Julia Margaret Cameron’s island outpost

Dimbola Lodge on the Isle of Wight

2 weeks’ holiday on Hayling Island in April afforded me the first opportunity to go and visit Julia Margaret Cameron’s home on the Isle of Wight. Named Dimbola Lodge after Dimbula in Sri Lanka, where her husband’s business in tea and coffee plantations had taken her in the 1840s, Dimbola was her family home from 1860-1875. By all accounts, the home became her abundantly creative domain for family and photography, and it was here that she turned her chicken house into a studio for her wet plate processing (not preserved today at the site) – a time-consuming and dextrous version of photography, in which the tasks of arranging and sitting her subjects for portraiture were further extended by glass plate developing and then positive print production. In the 1860s especially, she devoted herself to this work, saying to a would-be reviewer,

I work with more zeal and rapidity than can be supposed, and this I can illustrate to you when I tell you that I took last week 35 life-sized Portraits and printed 62 in 5 days time and I work without any assistance printing my own prints – varnishing my own glasses – continuing till 2am & recommencing at 7am.
[“A letter by Julia Margaret Cameron”, Graham Smith and Mike Weaver, History of Photography 27:1 (2003), p.66]

Display of the ‘Freshwater Circle’
Visiting it today, and indeed with the label ‘museum’, I found it hard to recover the vitality and energy of her story in this place. The building is somewhat tired in places, accommodating enough for tourist pilgrims needing a tea-room stop but somehow missing the dynamism of, say, Lacock Abbey as Fox Talbot’s home. Of course it is much smaller – a gentleman with a country seat (and the National Trust’s later patronage) is not the same as a society lady married into a shrinking colonial business. I found myself asking whether this effect of geographical and historical ‘outposting’ is something to do with the way UK heritage is set up to receive and commend the efforts of patriarchal success, but not matriarchal success. The museum has some wonderful prints to show, but it also gives us Cameron’s bedroom in a flurry of Victorianised domesticity with inordinate attention to furnishings (which are also proudly announced as speculative), while in the same breath elevating a roll call of those more esteemed figures with whom she was associated.

It is the creep again of the fine art vaunting of Cameron, to which I am giving more attention elsewhere, that relocates her work within a high modernist intellectual tradition – something that isolates her vision in black and white austerity and certain emulative acceptability (usually to do with male subjects as themselves, and female subjects as models). In a way, this develops reasonably enough on a body of work that doesn’t lend itself to mundane identifications of place and situation – her studio photographs (which form ninety-nine percent of her output) deliberately play to her ideals of truth and beauty, with minimised background setting, close-up framing, and painterly compositions. The strands of this more serious discourse around her tend to eclipse the possibility of finding something different about her at Dimbola. I would love to see a family tableaux vivant recreated, or her effusive letters (written at about the same pace as her print production), but the museum would rather show cabinets of old cameras. I would love to get a sense of her church life, her neighbourly interaction, whether she went to ‘take the air’ down on the beach, but instead we get a ponderous voiceover that retells what every photo-history resource repeats about her (the amateurism of her soft focus and its reception). My kids loved the dressing up room, and I wonder if they too were reaching for a recreation of JMC’s spirit here – her dressing up went beyond play, into the sincerity of assuming Christian identification with figures such as Mary and the angel at the tomb. There must be other ways to highlight this, to bring a rich, resonant, feminine, spiritual credibility to light. I think the floor is open for something new here, but it remains to be seen at Dimbola.

Bible Society response

'Creation of Fish and Birds', Sue Symons.  Part of Bible Society's 2013 calendar, originals currently on show at Horizonfest, Sheffield.
‘Creation of Fish and Birds’, Sue Symons. Part of Bible Society’s 2013 calendar, originals currently on show at Horizonfest, Sheffield.

I’d like to acknowledge with thanks a reply received from Bible Society to my open letter posted a couple of weeks ago here. Matthew van Duyvenbode (Head of Campaigns, Advocacy and Media), gave considerable thought to my concerns, for which I am deeply grateful. An initial point of clarification was easily resolved with reference to the online terms and conditions – www.biblesociety.org.uk/calendar2014 – which I duly recognise as overlooked on my part.

These guidelines make it very clear that the calendar is not for purchase, but is simply as a thankyou project available for ongoing supporters of Bible Society’s work. Indeed, the project is ultimately made up of supporter’s own photographs and comments to share with one another, as a kind of community collaboration project, rather than a commissioning project and for-sale project.

I agree with you that there are a range of different ways in which people can be invited to engage with the biblical text. Indeed – there needs to be a range of entry points. I’m sure you would also recognise that a personal response to Scripture can often be deeply profound and theological. To assume that this project will result in sentimentalism is perhaps doing a disservice to the task of encouraging more and more Christians to engage with the Bible through the lens of the arts?

In addition to this point, I would also reiterate – as is mentioned in the further details – that the resulting calendar isn’t intended to stand alongside professional art in the broadest public spaces. You’re right that we do have a strong pedigree in this area – but that isn’t the intended focus of this particular project. Does this mean that we are embracing an amateurish approach? Certainly not! … For many Christians, the opportunity to think creatively about how the arts can help them think more deeply about the biblical text is a bold and exciting step. In running a competition like this, we aren’t ignoring our mission aims in the culture, but providing a stepping stone for some Christians to grow in their confidence in this area. Perhaps some might be so inspired as to begin to explore and support the arts more seriously – which, I’m sure you would agree, would be a fantastic outcome! … We believe that there is a space for laypeople to be involved in an accessible and unthreatening manner. I’m not sure I’d agree that this dilutes or cheapens the integrity of the Scriptures, but I would want to argue this fulfils our missional goal to offer ‘ways in’ to the Bible for everyone.

