Thursday, 18 February 2016

Julia Margaret Cameron and 'Hypatia'

1868: The Isle of Wight

Two women walk across the lawn towards the glasshouse.  They do not stop to admire the sea-view.  Hurriedly, huskily, one explains her purpose for the morning. Her dark skirts bob over the grass as she side-steps the dishes of chemicals that litter the lawn. Her younger friend follows more cautiously.  Her dress is white, cumbersome and criss-crossed with ribbons.  She is weighed down by jewellery; an outlandish bracelet winding around one wrist, a web of necklaces at her throat.  Her hair is caught up in combs at each temple, and then it flies loose.  It is rather a nuisance, tangling in the breeze from the shore, but Marie does not bother to mention it.  It would make no difference.  When Julia Margaret Cameron is in full flow, she will not be swayed by small inconveniences.

It is the late summer of 1868 and a perfect morning for taking photographs.  Marie Spartali is playing the part of Hypatia, mathematician and philosopher of ancient Alexandria.  Julia Margaret Cameron is in her working clothes.  Her sleeves and skirts are spattered with chemicals.  Blotchy blacks and purples mark where nitrate of silver has dripped off the glass negatives and onto her dress.  As Julia likes to tell her visitors, ‘I turned my coal-house into my dark room’[1], and her glazed studio was once the chicken shed.  In this topsy-turvy setting, Julia works her magic. 

Marie Spartali is a professional model, and a painter too.  She understands the habits of the artist’s studio, the etiquette that usually separates the domestic and professional.  But Julia’s way of working is idiosyncratic. The whole Cameron household is caught up in Julia’s enterprise. A girl is waiting by the glasshouse.  Julia has trained her staff to work on both sides of the camera.  So, in addition to their indoor duties, cleaning, mending and serving at table, Julia’s maids are also her models and her technicians.  One of her servants, Mary Ryan, has recently left Julia’s service to marry a young man in the India Office.  The Camerons had found her, as a child, begging on Putney Heath.  They took her in, taught her to read and write.  And to pose.  Julia’s close-up photographs of her young maidservants delight in their teenage softness, their dreamy eyes and abundant hair. 

Julia Margaret Cameron has created something extraordinary at her home on the Isle of Wight.  Not only does she conjure pictures with her stained hands, she shows how women might live – differently and fully.  To the girls who come to her – servants, visitors, stray tourists who are swept into the garden to sit before her camera – she is a revelation.  Julia is subversive, generous, untidy, wilful. She dresses in flowing red velvet, loves curry and speaks fluent Hindustani. She is often short of cash and always chasing the beautiful.   

Mrs Cameron started taking photographs in earnest in the New Year of 1864, when she was 48 years old.  Her children were growing up, marrying and leaving home: ‘for the first time in 26 years I am left without a child under my roof’, she explained.[2] Her husband was in Ceylon overseeing the family coffee plantations. And so her daughter thought ‘it may amuse you Mother to try to Photograph during your solitude at FreshWater’[3]. Julia’s first camera was a gift from woman to woman, from a bride to her mother. 

Since the earliest days of photography, Julia had been fascinated by this new medium.  She was already married and living in India in 1839, when William Fox Talbot and Louis Daguerre both announced that light and shade could be fixed on glass.  Through her friendship with the scientist Sir John Herschel, Julia followed each new development.  Their correspondence crossed oceans.  As she reminded Herschel later, ‘the very first information I ever had of Photography in its Infant Life of Talbotype and Daguerreotype was… in a letter I received from you in Calcutta’.[4] 

From their letters it is clear that that photography was an unladylike occupation.  Still Julia persevered. Her camera and tripod were bulky and awkward. The glass plates which she slid, wet, into the body of the camera were over a foot square. Smearing syrupy collodion onto the glass to create a photosensitive surface was a messy business.  Developing the prints required gallons of water: Julia said she needed ‘nine cans of water fresh from the well’ for each photograph.[5]  (That was a job for the maidservants.)  And finally the excess chemicals were removed using potassium cyanide.  This was not only messy and smelly but dangerous. She asked Herschel in 1864, ‘Is it such a deadly poison – need I be so very afraid of the Cyanide in case of a scratch on my hand?...Are any of the Chemicals prejudicial to health if inhaled too much?’  Herschel was concerned ‘about your free use of the dreadful poison …letting run over your hands so profusely – Pray! Pray! Be more cautious’. [6]  But Herschel knew Julia well enough to realise that she was anything but cautious. 

