WHEN Charlotte Bronte was 13 years old, she sat down at a table in the North Yorkshire parsonage where the Bronte family lived and wrote a list. Guido Reni, it began, continuing with Titian, Raphael, Michelangelo, Correggio, Leonardo da Vinci, van Dyck, Rubens, and ending with Bartolommeo Ramenghi. It was a list of the Italian Renaissance painters whose works Charlotte wished to see. Of course, she'd seen second-hand versions of their paintings in books, but only the original magnificence would do for the aspiring young artist. That's right, Charlotte Bronte, author of Jane Eyre, one of the most-loved classics in the English language, wanted to be a professional painter. The brilliant teenager, oldest of the four Bronte children, poured over Shakespeare and Byron too, but it was the likes of Michelangelo and Raphael who most fired her imagination. Being a professional artist, the strong, determined Charlotte saw, was a way to escape the dreaded prospect of life as a governess. Revelation of the young girl's passion for painting comes in a new book The Art of the Brontes (Cambridge University Press) by University of New South Wales literary scholar and Bronte expert Christine Alexander and Bronte Parsonage Museum director Jane Sellars. The book doubles as the catalogue to an exhibition of drawings and paintings by Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne touring Britain, the United States and next year Australia. 'It's a major discovery,' says Sellars, explaining that she and Alexander found out about Charlotte's artistic ambitions after hunting out the sole surviving copy of a catalogue from an art exhibition in Leeds that other biographies had said the Bronte family went to see. 'We were interested to see what the Brontes had seen in the show, what artists there were, and then saw Charlotte was actually exhibiting in it. 'All the biographies say there was this family outing to Leeds to try to find a teacher for Branwell Bronte, but the main reason must have been to see Charlotte's paintings on the wall of the gallery.' Charlotte, then 18, showed two pencil copies of engravings of Bolton Abbey and Kirkstall Abbey in the 1834 summer exhibition of the Royal Northern Society for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts in Leeds. 'It makes sense of the volumes of drawings by Charlotte. There are more by her than the others. Her drawings are evidence of a serious study, more than if she were a governess and needed to teach drawing. There seemed to be this commitment to it. It was Charlotte who had this special ambition,' Sellars says. There are 180 known illustrations by Charlotte, 131 by Branwell, 29 by Emily, 37 by Anne and 22 which are of dubious attribution. Written evidence of Charlotte's fervent desire to devote her life to art comes, says Sellars, in a letter written by the author, late in life, to her publisher who had asked if she would provide illustrations for the second edition of Jane Eyre. 'I have, in my day, wasted a certain quantity of Bristol board and drawing paper, crayons and cakes of colour,' Charlotte wrote, 'but when I examine the contents of my portfolio now, it seems as if during the years it has been lying closed some fairy has changed what I once thought sterling coin into dry leaves, and I feel much inclined to consign the whole collection of drawings to the fire.' Sellars says: 'What she is saying is that at one time it was important and significant.' Charlotte's passion for art was thwarted by the times in which she lived. It was the early 1800s and, although the child of a progressive intellectual, the Cambridge-educated curate Patrick Bronte (her Cornish mother died when she was a child) who encouraged his children to soak up knowledge, Charlotte was denied creative opportunity because she was female. Charlotte, Emily and Anne were taught to paint, or rather copy, by a local dabbler. They only got that tuition because a governess, which these educated gentlewomen were expected to - and did - become for periods, was required to be accomplished in the rudiments of 'art' so she could teach her charges to draw. Charlotte's creativity was further stifled by the bizarre ban on women using oil paint. Women were only encouraged to use pencil or water colours. Women were also discouraged from drawing or painting from life, leaving them picture manuals to copy from. The manuals contained engravings of popular paintings - which were otherwise locked up in private houses - fictional heroes and heroines, images from nature such as trees and flowers, animals and certain 'safe' parts of the human anatomy, feet and hands, for instance. CHARLOTTE was a dedicated copyist. She spent her time copying images, investing none with much emotion, and became technically expert at it. 