IT is one of the most celebrated stories in English literature, definitely the most amazing story in the cultural life of Bradford and certainly the most famous in the history of the hill village of Haworth.

The Bronte story has left a lasting legacy in English literature thanks to three sisters, born in Thornton - Charlotte, Emily and Anne. Under male pseudonyms (Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell), each published at least one classic novel within nine months - Charlotte with Jane Eyre (October 1847), Emily with Wuthering Heights (December 1847) and Anne with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (June 1848). Each year tens of thousands of tourists visit the literary shrine of the Bronte Parsonage Museum.

Yet within another year the two youngest sisters died, aged 30 and 29, and the third, Charlotte, died aged 38 in 1855. By any standards this was a period of great creativity and tragedy in the Brontë household at Haworth.

What is less well-known is the family context. Their father Patrick, a man of books, was appointed curate of St Michael and All Angels’ Church in Haworth and took his wife and six children there from Thornton in 1820. A year later his wife died of uterine cancer. The two elder girls died aged 11 and 10 within a month of each other in 1825. The only boy died aged 31 in 1848.

Patrick outlived his wife and all his six children who were thought to have died of tuberculosis, except for the recently-married Charlotte who died in 1855 from a pregnancy-related condition.

The sanitary conditions in Haworth and surrounding area were notoriously poor in the early 1800s. The village had no drains or fresh water, and human and animal effluent ran down the sides of the steep street. The village drinking water was polluted by rotting flesh from the overcrowded graveyard by the church at the top of the village. Patrick fought hard for a supply of life-saving fresh water, which finally arrived, but only after it was too late for his children.

That only boy was Branwell Bronte (1817-1848) who grew up with his three literary sisters. With Charlotte, the eldest, already making a big name with her first novel and his two younger sisters completing their first novels, Branwell was known to lament that in all his life he had done ‘nothing great or good’.

This week, 175 years ago, Branwell died suddenly at the Haworth parsonage, aged 31. The cause was not known, but in a place where, and at a time when, all his sisters died young and the average life expectancy was just 25 years, his early death seemed unremarkable.

The precise cause of death was not known. Although he did suffer from tuberculosis, he lived a dissolute life, being a heavy drinker and opium user. In fact, his addiction was such that in Branwell’s later years he slept in his father’s room so that Patrick could watch over his son, seen as a danger both to himself and his family.

His three famous sisters certainly left a major literary legacy, making his brother frustrated with the lack of comparable achievement. Yet, he had shown potential as a portrait painter. When he was around 19-years-old, his father had arranged for him to seek admission at the Royal Academy School of Art in London, providing him with money and letters of introduction. This had, however, not worked out and he soon returned with a story about being set upon by thieves.

Nevertheless, Branwell did unquestionably leave an important legacy. His portrait of his three celebrated sisters remains the only image of the three of them together. It was first mentioned in 1853 by Elizabeth Gaskell, friend and writer of the first biography of Charlotte Bronte.

The painting was thought to date from around 1834 before Branwell’s foray into art education. The sisters would have been in their teens. For more than 100 years it has hung in the National Portrait Gallery after being rediscovered rather fortuitously, folded in a cupboard, after the death of Charlotte’s husband in Ireland in 1906, over 50 years after her death in 1855. It shows the fold marks left by years of neglect.

The portrait is frequently used in books, exhibitions and other Brontë memorabilia. It shows, on the left, Emily and Anne looking slightly to the right and, on the right, Charlotte, a little apart from them and looking slightly to the left.

The portrait initially showed Branwell between Emily and Charlotte, but was later painted out by him, leaving just a dim shadow - a metaphor for his life.

Seeing the painting prompted these thoughts from Gaskell: “Emily’s countenance struck me as full of power, Charlotte’s of solicitude, Anne’s of tenderness. The two younger seemed hardly to have attained their full growth. I remember looking on those two sad, earnest faces, and wondering whether I could trace the mysterious expression which is said to foretell an early death...They were good likenesses, however badly executed. From thence I should guess his family augured truly that, If Branwell had but the opportunity, and, alas!, had the moral qualities, he might turn out a great painter.”

* Martin Greenwood’s book Every Day Bradford provides a story for each day of the year about people, places and events from Bradford’s history. It is available from online stores, including Amazon, and bookshops such as Waterstones and Salts Mill.