‘I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.’
(Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre)
To celebrate her 200th birthday – should she have lived to this day — the Soane is not only holding an exhibition but also a live reading event of Jane Eyre on April 21, 2016 — Charlotte’s birthday. Artist Charlotte Cory, curator of the exhibition, pulled together a fascinating array of objects and memorabilia to compose a narrative on Charlotte Brontë – her stories, her sisters, and her relationships.
Photographic calling cards, known as cartes-de-visite, once produced in their millions were once a Victorian craze, and they are proudly displayed behind glass doors in antique cabinets lining the exhibition room. Charlotte Cory has reworked these Victorian cartes-de-visite and combines portraits of Charlotte Brontë and other characters in her life, including portraits of stuffed animals who are injecting a whimsical air to the exhibition. Also on display is a beautiful blue Victorian-style evening dress that the author once wore on a trip to London, which not only spoke volumes about the grace she possessed but also of how petite she was.
More portraits line the wall, some of them sporting a giraffe’s head – Charlotte’s impression of a certain Mr George Smith. George Smith, Brontë’s publisher, was said to be a man of business who understood the potential of certain ideas (such as Jane Eyre) that would bring in the money. Brontë may have been a little too enamoured with this charming man, but unfortunately, he was not. She was deemed as too un-pretty and plain looking, and he only treated her the way he would with a money-making object.
With animal portraits and even a miniature stuffed giraffe with a dog’s collar that once belonged to Brontë pet dog, it is indeed a fascinating exhibition that is held in the Soane’s Breakfast Room. By the end of the visit, you will be compelled to read Jane Eyre again.
There is no evidence to suggest that Charlotte Brontë has ever visited the Soane during her five trips to London (she lived most of her life in Yorkshire), but this does not mean that she never visited. She could have visited and never signed the visitor’s book then, as what an original visitor’s book from the 1850s on display cheekily suggests. So when you visit the museum, make sure to sign your name, lest you become famous and worthy of an exhibition.
This exhibition is at the Sir John Soane’s Museum until May 7, 2016.
Open Tuesday to Saturday 10AM–5PM (last entry at 4.30PM)
Sir John Soane’s Museum, 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, UK, +44 20 7405 2107