We like to think of the Isle of Wight as quaintly fifty years behind the times, but one hundred and fifty years ago, Hester Fuller, William Thackeray’s granddaughter, declared Freshwater was equivalent to the Golden Age of Athens under Pericles. The analogy does not hold up as Pericles was involved in the Peloponnesian Wars, whereas Freshwater’s Golden Age was roughly coterminous with Queen Victoria’s reign, the period known as Pax Brittanica.
Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) was the facilitator of the Freshwater intellectual powerhouse. Her house, Dimbola, became the site of an artistic Salon from 1860 onwards. Alfred Tennyson, the poet laureate, lived nearby at Farringford and was a regular visitor, as was G F Watts, the artist with his child bride, Ellen Terry, actress. Members of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt were also visitors.
In 1863 Julia Cameron’s daughter gave her a camera to amuse herself. Photography then used collodion plates which she had to develop straight away, so she had to work in a studio. Exposure times were a few seconds which accounts for the rigid look of the subjects as they had to remain still. Before Cameron’s time, the first photographs needed an exposure time of several hours. Cameron tells us that she took one of her first successful portraits at 1.00 pm and did not finish it until 8.00 pm.
The family indulged Julia’s strange hobby, but she was good at it and sold pictures commercially. The copyright act applied to photographs after 1865. Meanwhile, husband Charles Cameron, who had invested in coffee plantations in Ceylon, was losing money due to coffee blight. In 1875 the couple decided to go to Ceylon to help their sons switch the estates from coffee to tea. Along with all the other luggage, they packed their coffins, part of the Victorian obsession with death and the afterlife. Julia needed hers in 1879 at the age of 63.
Her portraits received less and less attention until Colin Ford at Southampton University curated a major exhibition of her work in the John Hansard Gallery (now in Above Bar Street, Southampton) in 1984. The exhibition travelled widely around the art centres of the world. Cameron is now acknowledged as an important pioneer in portrait photography.
Photography has progressed. By 1884 flexible paper film was available, and processing could be delayed allowing photographers to move out of the studio. The box Brownie was developed in 1900, and photography became democratic and available to all. 1935 saw the first colour film, and in 1968, the most influential photograph of the century was taken of earthrise from the moon. By 1984 cameras became digital with autofocus and auto exposure.
Now we can all aspire to take a perfect photograph or even a movie. Unfortunately, in my opinion, some of us follow a downward track and specialise in selfies.
Julia Margaret Cameron’s portraits include:-
Annie Philpot – a local girl and Julia’s first successful portrait
Julia Jackson, Neice
Ellen Terry, Actress and wife of GF Watts
GF Watts, painter. See the Watts Gallery.
John Herschel, Astronomer
Rev Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll
Alice Liddell – in wonderland
Edward Lear – Humourist
Charles Darwin – of evolution
Alfred Tennyson – Poet
Related article: Genius, Madness and Serendipity