Monday, 20 July 2015

Harem-Scarem...

I have a random memory of being very young and an elderly relative telling me seriously that while out in town I should be aware of the dangers of white slavery.  Apparently, you're shopping one moment and the next you wake up in a harem.  Whilst being equally racist and wishful thinking on the part of the relative (who I know had a thing about Omar Sharif), now I am a grown-up I see a lot of that mind-set in a genre of Victorian art. Who's for a bit of Turkish delight...?

After the Raid Edward Hale
The perils of nice white women being enslaved by rambunctious foreigners seems to cover quite a bit of history.  Hale chose to start with Vikings as an excuse for some nudity (why would you need to abduct a clothed slave?) but a great part of Victorian art seemed to concentrate on the classical period...

A Roman Slave Market Jean Leon Gerome
Gerome seems to have made an entire career out of painting nudey women in slave auctions.  All his works sit comfortably within the aesthetic framework of ancient times and the Romans who were literate and therefore perfectly alright.

The Slave Market in Roman Jean Leon Gerome
Sale of a Slave Girl in Rome (1884) Jean Leon Gerome
The last one is particularly disturbing but as everyone looks jolly it's bound to be fine.  After all if you were to buy another human being obviously you'll worry about their teeth. Yikes. Anyway, the slave-girl images of Roman are just a titillating extension from other classical beauties from the likes of Leighton and Alma Tadema.  They chose to barely drape their women in see-through gowns, whereas Gerome dispenses with the pretence of clothing.  Not a lady-garden in sight, mark you, all our Roman slave girls are built like marble statues, possibly because that's what the artist used as a model.  It's all classical therefore not at all sexy and very intellectual.

The Romans invented aqueducts and the Times New Roman font for goodness sake, and there is nothing sexy about either of them.

This however is another matter...

The Turkish Bath (1863) Jean-Auguste Ingres
The myth of the Arabian/Ottoman harem is decidedly sexual.  The Victorians had a real lust (for want of a better word) for the notion of English (or European) women ending up in the exotic harem (complete with pool) of a chap no doubt in roomy trousers and probably a beard. Pornographic novels such as The Lustful Turk, published in 1828 but not widely available until the 1890s, and A Night in a Moorish Harem (1896) throw upstanding (ahem) members (sorry) of the British Isles into the nudey hell of a harem in some unspecified African/Turkish place, replete with floggings, all manner of sexual shenanigans and lots of concubines.  Harems are often packed tighter than battery hens, if Ingres is anything to go by, and there is usually a pool of some description. A bit like Pontins then.

The Harem John Frederick Lewis
What I can gather about harems from art is that there are nice big windows with lots of dark woodwork cut in Moorish patterns, lots of billowing silk throws and pillows and little tables containing fruits and lovely ceramics.  Well, that's what you get in a John Lewis harem. Very nice and it comes with a small deer/antelope. 

The Bitter Draught of Slavery (1885) Ernest Normand
There is definitely a theme of the repression and conversely the nymphomania of lovely European women.  Whilst in The Bitter Draught of Slavery, the new recruit to the harem seems very unhappy and traumatised to find herself in the palace, it doesn't seem to take very long for her to get to this state...

The White Slave (1888) Jean Lecomte du Nouy
All it takes is a comfy cushion, a glass of something alcoholic and some pre-peeled fruit and off come the clothes.  Apparently this is also true of harems.

Odalisque (1858) Henri Pierre Picou
So what's going on? Why did the artists of Empire-conquering elites feel the need to perpetuate this myth? Apart from the occasional abduction of a camp follower from the colonial wars, this is the stuff of fantasy, so what was the point?

The Harem Beauty Adrien Henri Tanoux
Aesthetically speaking, it is an excuse to paint some beautiful patterns, glorious tiles, copper urns, glorious architecture and obviously, wonderfully commercial women.  However offensive the ethos behind the images, the pictures are pleasing to the eye, full of beautiful people and things.  They kindle fantasy; for an audience in rainy, grey London it must have seemed like paradise.

Odalisque Edward Henry Corbould
It could easily be dismissed as part and parcel of Empire, but is it an act of envy or fear? It would be easy to read it as expressions of fear, that the conqueror would fear reprisals be enacted upon the women, that land stolen would be retaken in the bodies of wives and daughters.  This would be especially terrifying if the women were seen to enjoy it.  The majority of the Odalisque/Harem scenes have the European women at total ease in their belly-dancing garb.  Did the elite fear that the 'others' could never be completely conquered as they will always be seductive?

The Favourite Fernand Cormon
It's hard to tell the date of the scenes, so it's difficult to see if the artist was showing a contemporary or a historical scene.  If the harems are historical, then were they being used as proof that colonialism was right as it brought order and underclothes to the all-too-relaxed foreigners.  If the scenes were meant to be contemporary, as the literature seemed to suggest, then possibly they were seen as a reason why the colonies required a firm white hand at the controls.  Left to their own devices in their own lands, foreigners are just a hookah pipe away from orgies, tigers and Turkish delight and that sort of thing will never do.  For some reason.

