SOME OF MY REGULAR readers will know that recently I published a short book about the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879). Her photographic creations, which she produced mainly between 1863 and 1875, differed significantly from those of her contemporaries. At the time that she was taking pictures, most other photographers concentrated on using their cameras to produce slavishly accurate renderings of their subject matter – often portraiture. In contrast, Julia experimented with her focussing, film processing, and other aspects of creating photographic images, to create imaginative artworks, often achieving effects that had been hitherto impossible for painters to produce. She used the camera not to reproduce nature but to produce often expressionistic or impressionistic renderings of her subject matter. For her, the camera was not merely a method of mirroring reality, but a pathway to creating works of art.
Today, the 23rd of May 2023, I visited the Waddington Custot gallery on London’s Cork Street. My wife and I enjoyed viewing an exhibition, “Picture This: Photorealism 1966-1985” – Photorealism was a term created by Louis K Meisel in 1969. The show continues until the 24th of June 2023. At first sight the pictures on display seem to be enlarged, well-focussed photographs. Soon, you will notice that these fabulous pictures of scenes in the USA are not photographs, but paintings created using oil and acrylic paints. One of the gallery staff explained that some of them are not images of actual places, but scenes imagined by the artists. Furthermore, he made an interesting point about them. He remarked that the artists have not painted the scenes as they would have appeared to the naked eye, but instead they have painted them how they would have looked if the images of them had been created using photographic techniques. In addition, by making their paintings of often imagined scenes in this way, the viewer is forced into questioning the assumption that photographs capture the truth.
After seeing the exhibition, it occurred to me that whereas Julia Margaret Cameron was using her camera to create art, the Photorealists were doing quite a different thing – creating artworks that imitate what can be achieved by accurate photography.
GEORGE FREDERIC WATTS (1817-1904) was a sculptor and a painter. I first became acquainted with him and his work when I was writing my book about west London (“Beyond Marylebone and Mayfair: Exploring West London”). My interest in him increased when I was writing a book about the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879). Between about 1850 and 1870, he lived with Thoby and Sara Prinsep’s family, about whom I have written in another book, in the now-demolished Little Holland House in Kensington. Not far from where he lived, there are two bronze statues by Watts: a portrait of Lord Holland in Holland Park, and the equestrian sculpture “Physical Energy” in Kensington Gardens. While living with the Prinseps, Watts met Julia Cameron, who was Sara’s sister. Cameron lived at Freshwater on the Isle of Wight in a house that neighboured the property where the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson lived. Watts, who had helped the Prinseps rent Little Holland House, was a frequent visitor to Freshwater, where he met and socialised with both Tennyson and Cameron. Watts, who was briefly married to the actress Ellen Terry, painted Tennyson several times and was himself photographed by Cameron. And Watts painted at least one portrait of Cameron – now in the National Portrait Gallery.
Apart from the numerous paintings and sculptures created by Watts, one of his most unusual works is neither a sculpture nor a painting – it is what one might describe as a precursor of Conceptual Art. Although attractive, the concept that it conveys – self-sacrifice – is more important than its appearance. Located in Postman’s Park, which extends from Aldersgate Street to King Edward Street, it is a memorial to ordinary people who lost their lives during peacetime whilst trying to save those of others. Created in 1898 but conceived by Watts in 1887, the work of art is called “Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice”. It consists of a stretch of wall protected from the elements by a wooden loggia, which was designed by Ernest George who helped design the buildings at the Golders Green Crematorium. On the wall there are memorials to those who sacrificed their lives whilst rescuing others. Each memorial is made of ceramic tiles and records the name of the hero and a brief account of how he or she met their deaths. The first four memorials were designed and made by William de Morgan. Later, others were made by the Royal Doulton pottery. There is room for 120 memorials but by 1931, only 53 had been placed. In 2009, the Diocese of London permitted another memorial to be added.
