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Julia Margaret Cameron

Text from Phyllis Hose's essay in Julia Margaret Cameron's Women

Milkmaid Madonnas: An Appreciation of Cameron's Portraits of Women

"Mrs. Cameron is making endless Madonnas and May Queens and Foolish Virgins and Wise Virgins and I know not what besides," Emily Tennyson, the poet's wife, reported to Edward Lear, the author and illustrator, of her neighbor and their mutual friend, the photographer. "It really is wonderful how she puts her spirit into people."

On the Isle of Wight, nineteenth-century England's equivalent of Martha's Vineyard, where artists lived to get away from bustle and ended up bringing bustle in their wake, Julia Margaret Cameron, in one of the greatest outpourings of creativity in the history of art, went about for a decade discovering beauty in her family and friends and the working men and women around her, hauling people into her "studio," a converted hen coop, and making of their bodily forms immortal images.

It was the immortal within them she responded to. She had little interest in sociological data, details of clothing, tools of trades. When she looked at a domestic servant with a mop and bucket, her imagination erased the mop and bucket, covered the homespun clothing with swaths of drapery, and saw the woman as the current exemplar of some timeless, enduring type - a youthful May Queen or noble Madonna, a suffering Ophelia, a sinning Guinevere, a sainted wife, devoted daughter, grieving mother, or wild-spirited wood nymph.

For her mental store of archetypal personae she drew on eclectic sources: the Old Testament, the New Testament, Greek mythology Renaissance painting, and the classics of English literature - Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Shelley, Byron, and Coleridge. She had the words of the Romantic poets in her head as we might have the lyrics of songs by the Beatles. Many of the most popular writers of the day were her friends, including Coventry Patmore, who, in singing the praises of "The Angel in the House," codified the Victorian ideal of domesticity, and Alfred Tennyson, who, among other achievements, gave new life to the heroines of Arthurian legend.

She had received no formal education, which was typical for women of her time. Yet she was better read than many of us with graduate degrees. If we cannot reproduce her literary culture, if our minds' mansions are furnished, instead of with stanzas by Milton and Shakespeare, with episodes of favorite television shows, can we understand or fully respond to her photographs?

Every now and then a creative artist is inspired by other art which may be unfamiliar to readers or viewers. James Joyce, for example, based the structure and many episodes of Ulysses on Homer's Odyssey. An acquaintance with the story of Odysseus's wanderings may or may not enrich a reading of Ulysses, but the older work's greatest contribution to Joyce's epic, I would suggest, lies in enabling him to write it in the first place. It powered his imagination. It allowed him to see the life of ordinary people like Leopold Bloom, in an ignoble time like the turn of the century, in a provincial city like Dublin, as connected to enduring patterns of human life and therefore as material for art.

Cameron also had to see the eternal in the everyday in order to be stimulated. She needed to see the Madonna in the milkmaid, the Lancelot in the farmhand. But what she needed in order to create and what we need in order to enjoy are different. In some cases her photographs could have been numbered, for all the difference their ostensible subject makes to this viewer those of Coleridge's "Christabel" or Milton's "Sweet Liberty," of Sappho, Pomona, and Daphne, for example.

Indeed, the more literal illustrations of texts - the ones in which women wear theatrical costumes or act out specific situations, as in the pictures for Tennyson's Idylls - seem to me the least successful of Cameron's works, resembling the tableaux vivants of Victorian after- dinner entertainment, just as her beautiful women look less beautiful the more the details of their dress are articulated. They become dated. They lose their universality. Cameron was right to make her models take their hair down and wrap themselves in shawls and turbans. It eternalizes their beauty, the way nudity might, if nudity were an option.

Packed inside the modern baggage I bring to Cameron's photographs is an inappropriate curiosity about her models, a curiosity she usually deflects by giving her works mythological or literary titles. I'd really like to know more, for example, about May Prinsep, who poses for one of my favorite Cameron photographs. She was a young relative of Cameron's, as were many of her sitters. An orphan by the time she was a teenager. she was adopted by Cameron's sister Sarah Prinsep and her husband, Thoby, who made their London home a haven for artists. May married a man named Andrew Hichens and was widowed, then married Hallam Tennyson, the poet's eldest son. She must have been a cultivated, intelligent, resilient, and likeable person, but we would not know that from Cameron's photographs of her. For some reason, the spirit Cameron saw in her clamoring for expression was Italian. She posed May Prinsep for Italian peasants and Renaissance ladies. Little of what we would call May's personality comes through in these images.