She launched herself into her artistic career with gusto.  Her ‘first perfect success’ was a portrait of Annie Philpot.  The little girl is unsmiling, sitting in her coat – it was late January – in three-quarter profile. Julia was so delighted that she gave it to Annie’s father immediately.  She wrote an excited note explaining how the photograph was ‘taken by me at 1pm Friday Janr. 29th Printed – Toned – fixed and framed all by me’.  She began the sitting in the crisp winter sunshine, and finished the print that evening by lamplight.  Within two years she had a one-woman exhibition in London at Monsieur Gambart’s French Gallery.  146 prints and glass negatives were on sale for five to ten shillings.  She offered a special discount to artists. She threw herself into the quickening art-world of the 1860s, making sure her work was visible to painters and literary men. She sent out parcels of photographs to those she hoped to entice into her studio.  She pursued Tennyson until he succumbed, and the reluctant poet was led into the glasshouse.  In Julia’s words, the resulting portrait was ‘A column of immortal grandeur – done by my will against his will.’[7] 

She photographed her famous men nearly life-size.  She tousled their hair, illuminated the lumps and bumps of their foreheads, and encouraged them to ‘look at something beyond the Actual into Abstraction’.[8]  This far-away look may be more to do with the long exposures than with the profundity of their thoughts.  Julia made her sitters hold their pose for up to seven minutes before releasing them back into the garden. If they giggled or fidgeted, the whole exposure was ruined. 

Even if they behaved themselves, the large scale on which she worked meant that the details in some parts of the photograph were sharper than in others.  Julia used this to her advantage.  Her portrait heads seemed to emerge from a mist. 

Julia Margaret Cameron experimented with the latest technology to create parables, poems and annunciations. She created a light-suffused aura around the beautiful women who sat for her.  And she was adamant that no-one should treat her as an amateur.  She manipulated, sometimes she got fingermarks on her plates.  But she knew what she was doing: ‘What is focus?’ she asked Herschel, ‘and who has the right to say what focus is the legitimate focus?’.[9]  Julia did not value crisp, scientific shots.  She wanted her images to rival the paintings of her Pre-Raphaelite friends.  She admired the shimmering outlines of Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘stunners’, his portraits of girls with luxuriant hair and full lips.  She sent Rossetti copies of her favourite prints, hoping to entice him to Freshwater.  He never came.  But he thanked her for ‘the most beautiful photograph you so kindly sent me.’  And then he added, ‘It is like a Lionardo’.[10]  This was the highest possible praise.  Leonardo da Vinci was the ultimate artist, the master of subtlety and ambiguous beauty.  Julia could not be happier.

So she had set herself the task of making more pictures worthy of a great artist.  On this bright autumn morning in 1868, Julia would revive the memory of Hypatia. A scholar in dying days of the Classical world, Hypatia was a potential role-model for Victorian women who sought new ways of expressing themselves. She was brave, clever and pagan. But her story had no happy ending. As a teacher and thinker, she defied the Christian hierarchy and suffered a horrific death.  She was stripped, mutilated, martyred on the very steps of the altar by order of the Patriarch of Alexandria. In the words of Edward Gibbons, ‘her quivering limbs were delivered to the flames’.[11] 

Gibbons’ account of her torture was prurient, verging on the erotic. But Julia Margaret Cameron saw it differently.  Her desire was to rescue Hypatia from such voyeurism.  She would be shown as a thoughtful woman, a dignified woman, a woman with a voice.  In life, Hypatia did not hold her tongue.  She refused to marry.  She was a scientist.  This is what concerned Marie Spartali and Julia as they began to make the photograph – a woman who chose her own path, regardless of risk.  And so the maid drew water from the well.  They prepared the plates.  They set up a head-rest for the long exposure.  Marie picked up her fan, gathered her skirts and took her seat before the camera’s Cyclops eye.  She sits before us now. Her chin is lifted, and she looks out, and through us, and into the world beyond the frame.

[1] Julia Margaret Cameron, quoted by Brian Hinton, Julia Margaret Cameron 1815-1879: Pioneer Victorian Photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron Trust, 2008, p.5
[2] Julia Margaret Cameron, letter to William Michael Rossetti, 1866, quoted by Colin Ford, p.61
[3][3] Julia Hay Cameron, quoted by Julia Margaret Cameron, The Annals of My Glass-House, 1874, p.3
[4] Julia Margaret Cameron, letter to Sir John Herschel, 1866, quoted by Colin Ford, p.35
[5] Julia Margaret Cameron, quoted by Colin Ford, p.39
[6] Correspondence between Julia Margaret Cameron and Sir John Herschel, 1864 & 187, quoted by Colin Ford, p.39
[7] Julia Margaret Cameron, quoted by Colin Ford, p.50
[8] Edward Fitzgerald, quoted by Colin Ford, p.46           
[9] Julia Margaret Cameron to Sir John Herschel, 31 December 1864,
[10] Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Julia Margaret Cameron, January 1866, quoted by Colin Ford, p.70.  Over the next decade, Rossetti collected at least 41 photographs by Cameron, including a copy of Hypatia.
[11] Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 5, AD 413-415, pubd London: Henry G Bohn, 1854, p.213

1 comment:

  1. I love the photos and history of Julia Margaret Cameron, Ms. Cooper! Would you possibly be interested in writing a guest article on her for the Carolinian's Archives Once Upon a History pages?


