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