Ron Mueck’s biblical overtones

Ron Mueck, 'Drift', 2009
Ron Mueck, ‘Drift’, 2009

Purpose and contrivance lurks behind all that realism… The key piece here, shown high up on the wall, features a man in dark glasses floating on a lilo. He’s wearing blue bermudas and his skin is shiny with suntan oil. Like the giant couple upstairs, he seems to be on holiday, and ought to be exuding relaxation and contentment. But he isn’t. Instead his mood is anxious and expectant. Because his arms are outstretched to catch the sun, because he’s hanging on the wall, rather than bobbing about in the water, because his skin is glistening with sweat, his similarity to a crucified Christ hits you immediately.

These obvious religious references appear throughout the show. …Youth shows us a black teenager lifting up his T-shirt to reveal a bleeding knife wound positioned exactly where the Roman centurion stuck his spear into Jesus. Apparently, Mueck had in mind that marvellous image by Caravaggio of the apostle Thomas thrusting his finger into Christ’s wound because he doubts that Jesus is back from the dead. …Woman with Shopping is an updated Mother and Child. And the giant chicken hanging from the roof, called Still Life, is another surrogate crucifixion, in the spirit of Rembrandt’s famous Carcass of an Ox. …

Surprisingly, perhaps, the effect of these recurrent religious references is not to make the exhibition itself feel overtly religious. It doesn’t. Instead, the transformed biblical narratives seem to feed back the other way: back into the Bible, where they make those portentous texts feel less grand, more human, closer to us. How marvellous to see a contemporary artist dealing so inventively with such ancient themes. Contemporary art doesn’t get much more original or more thrilling than this.

Waldemar Januszczak on Ron Mueck (showing at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, until 29th Sept) in the Sunday Times Culture, 21st April.

Ash and dust the winter burial, Lent the spring

'40 Days and 40 Nights', 2012
’40 Days and 40 Nights’, 2012

Ash Wednesday is a day of confronting our mortality through the symbol of ashes, beginning to strip away our comforts, and embarking on the archetypal journey into the desert that is an essential part of conversion. Conversion is the process of discovering that God is always much bigger than we imagined and that our own attempts at filling our lives with things and busyness and power look so very small in comparison. The paradox of this movement is that while we are releasing our hold on all manner of things, it may feel a bit like death.

From Water, Wind, Earth and Fire, by Christine Valters Paintner (2010).

Does one think that the world is wicked, or foolish, or falling to bits, then half an hour with a bulb catalogue will cure one of all this nonsense. For it breathes a spirit of trusting hope. Are we not told that “England has succeeded in restoring her financial balance. Signs everywhere of this awakening to a New Life, greater confidence in the Future”? And thus, “inspired by that confidence we are taking steps not to be found wanting next Spring, when everything will be breathing New Life, and Nature, clad in her new and bright coloured dress, will be calling to us to rise and follow her.” So we must sprinkle bulbs all over our gardens, planting them where they fall. We are fully persuaded that it is a good, sweet, kind world, worthy of these thousands of narcissi and crocuses and tulips upon which we are advised to spend our money. … It is a greater act of faith to plant a bulb than to plant a tree. For no matter how small the young tree is, there, visibly, is the eventual form in microcosm. But with a bulb it is different. It needs a great fling of imagination to see in these wizened, colourless shapes the subtle curves of the iris reticulata or the tight locks of the hyacinth. At the time of bulb planting one most nearly approaches the state of mind of the mystic.

From Four Hedges, by Clare Leighton (1935).

Mary Colwell’s inspiration

'Flock', 2008
‘Flock’, 2008

Being in the natural world is hugely important to me, it’s vital – because I don’t get that sense of wonder and awe anywhere else, I really don’t get it inside a building or even inside a church. I get it outside. I think when you go around the world filming, you come across endless little moments that mean a lot all of a sudden – and some of them are in exotic places like Africa and so on. But there’s a beautiful spectacle that happens just here, you don’t need to go to Africa or South America to experience anything like that. In the Somerset levels every winter, there is the winter roost of starlings, and you can have a million starlings, gathering together over the Somerset levels, swirling around in these wonderful wonderful patterns. And you just think, wow, I’m awed, I’m speechless really, as to the beauty of what I’ve just seen.

When we listen to a dawn chorus what you’re listening to is beautiful bird song. I always think it’s very interesting that that beautiful bird song is a result of sheer competition, sheer aggression, quite often in birds. They’re really aggressively saying, keep out of my territory, and they’re really aggressively saying come and mate with me. It’s not a beautiful thing, in that sense, they’re not singing great praise. They’re staking their territory in no uncertain terms, and yet we find it beautiful. I can’t explain why the natural world is full of suffering, and that’s quite a human term but, it’s full of death and it’s full of pain no doubt about that. I don’t understand why that’s an integral part of it, but I do know that’s a very important part of it, and that there’s something in the message of suffering which is very important in the Christian message.

All of that mixes in to an understanding of faith. And I think we need to build up an awareness in everybody that this planet is absolutely unique – for example, this is the only planet that sings. As far as we know, in the whole of the rest of the universe, there isn’t a singing planet. And I think if you believe that this is a planet which has God behind it, then it will reflect the face of God to you. And I think that reflection of God in the natural world is unique. What science is telling us that we are really intimately connected to everything else. We’re not some angel-like beings which are floating around on top of everything else that’s out there. We are fundamentally tied in, in a very basic level – at the level of our cells, in our genes, the stuff we’re made out of. Which I think challenges us to take a different view of ourselves – that we’re not that separate, that we do have to rely on and take seriously our connection with everything else around us.

Mary Colwell (producer at BBC Bristol, Natural History dept, speaking on Songs of Praise, Bristol – May 3rd 2009)