I am happy to speak to groups of all sizes. Here are some of the lectures I offer:

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Lecture synopses:

1. Christopher Dresser: Designer for the Modern World?

In the 1930s, Pevsner hailed Dresser as a pioneer of modern design. But is this the best way to account for the extraordinary objects that he helped to create? This lecture considers Dresser’s work as a prolific industrial designer, the impact of mechanization on his products, and the diversity of his influences from Pre-Columbian pottery to botany.

2. Painting and Poetry: An introduction to the Pre-Raphaelites

Victorian painters were fascinated by the interweaving of art and literature. This lecture reveals the complex and very personal responses of artists to their favourite poets, from Dante to Tennyson. In particular it traces the idea of the ‘double work of art’ in Rossetti’s art, and in pictures by his friend Edward Burne-Jones.

3. Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Charismatic and romantic, Rossetti was one of the leaders of the Pre-Raphaelite revolution in British art. A poet as well as a painter, he wove words and images together to create a new landscape of the imagination. When his art was criticized for being too ‘fleshly’, he withdrew into his inner circle of friends and refused to exhibit in public. After his death in 1882, a mythology sprang up around his life and art: Rossetti and his wife Lizzie Siddal became icons of a new generation of rebel artists. This lecture explores Rossetti’s life and art, and considers the tensions between the ethereal and the sensual in his work.

4. New Art for the New Woman

Victorian women like Lizzie Siddal, Julia Margaret Cameron and Evelyn de Morgan, learned to negotiate the male-dominated art world. Many female artists began experimenting with new media, including photography and poster design, to create alternative images of the Victorian world. This lecture shows how, by the early 20th century, women were subverting the traditional feminine skills of book illustration and needlework to develop radical designs for the Suffrage Movement.

5. St Cecilia’s Halo: Music, Sex and Death in Victorian Art

The Pre-Raphaelites are usually thought of as literary artists. But music was also inextricably woven into the fabric of Pre-Raphaelite art. Figures on their canvases are playing music or listening to it; instruments are tucked into unexpected corners, adding an extra dimension of sound to the pictures. This lecture demonstrates the revolutionary intention of this music-making. It shows how the Pre-Raphaelites took a traditional subject, like St. Cecilia, and subverted it. Painting music helped to trigger a broader shift in Victorian art from narrative paintings towards Aestheticism, and its focus on abstract beauty, ambiguity, androgyny and sensuality.

6. The Model Wife: Women in Pre-Raphaelite Art

Who were the women whose faces gaze out at us from the canvases of the Pre-Raphaelites? This lecture explores the private lives of a revolutionary group of Victorian artists, and the haunting stories of their loves – Lizzie Siddal, Janey Morris and Effie Gray.

7. Frederic Leighton, James Whistler and the Cult of Beauty

Leighton was one of the most slippery characters in the Victorian art-world. He managed to walk a social tight-rope: he was an Establishment figure, honoured as President of the Royal Academy, for his portraits of distinguished men. But he also created some of the most disturbingly sensual images of his generation. This lecture considers the art of self-presentation in the lives of Leighton and his colleague in the Aesthetic revolution, James Whistler, as they pursued ‘Art for Art’s sake’.

8. Victoria's Secrets: Exploring Victorian London

The Victorians were well aware that there was a down-side to the great Imperial and Industrial progress that they enjoyed. In contrast to the historical and poetic fantasies of the Pre-Raphaelites, a number of artists, including Herkomer, Doré and Langley drew attention to the sufferings of the poor. This lecture looks at images of urban poverty, through paintings, photography and illustrations that were made to raise awareness of the ‘submerged tenth’ of the British population.

9. Edward Burne-Jones

Burne-Jones’s dream-like images became icons of the Aesthetic movement, disturbing and inspiring his contemporaries in equal measure. This lecture also focuses on the life-long partnership between Burne-Jones and William Morris. They collaborated on an astonishing range of projects, from book design to tapestry weaving and stained glass, flooding houses and churches with light and beauty.

10. Women and the Ideal Home

What is the truth behind the Victorian ideal of the ‘Angel in the House’? This lecture considers the relationship between domesticity and design, looks at the rise of ‘shopping for pleasure’ and the gendered decisions involved in decorating a 19th century home. It also highlights the careers of women who subverted contemporary expectations by turning home-making into a profession.

11. Pre-Raphaelite Art in the V&A Museum

The Pre-Raphaelite collections in the V&A are one of the museum’s best-kept secrets. The paintings, drawings, tapestries, tiles, and even pianos are scattered around the galleries, making it hard to get an overview of the movement. But, as this lecture shows, the decorative arts were essential in developing the distinctive style of these revolutionary Victorians. Rossetti, Millais, Burne-Jones and their colleagues moved easily from one medium to the next, creating objects – like illustrated books and stained glass - that reached a far wider audience than their easel paintings.