Watts supervised this project. When he died, his widow, his second wife Mary, took over its supervision, but after a while she lost interest in it as she began concentrating on the management of the Watts Mortuary Chapel and the Watts Gallery – both near Compton in Surrey. The memorial is in Postman’s Park, which was formerly the graveyard of the nearby St Botolphs Aldersgate Church and is, I am guessing, maintained by the Church of England or a local authority.
The memorials are both fascinating and moving. Here are a few examples:
“Mary Rogers. Stewardess of the Stella. Mar 30 1899.Self sacrificed by giving up her life belt and voluntarily going down in the sinking ship.”
“Herbert Peter Cazaly. Stationer’s clerk. Who was drowned at Kew in endeavouring to save a man from drowning. April 21, 1889”
“Herbert Maconoghu. School boy from Wimbledon aged 13. His parents absent in India, lost his life in vainly trying to rescue his two school fellows who were drowned at Glovers Pool, Croyde, North Devon. August 28, 1882”
According to Wikipedia:
“Maconoghu was actually Herbert Moore McConaghey, the son of Matthew and Martha McConaghey, and he was born in Mynpoorie in India where Matthew was working as a settlement officer for the Imperial Civil Service,”
Standing amidst these memorials is a small sculpture depicting Watts. Its inscription reads:
“The Utmost for the Highest. In memoriam George Frederic Watts, who desiring to honour heroic self-sacrifice placed these records here.”
Luckily for us, Watts’s unusual creation has been kept in good condition. Since 1972, it has been a protected structure. Unlike most of the art made by Watts, the memorial in Postman’s Park was an idea created by him, rather than something he made with his own hands. I had seen the memorial several times in the past, but today, the 17th of May 2023, I took my wife to see it for the first time. A few weeks earlier, while visiting the Tate Britain, we had seen an art installation by Susan Hiller. It incorporated photographs of 41 of the memorials on Watts’s wall of memory in Postman’s Park. Having seen this, we wanted to see the original, and were not disappointed.
You can discover more about Julia Margaret Cameron, Tennyson, the Prinsep family, and Watts in my book “Between Two Islands: Julia Margaret Cameron and her Circle”, which is available from Amazon:
ALMOST WITHOUT REALISING IT, it seems that I have developed an interest in 19th century photographers. A visit to the Isle of Wight in 2022 led to me becoming interested in the life and work of the pioneer of artistic photography – Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879). She lived at Dimbola Lodge in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight between 1860 and 1875. It was here that she produced most of her highly creative photographs. I have written a book about her: “Between Two Islands: Julia Margaret Cameron and Her Circle”.
Five years after Julia left the Isle of Wight, my great-grandfather Franz Ginsberg travelled from the German Empire to King Williams Town (‘KWT’) in the eastern part of what was then the southern African Cape Colony. Aged 18, he arrived there with his future brother-in-law Jakob Rindl. The two men set up what became a successful commercial photographic studio in the town, which they might have chosen because many of its European inhabitants were German speakers. Although Jakob continued the studio after 1885, Franz diversified his activities by founding soap, match, and candle factories in the town.
I believe that despite becoming a successful industrialist and politician, Franz continued taking photographs as a hobby. Because of his success in KWT, other members of his family came out from Germany to work in the town. Amongst these were Franz’s nieces, Anna and Else Ginsberg. These two intrepid ladies founded a photographic studio in KWT. They were the first ladies to have opened a commercial photography studio in what was to become South Africa. Of interest, amongst each of the generations of Franz and Jakob’s descendants, there have been keen photographers including myself,
In May 2023, when we visited the city of Funchal on the Portuguese island of Madeira, we came across a museum that helped to bring 19th century photography back to life for me. It is the Museu de Fotografia da Madeira in Rua de Carriera. The museum is housed in what had been the premises of the commercial studio founded by Vicente Gomes da Silva (1827-1906) in 1863. The studio remained in business until 1978. In 1982, the Regional Government of Madeira purchased the building – Atelier Vicente – and used it for a museum of photography.