'Towards the end of the 19th century, which is post-Bronte, there were thousands of women painters, but the middle years, the 1850s and 1860s, they were just beginning. There were some [female] professional painters at that time but young women were denied access to education which would enable them to paint professionally,' Sellars says. Realising she lacked what it took to be an artist, in large part due to her hopelessly rigid training, Charlotte gave up her ambition to paint professionally and concentrated instead on her writing. But she didn't abandon art altogether. 'There are many references to art in her novels, particularly in Jane Eyre,' Sellars says. Jane Eyre demands the painter work 'after nature'; she feasts on 'the spectacle of ideal drawings - freely pencilled houses and trees'; and it is only when she shows Mr Rochester her portfolio of vaguely surreal paintings that he gets a glimpse of the passionate depths to the demure governess in his employ. Anne and Emily Bronte painted too, for pleasure and teaching purposes. They make reference to art and painting in their novels as well. 'It is clear that the Brontes' practice of drawing and painting provided them with a language and experience that could be used in their writing,' Sellars says. The development of their visual sense and the ways in which the Brontes' experience of drawing influenced their writing is examined in The Art of the Brontes, which also gives the first critical analysis of the drawings and paintings by the Brontes and includes the first catalogue of all 368 known Bronte illustrations, published and unpublished. 'People have always known that the Brontes made drawings because of their existence. The majority [200 out of 368] are in the Bronte Parsonage Museum, everything from water colours to scribble sketches to doodles, ' Sellars says. 'But no one has ever done any work on their art or looked at it in great detail. We scrutinised the drawings in technical terms and art history terms and looked at the imagery and tried to identify where it came from. 'The conclusion we drew is that [the drawings and paintings] are not marvellous, but they are pretty good, above average. 'What makes them interesting is that they show this family was a family of genius, not only as writers. They had a lot of other talents, too, ' Sellars says. The Bronte family is all the vogue at the moment. Following on from the exhibition and the book will be Jane Eyre the movie, directed by Franco Zefferelli with William Hurt as Mr Rochester and Charlotte Gainsbourg as Jane and a BBC TV film entitled Charlotte Bronte Unmasked, which claims Charlotte burned Emily's sequel to Wuthering Heights in a fit of moral outrage. Charlotte, says Bronte scholar Dr Juliet Barker, destroyed the manuscript to preserve the family's reputation. The story of Cathy and Heathcliff's wild, passionate love affair was considered 'brutal, vulgar and coarse' and received savage reviews when it was published in 1847. A sequel would only re-ignite the outrage. So, after Emily and Anne's deaths in 1848 and 1849 respectively, Charlotte went through her sisters' works, destroying, cutting and adding. What she didn't get rid of altogether she had the audacity to make more presentable. 'There is a letter from Emily's publisher which refers to her writing another novel,' says Sellars. 'Because nothing survived, Charlotte probably destroyed things, and you don't have to look far to see she was censorious of her sisters' novels.' Accused of destroying a sequel to Wuthering Heights, Charlotte is known to have refused the reprinting of Anne's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall on the grounds it was not a 'morally successful book'. This censorship is blamed for affecting the general appreciation of Anne's novels. 'Charlotte didn't like Wuthering Heights or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. She really does manipulate what happens to [Anne and Emily's] work and their reputations. She said she didn't know what they were doing when they were writing these books,' Sellars says. 'Another theory is that she was jealous of her sisters' success. They were both published before Charlotte was. 'But there wasn't time for the three girls to be competitive because Anne and Emily died before they knew of any success. Charlotte was the only one who knew great fame. When Jane Eyre was published it was an immediate hit. 'It's not that there was rivalry or competitiveness. After her sisters' deaths, Charlotte controlled what happened to their writing and how they were seen. This latest view is that she did it in a manipulative way, but she may have thought she was being protective of them.'