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.

Saying Christmas louder than words

Colour Nativity, by Sebastian Bergne, 2011
Colour Nativity, by Sebastian Bergne, 2011

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last month analysing the iconographic language of photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron. Her photographs of Mary are undoubtedly tied to the realism of a posed, dressed up model who is trying to look like a biblical Mary. But the question I keep coming back to is how the ‘type’ continually resurfaces?

Photography makes the most of a real scene, real skin, real cloth, real symbols in front of the lens. And critics have said Cameron’s Marys are demonstrative of feminine domestic assertion within the constraints of Victorian society’s norms: her Mary lives in the 1800s. But I think there’s something more obvious than this which gets overlooked. Even with all that dressed up reality, her Mary is still iconographically pointing to the original Mary. Rather than an empowering of modern domestic woman, the pointing action of Cameron’s photography seems to look the other way: her model empowers and reveals the biblical figure of Mary.

There’s something irreducible about the iconography of Mary. Something that can be captured in the simple blue block of Sebastian Bergne’s Nativity above. Something that works at the level of a sign, which remains visual rather than word-based (see Emilie Voirin’s take on a nativity set). Is it the accrual of years of visual reference (conventional), or is it the way truth lives beyond language (ontological)? Is it a universal stripping down, or is it a fleshed out concept. One thing that photography generally does hang onto is a ‘fleshing out’ – that reality behind, within, around the iconography. Isn’t that an incarnational Christmas characteristic?

‘Seduced by Art’ at the National Gallery

Thomas Struth, 'National Gallery I, London 1989', 1989
Thomas Struth, ‘National Gallery I, London 1989’, 1989

On to the National Gallery’s Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present, where the language of borrowed symbolism from art, or classical and biblical literature opens the door on a style which might be called iconic relating. Here, the influence of the fine art tradition is presented as the “engine for early photographic innovation, and both these precedents inspire present-day photography.”

One of the largest rooms in the genre-divided exhibition is entitled ‘Tableaux’, and features a selection of work identified by their reference to allegorical or narrative themes. Dominant on one wall is Thomas Struth’s National Gallery 1, London, 1989 (1989), which shows gallery goers scrutinizing an early 16th-century altarpiece: a painting of doubting Thomas by Cima da Conegliano, found upstairs in the gallery’s main collection. The zoned spaces of this picture-within-a-picture reveal how, as watching human figures, we invest belief in the physical inhabiting of our environment. The gallery visitors regard the scene with their backs facing us the viewers, and lean in towards it, echoing the figures of the disciples and Thomas himself. In addition, the plane of focus, seen more obviously in the print itself, is horizontal, and at the level of Jesus’ head. In a beautifully realized way, what might be a single trans-spatial line of unbroken, faith-filled sight becomes an embodied searching for the tangible body.

Such tangible bodies are found in Helen Chadwick’s work, particularly her One Flesh (1985), showing a red-cloaked visceral Madonna and Child with a collage of photocopied textures and skin. Seen in proximity to a similar subject represented by Julia Margaret Cameron (Light and Love, 1865), the capacity of photography to reflect the changing place of biblical and Christian iconography in art is apparent: on the one hand the endlessly reflexive mode of a self-conscious postmodernism borrows sign and symbol to cornucopian effect, while on the other, a Victorian sensibility claims an authoritative, if occasionally sentimental, shoring up of moral ideals. Cameron appears elsewhere in the exhibition, in the rooms dedicated to both ‘Portrait’ and ‘Figure’, yet the impact of her more conventional reference to human figure is slight in comparison – here pose and sensibility seem to be the trading cards with art of the past and photography of today (for example with G. F. Watts, and Craigie Horsfield).

Occasionally this linking and labelling of early and contemporary photography with art seems convoluted and tenuous: Jeff Wall is surely under-represented on inclusion of The Destroyed Room (1978, alongside a small copy of Delacroix’s The Death of Sardanapalus) instead of the Tate’s A Sudden Gust of Wind (After Hokusai) (1993). What does succeed overall, perhaps contrary to the lineage-thesis suggested by the curator, is an interdisciplinary examination of subject-treatment. One may well compare, for example, the digitally-constructed Arcadia of Beate Gütschow’s clean landscape LS#13 (2001), with Roger Fenton’s Paradise (1859), a view of an idyllic river scene in Lancashire. Visually, it is a subtle change that distinguishes the “stubborn lyricism” of the former, despite the inclusion of incidental printers’ marks at the edges of the image, from the “spiritual intent” of the latter. Fenton, master of multiple genres in his time (including the stereoscopic still life also seen in this exhibition), embraced a pictorial emphasis in such landscapes that reflected the ideal of the Romantic picturesque. This utopian dream cannot quite be expelled from Gütschow’s image, even as it is riddled with artificiality.

The powerful all-embracing lens of the camera, as so clearly defined in Ansel Adams’ work (see earlier post), turns out to be a distinctively imaginative image-maker. It can leave the trace of cultural turn in nuance or extraneous detail, just as much as it can wield forceful artistic rhetoric in elaborate construction and scene-setting tableaux. It is to be hoped that the spiritual and theological aspects of this capacity become more widely studied in visual culture academia, as a result of the increasing institutional platform offered by such exhibitions as these, for the enrichment of the many postmodern stories of photography.

Quotes from: Hope Kingsley, ‘Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present’ (London: National Gallery Co, 2012), p.9, 180; and Gordon Baldwin’s essay, “In Pursuit of Architecture,” in Sarah Greenough, ‘All the Mighty World: The Photographs of Roger Fenton, 1852-1860’ (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2004), p.59.

Julia Margaret Cameron and her Marys

‘Mary Mother’, 1867 and ‘The Angel at the Tomb’, 1870

The Virgin Mary is a compelling and complex character for any believer, particularly a woman of the mid-nineteenth century. On the one hand, she was the ideal of femininity – gentle, nurturing, compassionate. If ever there was a woman who was great through love, it is the Madonna. On the other hand, as both mother and virgin, she presented a paradox. Because her virtue was reconciled with her motherhood through divine interventions, a method not available to other mortals, she represented an unattainable realm for women. … [Noting the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception proposed by the Catholic Church in 1854] If Mary is without original sin, she is not simply a mortal who has been blessed, but she is both human and divine, unique in her purity, and, as such, all the more daunting as a model of feminine grace.

The photograph of The Angel at the Tomb takes as its subject the angel who was in attendance at the moment of Christ’s Resurrection. In the Scriptures, the angel is a man. In this photograph, the angel is Cameron’s maid Mary Hillier. Decidedly feminine, her profile is cut by a light from above that accentuates the delicate contour of her brow, nose and chin. Hillier’s hair is the dominant feature of the picture. rendered in soft contrast and orange-coloured tones, her cascade of kinky waves dissolves to cotton softness at the bottom of the frame. With a sheet wrapped around her shoulders and carelessly pinned just below the sternum, Hillier is slightly disheveled, a woman in dishabille. In fact, she looks more like Mary Magdalene. … The picture is of a woman who seems to be at once a heavenly figure and someone of flesh and blood – she is both melancholy and angelic, sensual and divine.

From Sylvia Wolf’s Julia Margaret Cameron’s Women, p. 62-63.