Vicente Gomes da Silva became interested in photography in 1856, and by 1859 he was recorded as an amateur photographer in a local newspaper published in the June of that year. By 1863, he had made photography his business venture, and moved into the Atelier on Rua Carriera in 1865. A year later, he was appointed photographer to the Empress of Austria. His son, also called Vicente, continued the business, and was appointed photographer to the Portuguese royal family in 1903.
The museum is interesting not only because it exhibits the sorts of cameras that must have been used by my ancestors in South Africa and by Julia Margaret Cameron, but also because features that were characteristic of early photographic studios have been maintained and explained. The Atelier was opened before there was electricity on Madeira. The main studio area was arranged so that it was lit by northern light that filtered through skylights and curtains designed to make it a homogenous light source. Part of the studio’s laboratories had skylights that allowed ingress of sunlight that was required at various stages of preparing the photographic plates. At the back of the studio, there are a set of sliding panels, each painted with a different scene that could be used as a background to the people being photographed. The desired scene could be slid out behind the area where the subjects posed for their pictures. In other rooms, there are exhibits illustrating the history of cameras and photographic processes, as well as a fine collection of reproductions of images captured by some of the many photographers – both Portuguese and others – who worked in Madeira. Some of the foreigners who took photographs on the island included British photographers such as Russell Manners Gordon (1829-1906) and Alexander Lamont Henderson (1837-1907).
Although I have no information about the appearances of the photographic studios used by my relatives in 19th century KWT, seeing the museum helped to give me an inkling of how their workplaces must have been. In the case of Julia Margaret Cameron, the places where she created images in her home, Dimbola, were far more makeshift from what I can gather.
Except for Julia Margaret Cameron, all the photographers I have mentioned, and many others working in the nineteenth century, aimed to create visually accurate images of their subjects. Often crystal clear, these pictures are fascinating but usually lifeless. What made Julia Cameron’s photography both unusual and full of life was her experimentation with focussing and processing. She used the camera not as equipment for capturing real life accurately on film but as a tool for creating works of art, in the same way as a painter uses the brush and the sculptor uses chisels. By doing this, she was far in advance of her time; experimentation with photography as a creative art form really only took off in the 20th century. The portraits and other composition that she created on film successfully captured not only their external appearance but also her astute interpretations of her subjects’ personalities.
Many people will have heard of at least one of the following: Alfred Lord Tennyson, Charles Darwin, Anthony Trollope, Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), Edward Lear, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, and William Dalrymple.
Fewer might be familiar with George Frederic Watts, Valentine Prinsep, Julia Stephen, and Dejazmatch Alamayou Tewodros.
One thing that all of the people listed above share is that they were in diverse ways connected with a Victorian pioneer of artistic photography – Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879).
To discover about this fascinating woman and how her story involves all of the above-mentioned, please read “BETWEEN TWO ISLANDS: JULIA MARGARET CAMERON AND HER CIRCLE” by Adam Yamey. It is available both as a paperback and as an e-book from Amazon:
THE PHOTOGRAPHER Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879; ‘JMC’) was born in the Garden Reach district of Calcutta (now Kolkata in West Bengal). Her father, James Pattle, was a prosperous English official in the East India Company. JMC and her six sisters, the surviving children of James and Adeline Marie Pattle, had a Bengali ancestor, Thérèse Josephe Blin de Grincourt (1768-1866) She was JMC’s maternal grandmother, a Bengali woman who had married a French man, Ambroise Pierre Antoine de l’Étang (1757-1866, whose presence in Bengal was recorded in “The India Office List 1825” as “De l’Étang, Chevalier Antoine, Knt. St Louis, assist. Stud at Poosa, 1796” (Poosa is in what is now Madhya Pradesh). They married in 1788. At that time, it was not uncommon for European men to have lasting relationships with Indian women. This is well-described in William Dalrymple’s book “White Mughals”. Later, in the 19th century, such interracial liaisons were heavily frowned upon. It was expected that ‘white’ men would only marry ‘white’ women. Incidentally, Thérèse was daughter of a French colonist and his Bengali wife.