Clothing, occupation, class, personality - all these things are transitory and accidental; they did not interest Cameron. She refused to be influenced by mere circumstance, such as whether a female model happened to be a great lady or a servant, English or Italian, bubbly or depressed. Her eye was fastened firmly on the Ideal, and her out-of-focus technique exactly rendered her attitude to the details of daily life. She didn't like to see things sharply. "When focussing and coming to something which, to my eye, was very beautiful, I stopped there instead of screwing on the lens to the more definite focus which all other photographers insist upon," she wrote in her account of her career, 'Annals of My Glass House.' In that sense, her style was, in her own words, "a fluke." But what is style except an embodiment of the way an artist sees, the distinctive angle, distance, and focus at which the world looks right to her?

Cameron's response to beauty, eradicating class as it did, was so extreme as to constitute an almost political statement. Her tableaux are parables of radical democracy, or, seen from a slightly different angle, real-life fairy tales: in Cameron's glass house, Cinderella is always becoming a princess. Her parlor maid, Mary Hillier, was so often released from household drudgery to pose as the Virgin that she was known locally as Mary Madonna.

Cameron's photographs made other people see the treasures she saw within people, too, regardless of the accident of their birth. For example, Mary Ryan had been the daughter of an Irish beggar. Mrs. Cameron took her in and raised her along with her own children. Henry Cotton, a young gentleman, fell in love with Mary after seeing one of Cameron's pictures of her and sought permission to court her. Eventually, he married her. She became Lady Cotton. They lived happily ever after.

Today we can't help but notice that, for Cameron, this ideal world of Arthurian ladies and Shakespearean heroines was not populated by women of color. When, late in life, she returned to the East, where she had spent much of her earlier life, her husband being an important colonial administrator, she did little photography. Partly this was because of the difficulty of getting chemical supplies, partly because the heat increased all the technical problems. But it seems also to be the case that the people of Sri Lanka did not have the same effect on her imagination as did the people - gentry and peasantry alike - of the Isle of Wight. The few photographs that exist of the people of Kalutara, the fishing village where the Camerons lived out their days in tropical beauty, are strikingly different from the English ones. The poverty of these people is essential, not accidental. The circumstances of their life define them in a way they do not define the young maidens of the Isle of Wight, who can turn into princesses at the wave of the photographer's wand. The dramas of her mind were performed by white actresses.

Cameron's women do not smile. Their poses embody sorrow, resignation, composure, solemnity, and love, determined love, love which will have a hard time of it. Compare them to the subjects of contemporary fine -art portraits, like Richard Avedon's and Irving Penn's, and you may notice that, however different the styles of Avedon and Penn, both artists tend to capture their sitters in moments of unrepentant, sometimes even antisocial self-assertion. Their subjects seem to say, "This is who I am. Want to make something of it? " At the other end of the ladder of contemporary portrait photography, commercial studios strive to generate images of women that say, "I'm fun. I'm friendly. I'm enjoying life and will help you enjoy it, too. " When such college-yearbook or engagement photographs are used to show the faces of the victims of a disaster, the absurdity of the smiling face convention is all the more apparent. If Cameron's portraits of women convey a message, it's "I'm ready for the worst. I have resources that can be brought to bear on the tragedies I know lie ahead of me, that lie ahead of every woman who lives and loves other creatures who are mortal."

And the tragedies did lie ahead. Julia Jackson, Cameron's niece and her favorite model, had three years of happy marriage and then her beloved young husband suddenly dropped dead. When she remarried, she inherited a stepdaughter who was schizophrenic. Mrs. Cameron herself had to endure the greatest tragedy a parent can face - the death of a child. In fact, she endured it twice: a son died in infancy and her only daughter, Julia Norman, died in childbirth.

Everywhere you look in these Victorian lives, you see sudden and early death, sickness, disaster. You also see incredible kindness and flexibility. Orphans seem to move with ease from one family to another. Women remarry and raise other women's children. Death did the job divorce does now in cutting down the timeline of family groups, but without the cynicism divorce brings in its wake. In fact, with quite the opposite, a certain amount of justified sentimentality. Wives were treasured as saints and mothers as Madonnas. Children dead young were angels.

These metaphors are the stuff of Cameron's imagination, producing great works like The Dream, The Kiss of Peace, and Mary Mother, but also some I find silly, as when she stuck wings on children to make them angels. Children seem particularly resistant to her posing. They insist on being themselves, not embodiments of something else, and they are always more mischievous and more complex than the roles they are asked to play in Cameron's studio.

The archetypal figures Cameron was drawn to tap into the tragic strain in life. What is the Madonna but a woman who loves her son and will lose him, who will grieve forever? Ophelia is a woman whose lover rejects her and whose father is killed; she is driven mad by these twin griefs. Nothing good is in store for these women. They may have happy moments, but the pain they will suffer will be greater than any happiness. Their faces demonstrate a self containment, a hoarding of energy which can be available as active love when it is needed, as it certainly will be.

