, she says, but they are not included in Sotheby’s planned sale.

The Bronte material is at the heart of the Honresfield collection. Sotheby’s had estimated that a hand-written collection of Emily Brontë’s poetry, with pencil edits by Charlotte, to fetch up to £1.2m in the auctions; it had offered seven miniature books by Charlotte in a private sale to the Bronte Parsonage Museum for £4.5m. Scott’s manuscript of Rob Roy and Burns’s First Commonplace Book, early poems in Burns’s own hand, were together valued at up to £1.1m. Two lengthy Byron letters may be unpublished, while the “going rate” for an Austen letter is £175 a word, scholars say.

An outcry over the planned auction saw a unique consortium come together under the auspices of the Friends of the National Libraries. It includes Abbotsford, the home of Walter Scott; the Bodleian Libraries; the British Library; the National Library of Scotland; the Brontë Parsonage Museum; Jane Austen’s House; the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds; and the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Alloway, operated by the National Trust for Scotland.

Kathryn Sutherland, a trustee at Jane Austen’s House and part of the consortium, says: “It’s a wonderful model for saving a collection in the public interest, because normally what you end up doing is an individual library will chase after a couple of trophies and scrabble together the funding from various pots,” she says. “In this instance, you have a distributed funding model, and a distributed library model working together, to save something intact.”

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