As with her sisters, JMC was sent to France to be educated. She remained there from 1818 to 1834, when she returned to India.
In 1835, suffering from ill-health, JMC travelled to the Cape of Good Hope. This part of what is now South Africa was favoured as a place to convalesce by Europeans based in India. It was in the Cape that JMC met not only the famous astronomer and an inventor of photography Sir John Herschel (1792-1871), but also the man whom JMC would marry in 1838: Charles Hay Cameron (1795-1880). Charles was in the Cape recovering from a malarial illness. A disciple of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, he was a reformer of law in India and education, who also invested in coffee plantations (in 1848) in Sri Lanka.
Julia and Charles married in Calcutta, where she became a prominent hostess in the city’s British Indian society. During the 1840s, she corresponded regularly with John Herschel about developments in the science and technology of photography. He sent her two dozen calotypes and daguerreotypes, which were the first photographs he had ever set eyes on. The Camerons raised eleven children: five of their own; five orphans (children of relatives); and an Irish girl named Mary Ryan (whom they found begging on Putney Heath).
The entire Cameron family relocated to England in 1845, possibly because their two older children had settled there, and Charles had retired. They settled in Royal Tunbridge Wells in Kent. They became friendly with one of their neighbours, the poet Henry Taylor (1800-1886), who had worked in the Colonial Office under Robert William Hay (1786-1861), who might well have been related to Charles Hay Cameron’s mother. Later, the Camerons moved to East Sheen, which is closer to London than Tunbridge Wells.
It was through Henry Taylor and Julia’s sister Sara (1816-1887), who was married to Henry Thoby Prinsep (1793-1878), an official in the Indian Civil Service, that JMC was introduced to a set of noteworthy Victorian cultural figures. Henry and Sara had returned to England from India in 1835, and were living in (the now demolished) Little Holland House next to the house of the artist Lord Leighton, near Holland Park in west London. Their home became a meeting place for famous artists, as will be described later. It was here that Sara held a salon for pre-Raphaelite artists, poets, and aristocrats with an interest in artistic activities. At Sara’s home, JMC encountered, amongst other worthy cultural figures, the poet Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892).
Tennyson rented Farringford House in Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight (‘IOW’) in 1853, and purchased it three years later. In 1860, after a long visit to Tennyson on the IOW, the Camerons bought a property next door to Tennyson’s and named it Dimbola after one of their (then coffee) plantations in Sri Lanka. TO BE CONTINUED
OUR CAR FERRY from Lymington docked at Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight after dark on a rainy evening in September 2022. As we drove to our friend’s house in Ventnor, we passed a building whose name, Dimbola, brought back memories of an exotic trip we made 28 years ago.
In February 1994, my wife and I spent a few days in Sri Lanka on our way back from India to London. It was our honeymoon and Sri Lanka was riven by civil war. Our host in Sri Lanka sent a car and driver to Colombo airport, which, despite its excessively high security presence, was attacked by terrorists soon after we departed for London. For several hours, we drove through the countryside after nightfall. Every few miles, we stopped at police check posts. Unlike bus passengers, who were obliged to leave their vehicles at each of these stops, we did not have to disembark. Our car was fitted with a bright lamp that the driver turned on so that the police could see his passengers without them having to leave the vehicle. It was also likely that our driver and his employers were well known to the authorities. About halfway through our long journey, we stopped at a tea stall in a village. The golden tea was fragrant and delicious. Even now, I believe that it was one of the best cups of tea I have drunk during my long life.
