A house on the Isle of Wight and a plantation in Sri Lanka: chapter 2

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.

Julia Margaret Cameron by James Prinsep

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

A house on the Isle of Wight and a plantation in Sri Lanka: chapter 1

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.

Dimbola house, Freshwater Bay, IOW

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!