Emily Brontë and her independent spirit

A new exhibition has opened at the Parsonage Museum in Haworth paying tribute to the most enigmatic of the Brontë sisters. Yvette Huddleston reports.

Kate Whiteford at the shows opening last week. (Picture: Simon Warner).
Kate Whiteford at the shows opening last week. (Picture: Simon Warner).

As the most enigmatic of Haworth’s famous literary siblings, Emily Brontë is fascinating precisely because of her ‘unknowability’.

In a way it is the mystery surrounding her which allows for a very rich range of interpretations from the creatives who have been invited by the Brontë Parsonage Museum to respond to Emily and her work as part of the ongoing commemorations this year of the 200th anniversary of her birth.

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Wings of Desire, an exhibition of work by leading land artist Kate Whiteford, opened at the museum last week. Whiteford took as her starting point the little-known story of Emily’s Merlin hawk Nero. It is understood that she rescued the bird from the moor and cared for him at the Parsonage.

Haworth cemetery. (Picture: Bruce Rollinson).

“Keeping a ferocious bird was an extraordinary thing for a young woman in the 19th century to do,” says Whiteford. “I felt that it was a way in to Emily’s writing and an insight into her character. I really liked the idea of her flying her hawk in that landscape and I thought of the hawk as a metaphor for ideas of escape, flight and the longing for liberty that comes through in Emily’s work, her poems in particular. So I wanted to do something that was a combination of images of birds of prey, Emily’s poetry and the landscape.”

Whiteford was also inspired by the watercolour of Nero by Emily which she saw during a visit to the museum. “She was a talented artist,” she says. “It is a beautiful painting and so well-observed.”

The centrepiece of the exhibition is Whiteford’s seven-minute film installation which is a very beautiful, powerful and moving tribute to Emily, her writing and her independent spirit. On a split screen the film presents evocative images of the moor in rain, sunlight and everything in between – “I was up there filming in all weathers,” says Whiteford – alongside shots of soaring hawks, close-ups of gravestones in Haworth cemetery, bird’s eye views of the landscape surrounding the Parsonage and the occasional glimpse of actress Chloe Pirrie, who played Emily in Sally Wainwright’s acclaimed TV drama about the Brontës To Walk Invisible, reading extracts of Emily’s poetry.

“I was delighted when Chloe said she was available,” says Whiteford. “I wanted a voice that would be instantly recognisable and that wonderful Yorkshire accent changes the reading of the poetry, you hear it differently.”

Pirrie’s readings are very powerful as is her rendition of the repeated refrain, taken from Wuthering Heights, ‘Let me in, let me in. I’m home, I’ve lost my way on the moor.’ The film’s soundtrack is a haunting folk-inspired piece entitled I Wish, I Wish by award-winning musicians The Unthanks which perfectly captures the mood of the film and its stirring theme, also present in Emily’s poetry, of an overwhelming desire to be free. The show also features a series of paintings on paper, inspired by birds of prey and archaeological features of the moor revealed through aerial photography.

For Whiteford the experience of working on the project has been hugely enjoyable. “I have loved it. Somehow by focussing on the hawks and through the film bringing the outside in to the Parsonage it made me feel closer to Emily and I began to understand her better both as a writer and a woman.”

At the Brontë Parsonage Museum until July 23.