We continued driving through the darkened landscape. Every now and then, animals’ eyes reflected the illumination coming from the car’s headlights. It was only when we made the return trip to Colombo in daylight that I realised our driver’s great skill. The narrow road had many potholes and other defects and wound perilously up and down hillsides and close to deep ravines. Eventually, we arrived at the home of the manager of the tea plantation where we were going to spend about a week. We had met him and his wife at the home of a mutual friend, who lives in Ootacamund (‘Ooty’) in south India. This kind couple, having met us only once, had invited us to stay with them in Sri Lanka.
Mr Jain, our host, had been invited by the Sri Lankan government to revitalise a failing tea plantation. Situated about 4 miles northeast of the small town of Hatton, the estate where we stayed was called Dimbula – and still is. Seeing the name Dimbola on the house on the Isle of Wight made me remember Dimbula in Sri Lanka. I wondered whether Dimbola was a name chosen at random, or whether it was in some way related to Dimbula, where we stayed in Sri Lanka.
On our first full day on the Isle of Wight, the sun shone brightly, and we decided that it was perfect weather to visit Alum Bay to see its famed coloured cliffs and views of the Needles Rocks at the western end of the Isle. To reach this place we drove back along the road we had travelled the previous night. This road runs along clifftops close to the south coast of the island and provides many exciting views. We stopped at a couple of places to enjoy the spectacular coastal scenery, and before reaching Alum Bay, we made yet another stop at Freshwater Bay. By then, we were yearning for mid-morning coffee. Not seeing anywhere open close to the seafront, we drove a little further and noticed that Dimbola has a café.
Dimbola is a two-storey Victorian house with four full height bays, each of which is beneath a roof gable. In the middle of the long southeast-facing façade there is a tall square tower topped with crenellations. This separates the bays into two pairs. The east half of the ground floor houses a second-hand bookshop, which is now closed because its owner does his business on-line only. The west half houses a café, which serves excellent coffee made from beans roasted on the Isle of Wight. Most of the rest of the ground floor and much of the first floor is a museum and its shop. I will go into more detail about this museum soon.
Almost as soon as the waiter came to take our order, I asked him about the name Dimbola. He was not sure, and suggested I asked someone at the museum. After enjoying my coffee – it was so good that we returned for more on a couple of other days – I found someone working in the museum. I told her that I was interested in the similarity of the name of the house and that of the place where we had stayed in Sri Lanka. She told me that a former owner of Dibola had been married to a man who owned coffee (and then later tea) plantations in Sri Lanka when it was British Ceylon, and that the house was named after one of them called Dimbola. I was told that the house at Freshwater Bay was named after the plantation at Dimbula, which is exactly where we stayed in February 1994.
By 1994, Dimbula was a long-established tea plantation. However, it had begun life as a coffee plantation. It had been owned by Mr Charles Hay Cameron (1795-1880). A follower of the great philosopher Jeremy Bentham, Cameron became a barrister, having been called to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn in 1830. In 1835, he went out to India to serve on the Supreme Council of India (which had previously been known as ‘The Council of Bengal’). In 1838, he married Julia Margaret Pattle (1815-1879), whom he met in The Cape of Good Hope (now ‘South Africa’). Their marriage took place in early 1838 in Calcutta (now Kolkata). In 1848, he and his family left India and lived in their homes in London’s Putney and Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight. In 1875, he and Julia travelled to Sri Lanka, where Charles owned plantations. They lived there until their deaths. I will return to Mrs Cameron shortly.
The reason that Dimbula now grows tea is that during the 1870s, the market for coffee slumped. The Cameron, both in a poor state of health moved to Sri Lanka because the cost of living there was far lower than in England. During their stay in England, they spent much time at Dimbola between the years 1860 and 1875.
Interesting as was Charles Cameron’s life, that of his wife Julia was exceptionally outstanding. I had never heard of her before having coffee at Dimbola, but our art historian daughter was most excited to learn that we had stumbled upon and visited the former home of the famous photographer, Julia Cameron. TO BE CONTINUED SOON!