The image I like so much for which May Prinsep was the model is Beatrice, which may serve as an example of Cameron's response to the tragic. It does not depict Dante's beloved, although nothing in the picture itself makes that clear. We know from other sources that the subject is Beatrice Cenci, a young woman who lived in sixteenth- century Rome, whose father, a debauched and vicious nobleman, conceived a sexual passion for her and abused her for years. Beatrice plotted with her stepmother and brother to have the brute killed. Assassins did the deed. But the conspirators confessed to their crime under torture and were punished for it by death. Shelley wrote a poetic drama based on this story, called The Cenci, and Beatrice was a popular subject for Victorian history painters and sculptors. We think of the Victorians as prudish and prissy, but even today's tabloids would have a hard time matching, for prurience and violence, this story of incestuous lust and parricide, which so appealed to Cameron that she came back to the subject again and again.

Whatever need we have for tragic narratives (and I believe it is a need as much as an appetite) can be satisfied now by magazines, memoirs, nonfiction narratives, TV docudramas, and the evening news, which make completely explicit what Victorian art could only allude to. Our visual art doesn't have to do that work. We are freed for formalism, free to react to Beatrice, for example, as a tonal composition, a work whose beauty depends on the interplay of light and dark as well as on the lines created by the unbound hair and by the turban. Nonetheless, at least some of the photograph's appeal resides in the woman's expression - the sad composure, the avoidance of contact with the viewer, as though she knows she has emotional business of her own to attend to and isn't interested in making new friends. I would suggest that that element, the emotional resonance which transcends the formal, the depth, is what comes through from Cameron's fascination with the Cenci narrative. Cameron's Beatrice seems to know and accept the horrible fate that lies ahead of her. Whether or not we know the generative story, something enters the work of art that stimulates a dimension beyond the formal in our response.

Religion offered Cameron a specific response to the sorrows of life and an aid in supporting those sorrows. Christian love seemed to her and her friends the only possible response to the cruelties of nature, "nature," in Tennyson's words, "red in tooth and claw. ' Whereas we distrust refinement and perhaps romanticize the natural, the Victorians, who had not read Freud, assumed that the goal of life was to transcend nature, to "work out the beast," as Tennyson put it. And whereas we tend to consider every disaster as an outrage, for Cameron's generation disaster was a predictable part of life and one's charitable response the only thing that could be controlled. So the families are fluid. Orphans are adopted. Cameron puts in a lifetime as wife and mother before picking up her camera, and then does not aim at realism but at giving exquisite form to the powers of the spirit.

That Cameron's favorite niece and model was Virginia Woolf's mother, Julia Jackson, provides a neat yardstick for cultural change: two generations to go from an age of idealism to an age of irony, from Tennyson to T. S. Eliot, from high Victorian to thoroughly modernist. Woolf made affectionate fun of her great-aunt in a play called Freshwater, which she wrote for private performance, and, as proprietor of the Hogarth Press, she published a selection of Cameron's photographs under the title Victorian Photographs of Famous Men and Fair Women. Her prefatory essay depicts a dynamo who had more or less wasted herself for many years in ditsy hospitality until the gift of a camera turned her into an artist, enforcing on her random energies a sorely needed discipline. She is, in Woolf's telling, almost an allegorical figure of Talent, with whom Woolf herself clearly identifies, as opposed to the other six Pattle sisters (including her own grandmother), who incarnate a Beauty that interests her less.

At about the same time Woolf was mythologizing her matrilineage in the guise of a biographical essay about her great-aunt, she was also writing To the Lighthouse, her great novel about a Famous Victorian Man and the Fair Woman who enables him to achieve demi-greatness. Julia Jackson, Woolf's mother, was her model, as she was Cameron's. Jackson appears in To the Lighthouse as the secular Madonna Mrs. Ramsay. The novel, with its somewhat skeptical view of this Madonna, does not perpetuate the loving approval of Cameron's photographs. In Woolf's view, the womanly women and the manly men of the Victorian hothouse were equally forced, unnatural growths.

We may well share Woolf's skepticism about a neat division between women, who are reservoirs of spiritual strength, and men, who are reservoirs of genius. But some of her irony about Cameron and her Victorian values seems misplaced. Like other artists of the early twentieth century, Woolf was in creative rebellion against a parental culture which to her seemed stuffy and stifling. But if we look with unprejudiced eyes at the literary culture of Julia Margaret Cameron, it hardly looks stifling. Quite the opposite. The rich, eclectic, thoroughly Victorian mixture of literary and pictorial images stored in Cameron's mind stimulated her to dense achievement, hundreds of works in a career of little over ten years, as the Madonnas and May Queens, the Wise Virgins and Foolish Virgins, the wood nymphs and angels in her mind were brought forth through darkness and light onto paper. And if we look, as this exhibition asks us to do, at the photographs of the fair women without the famous men, what we see is how splendidly the women stand on their own.


 


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