Smudging the pencil of nature

Eccentric or impressionistic pioneer? Roger Clarke reassesses Julia Margaret Cameron
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) was a pioneer photographer whose reputation has recently been revived; her brick house Dimbola Lodge on the Isle of Wight was saved from demolition in 1994, and is in the process of being turned into a museum after substantial gifts from Olympus Cameras and the patronage of Koo Stark, David Bailey and Charlton Heston. Last week, the comic novelist Lynne Truss published a deliciously funny fictionalised version of Cameron's life in the 1860s, Tennyson's Gift (Hamish Hamilton). It concentrates on the period when Cameron lived next door to Tennyson and ran a salon that included Trollope, Rossetti, Edward Lear, GF Watts, Thackeray, Darwin and all the other Victorian worthies who congregated round the Poet Laureate's home at Freshwater Bay.

Julia Margaret Cameron was the granddaughter of one of Marie-Antoinette's disgraced pages of honour, Chevalier Ambrose de l'Etang. She married Charles Hay Cameron in Calcutta in 1838. He was a well-respected career bureaucrat with coffee and tea estates in Ceylon (Tennyson described him as "a philosopher with his beard dipped in moonlight"). Her indomitable spirit, hatred of stuffiness and hugely embracing good nature were apparent from an early age.

Truss's depiction of Cameron as an essentially comic character has a long and distinguished pedigree. A film about the photographer, currently being developed in Australia, also takes a well-trodden comic line. From the journals of Emily Tennyson and Anne Thackeray, through to Cameron's great niece Virginia Woolf's 1935 spoof play Freshwater, Cameron has always been portrayed as a wildly eccentric bluestocking who cheerfully dabbled in amateur photography, inveigling hapless visitors into posing in her pictures, much like an overbearing hostess arranging a ghastly game of charades.

But not everyone is convinced that this is an accurate picture. Cameron worked hard at her photography, and other accounts show her up until two in the morning fetching buckets of water to process her prints, using 100 laboriously produced glass negatives for one decent image. The academic Mike Weaver has complained in an introduction to a recent edition of Cameron's photographs that many of the funny and not altogether reliable anecdotes about her "strip her of her dignity as a woman and an artist".

What are the stories that Weaver finds so objectionable, yet which charmed Virginia Woolf and Lynne Truss? It is said that Cameron chased Tennyson round his house trying to give him a smallpox vaccination until he locked himself in a room and wouldn't come out. The Italian revolutionary Garibaldi thought she was a beggar woman when theatrically she threw herself at his feet, begging him to sit for a photograph. She dressed up fishermen's children as angels and ferry porters as King Arthur in her cramped and untidy studio, lying in wait for them behind a hedge near her house, always on the hunt for suitable models for her theatrical tableaux.

Virginia Woolf writes with amused affection of her great aunt (she stayed only yards away from Cameron's house, where her parents had first met each other, in 1922, when recovering from a nervous breakdown). She recounts the family legend about Cameron's final embarkation for Ceylon in 1875, bearing two coffins packed with china, brandishing a pink rose from Tennyson and tipping the porters with her photographs (now worth up to pounds 30,000).

Cameron died in Ceylon four years later, having virtually given up photography - the light-sensitive collodion plates were even more difficult to work with in a hot climate than in temperate England. Yet when she left England in 1875, Cameron had two concurrent exhibitions of her work, in London and in Bournemouth. She had won a gold medal in Berlin. Her revolutionary photographic collaboration with Tennyson in an edition of his Idylls of the King (with plans afoot for a similar collaboration with George Eliot on Adam Bede) was something entirely new. Her portraits of Tennyson, Carlyle and Sir John Herschel are among the finest ever made; fretworks of light and shade hovering in the inconsolable Victorian gloom, figures of the imagination, yet also dignified men of flesh and blood.

David Bailey, who owns several Cameron originals, feels that she is no joke figure. "It's difficult to put your finger on why she's so good," he observes. "Many of her photographs are of course theatrical and pre- Raphaelite, but her portraits - I've got one of Herschel - are completely alive." Unlike Lewis Carroll, Cameron's photographic rival and another denizen of Freshwater in the 1860s, Bailey has no problem with what Carroll loftily described as "Mrs Cameron's large heads, taken out of focus". "Lenses then were just as sharp as they are now," says Bailey. Critics at the time sometimes thought her incompetent because she didn't focus exactly in the prescribed way; not to do so seemed wilfully perverse. "She meant to do it," insists Bailey. "It was an artistic decision."

Charlton Heston visited Dimbola Lodge in 1994 and perceived a photographer of great dignity. "Julia Margaret Cameron," he said at the time, "was one of the great 19th-century photographers, and also surely the first woman photographer of any significance - and that at a time when being a great woman at anything was hard to do."

Her star soon faded after her death. By the turn of the century she was largely a forgotten and ridiculed figure. The contrived nature of her Tennyson illustrations, with their cut-out moons and draperies and fainting damsels, went the same way as Tennyson's reputation. She seemed to be hopelessly Victorian (even though she was actually a contemporary of the Brontes), and not even her position as "one of the early matriarchs of the Bloomsbury dynasty" (in the words of biographer Amanda Hopkinson) could save her from the family in-jokes of the Woolfs and Bells.

Soon her pictures were virtually worthless. Apocryphal stories tell of dozens of original Cameron prints being sold for a few shillings in Isle of Wight antique shops during the 1960s, when her reputation reached its nadir. But when pre-Raphaelite art became collectable in the following decade, with major collectors such as Andrew Lloyd-Webber establishing the trend for buying paintings, a long road back to credibility began.

The re-assessment continues, and there is surely room for both Mrs Camerons, the serious-minded photographer and the eccentric hostess of the most successful literary salon the English ever knew. Her home at Dimbola Lodge in Freshwater, Isle of Wight, is now open to the public and visited by the famous - Linda McCartney has paid for the installation of a vegetarian kitchen (McCartney is a Kodak heiress and a photographer in her own right).

One hopes that a rumoured cache of love-letters between Julia Margaret and Tennyson will finally be unearthed. And will the mystery of her abrupt departure to Ceylon at the height of her career ever really be solved? Meanwhile it seems her indomitable presence has not wholly quit her former home; the ghostly reek of her sulphurous photographic chemicals spreads through Dimbola Lodge whenever music is played. Perhaps she has been revived by the scent of new celebrities on her home patch. She would have loved photographing Charlton Heston as Caesar, or David Bailey as... "If I met her I'd ask her to take my photograph," says Bailey. "I'd want it to be out of focus at my age."