Now here’s a novelty – photographs of Haworth with no-one in sight. Even the West Yorkshire village-cum-town’s main street – the Golden Mile of Brontë tourism – is deserted. No coach parties, no day-trippers, no shop window-browsers, no ice-cream scoffers.
Instead, Helen Burrow’s pictures – on show at the Dean Clough gallery in Halifax – offer a quieter, more private vision of the Brontës’ lives and legacy. Ranging widely across the North of England and beyond, they’re a personal, romantic take on places familiar to the sisters, with some of them as dark (in tone and mood) as the emotions the books often portray.
What makes these 40 or so black-and-white photographs even more striking is that they’re taken with what Lancaster-based Helen calls her “toy camera”: made in Hong Kong and costing her £35 on the internet.
Her fascination for the Brontës goes back to childhood. She read Jane Eyre when she was 14 and studied Wuthering Heights at A-Level. “I was carried away by the wildness of the moors and by Cathy’s declaration, ‘Nelly, I am Heathcliff’,” she says in A Brontë Reader, an anthology of writing by and about the sisters that accompanies the exhibition.
The matter rested there until ten years ago, when her husband and fellow photographer George Coupe took pictures to illustrate a one-woman play about Charlotte.
“He got permission to photograph the actress in period costume inside the Haworth Parsonage,” says Helen, who took up photography after retiring as a mental health nurse. “I’d been to the village and the graveyard before, but never to the house. George and I went before it opened to the public, so it was just us, the actress and the young woman showing us round.”
The house made a profound impression on her. Seeing Charlotte’s wedding bonnet, Anne’s drawings, the brass collar of Emily’s mastiff, the sisters’ tiny notebooks and their brother Branwell’s portraits gave her a new sense of them as “real people”. “As a mental health nurse I spent years talking to people who were distressed; it made me sympathetic to the Brontës when they too were distressed,” she says. “Charlotte describes depression very well.”
Helen reread Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and moved on to the sisters’ other novels. A favourite? “People often ask that and the answer is that I get different things out of each book at different times of my life. Some of my favourite bits are in the Brontë Reader.”
In it she points out that the sisters died too young to know the fame their works would achieve. Charlotte never knew that Jane Eyre would be translated into Urdu. Or that Queen Victoria would sit up late reading the novel aloud to Prince Albert. and describing it in her diary as “a really wonderful book, very peculiar in parts, but so powerfully and admirably written”.
Since seeing the Parsonage, Helen and George have photographed a great swathe of places connected with the family. “It was like following a trail,” she says. “We walked the moors, joined the Brontë Society, read the biographies; and taking pictures is a compulsion for us. It was about getting to know the people who wrote the books.”
She gradually accumulated hundreds of pictures. “When Helen gets interested in something, she really goes for it,” says George.
That’s reflected in her post-nursing career. She has done photography degrees in Bolton and at Leicester’s De Montfort University, has taken part in group exhibitions (including two previous ones at Dean Clough) and half a dozen solo shows.
With the Brontë pictures piling up, the potential for another exhibition dawned on her. She got in touch with Vic Allen, arts director at Dean Clough, and sent him some. He was impressed.
Around a third of the prints – all in square format – are of Haworth and its immediate area. But they also take in the school at Cowan Bridge in Lancashire that Charlotte and Emily attended and was reputedly the model for Lowood school in Jane Eyre. There’s Ponden Hall where the Brontë children played and Law Hill School at Southowram near Halifax where the 19-year-old Emily worked as a teacher/governess, putting in 17-hour days. “This is slavery,” wrote Charlotte. “I fear she will never stand it.” Emily left after six months.
There’s Anne’s weathered gravestone in Scarborough and, further afield, a picture taken at Kilkee in Ireland, where Charlotte and her husband Arthur Nicholls spent their honeymoon.
Above all, though, there’s Haworth, which Helen and George revisited at different times of year. One of Helen’s photographs – the Parsonage in the snow with gravestones in the foreground – has been used on the front cover of Juliet Barker’s The Brontës, with the tall tree in front of the house in the original print skilfully edited out.
The Parsonage picture typifies Helen’s approach. The house is centre-frame and in crisp focus; the edges of the picture, however, spread into gentle soft focus. It lends an appealing dream-like quality to the images, almost evoking the pioneering days of Victorian photography, when the Brontës were young women.
The soft focus comes from her choice of camera. Rather than use a high-tech camera that can do everything for you except show you how to take interesting pictures, she has used a Holga, the simplest of plastic cameras. It uses roll film and offers the most rudimentary focusing (“You guess how far away things are”) with exposures from “cloudy” to “sunny”.
“It’s taking photography back to its very beginnings, when there were no fancy gadgets,” says George. “Photography has got such a reputation for being manipulative now.”
Helen also has sophisticated cameras, but here she wanted to explore the Holga’s pictorial potential. Not everyone quite gets it, though. “A man at the exhibition opening said to me: ‘I can see that you can get things in focus if you want, so why don’t you all the time?’” She explained why.
As befits a member of the Lancashire Monochrome group of photographers, dedicated to pictures in black-and-white, she has deliberately avoided colour. “Monochrome lets you see the form of things,” she says. “You’re not distracted by the colour. And I’m aware of what will work in black-and-white.”
The approach lends a brooding power to the images of the winding paths across the moors that were such a preoccupation of the Brontës. “People talk about the ‘bleak’ moors at Haworth, but they’re not bleak to me,” says Helen. “They’re friendly moors; not like Saddleworth.”
And they’re as deserted as the images of Haworth itself. “I’m not concerned with the people who come to Haworth now,” she says. “And it’s easier than you might think to avoid having people in a picture.” She likes to visit in winter, when the trees in the churchyard aren’t in full leaf. “Bare trees have beautiful shapes as well as letting more light through,” she says. “And there are fewer people about then.” Particularly on foggy November mornings, when Haworth is a dark, still, wuther-free zone.
Exhibition at Dean Clough, Halifax (01422 250250; www.deanclough.com) until April 21. Free admission.