‘My aspirations are to ennoble Photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real & Ideal & sacrificing nothing of Truth by all possible devotion to poetry and beauty.’
– Julia Margaret Cameron to Sir John Herschel, 31 December 1864
Julia Margaret Cameron (1815 – 79) was one of the most important and innovative photographers of the 19th century. Best known for her powerful portraits, she also posed her sitters – friends, family and servants – as characters from biblical, historical or allegorical stories. Her photographs were rule-breaking: intentionally out of focus, and often including scratches, smudges and other traces of her process. In her lifetime, Cameron was criticised for her unconventional techniques, but also celebrated for the beauty of her compositions and her conviction that photography was an art form.
Love in Lindfield includes the story of a visit by Charles Kempe with his boyhood friend Skef Dodgson and his brother Charles (Lewis Carroll) to Julia Margaret Cameron at her home at Dimbola Lodge in Freshwater Bay, Isle of Wight. Mrs Cameron is photographing a woman named Alice Liddell (who as a girl was the inspiration for Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland) and her sisters for her King Lear series. Lear is played by Cameron’s husband. Also part of the party that weekend were the actress Ellen Terry (below left) and Cameron’s niece Julia, the mother of Virginia Woolf.
“At last, Mrs Cameron appeared, flowing into the lodge’s drawing room wearing her trademark red Ceylonese Chuddah shawl and flamboyant violet robes (fringed with dust). Up to that point, she’d been busy preparing the bedrooms for us with the help of her maid Mary. Unlike her famed sisters at Little Holland House, she is by her own admission no particular beauty, but she makes up for that deficit hugely with her extraordinary antique style. I noticed that her face was dirty and smeared and her hands were stained black (I later learned this was caused by the chemicals of her trade). I’d heard before that she was a most tender-hearted and generous woman, if a little unconventional. She is clearly fanatical about her photography too, a hobby that started when she was presented with a camera by her daughter ten years ago.
‘You’re most welcome, my friends. When strangers take this house I keep the door between us locked; with friends never,’ she gushed, and invited us upstairs to see our rooms. After settling in, we heard the gong and went down to the dining room where a simple but inviting spread had been laid out for us.
We were joined for high tea by Mrs Cameron’s niece, Julia, and several other family members who were staying nearby at the time. After taking tea, we all went into the studio where we reviewed the first prints from the previous day’s photographic session.
Mr Kempe was fascinated to learn how they had all been printed on to finely grained paper coated with egg white, using light-sensitive nitrate of silver fixed with ‘hypo’ (the common name for sodium thiosulphate, I understand). We watched while Mrs Cameron carefully posed Alice into a series of new scenes. Her camera seemed quite an unsophisticated affair, consisting of a large exposure box which had a slot to take the glass plate negatives. These had been pre-soaked with the chemical called ‘collodion’ before being dipped into the silver nitrate in her dark room in preparation for the ‘exposure’. The box camera stood on a tripod that was fixed to the ground. Having arranged the light, she beguiled her patient sitter into standing stock-still, unable to bat even an eyelid, as she removed the lens cap and began to make the short exposure.
The new portrait was almost full length, her subject elegantly coiffed and dressed in a defiantly adult style, leaning pensively on her hand looking directly at the camera. The pose reminded me of my brother’s earlier and now famous photograph of her as the young Alice; the timeless Alice.”