Odalisque Constantin Font
Was it a comment on the nature of women? The Victorian period had its fair share of female travellers, making the most of expanded ways to travel abroad and be a tourist. Some of them even went alone! The horror.  Add to this the question of female rights and roles and it might have been felt that women needed to be put in their place.  A number of white slavery and harem stories and images can be put down to female foolishness, straying out alone, going where only men should go.  The woman in the harem is a brutal reminder that life in a nice house in England with a nice husband who doesn't really bother you with "conjugal unpleasantness" (or "matters of the trouser" as it is also known) is all you should really dream of.  Step outside that and you will be plunged into a hell of sex, heat, tiled pools and fresh fruit.  I mean, what kind of existence is that?!

Odalisque Ferdinand Roybet
It has to be pointed out that apart from a couple of instances, the women in the harems don't look unhappy.  What did that say about the appetites of women? It could be wondered if the male artists who produced these scenes were judging women whose unbridled sexual appetites were equal to the foreigners.  Take a corset off a woman and she's rolling around on a fur holding a parrot before you know it. This double edged sword of both judgement and fear in the matter of female sexuality and the ability of others to understand and respond to it is ever present in the works of art, but I would suggest that the balance leans towards judgement.  Women's sexuality needs to be controlled or else all manner of things happen including consensual polygamy and suggested lesbianism.  Down with that sort of thing! We can't have women making that sort of (or any) decision for themselves!

The White Slave Trade (1895) Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida
The sad truth of white slavery is all too apparent these days, a reflection of the painting above where young women are shipped to a foreign country with ideas of a better life only to end up in prostitution.  The rose-scented paradise of the harem were a reaction to our exploration of the world, the traditional misunderstanding of other cultures, tinged with prejudice and fear. The sexual enslavement of women were possibly a reaction to the behaviour of Colonial powers, a metaphor to what the western world was doing to others.

Bought for the Harem (1891) Alexander Russov
Either way, despite their beauty, the harem fantasy of nineteenth century art makes uncomfortable viewing: the unspecified Arabian/Moorish/Turkish harem owners are evil enslavers of women with unquenchable sexual appetites and all women once loosened from their corsets become nymphomaniacs. It's interesting to think that the white colonists could conqueror a hearty slice of the world but not their own sexual fears...

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

That's Shalott

It all started when I watched It Follows this week...


I am a sucker for a 'curse' film, where the likeable protagonist accidentally gets the attention of a grumpy entity, bent on nastiness.  Films such as The Woman in Black, The Ring (in Japanese for purists, or the fairly decent remake if you are not feeling like subtitles) or Drag Me To Hell all have people stumbling into the bad books of ghosts who want to kill them. The reason I particularly liked It Follows is that the motive of the entity is never explained.  There is no lost child, no awful childhood, it just exists and the heroine spends the entire movie either running away from it or attempting to kill it.  When I considered that, it brought to mind this...


The Lady of Shalott (1888) John William Waterhouse
I have seen much written in the past on the nature of the Lady of Shalott's curse.  Why was she cursed?  Who cursed her? No doubt there is probably a Shalott Origins story somewhere, but on the whole we do not know the details of the curse, just its rule and the result of breaking that rule. 'The Lady of Shalott' is one of those poems that is at the heart of what we think of as 'Pre-Raphaelite' due to its perceived repetition and presence in the early years of the movement.  In fact it is one of those subjects that seems to book-end the entire movement.

The Lady of Shalott (1857) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The Lady of Shalott (1890-1905) William Holman Hunt
 What was the attraction of Tennyson's poem?  Taken at its very core it's a poem about a sudden and unexplained death.  Both Rossetti and Hunt suffered the deaths of their wives, and such deaths were not uncommon.  Tennyson himself lost his best friend, Arthur Hallam, taken so suddenly in 1833, the same year as the poem was published.  So is Arthur Hallam the Lady of Shalott?

Bust of Arthur Hallam Francis Chantry
It is without doubt that the sudden death of Arthur Hallam had a profound effect and influence on Tennyson's poetry but as he presumably wrote 'The Lady of Shalott' well in advance of publication, it was unlikely to have cast its shadow over that particular verse.  The theme is the same though, death that just comes for no good reason, whether it is looking out of a window or going on holiday to Vienna.

The Lady of Shalott William Maw Egley
The reason that It Follows surprised me was the lack of back story, something that also frustrates readers of 'The Lady of Shalott'. By denying the reader that knowledge, Tennyson firmly roots his poem in the past when science had not yet illuminated cause and effect.  Whilst it is undeniably supernatural in nature, in the age of science the curse would be explained away, given a backstory and motivation.  In the same way that the Discovery Channel run 'scientific' programmes explaining the Plagues of Egypt or Noah's Ark (thereby entirely missing the point of faith), we need to have everything, no matter how mystical, explained and rationalised.  In horror movies I suppose it exists to reassure the viewer that with that knowledge they would outsmart the evil or at least vanquish it.  If the Lady of Shalott knew the cause of her curse she would be able to appease the spirit for its terrible childhood and make off with Lancelot and his shiny thighs.  Everyone would be happy.  Tennyson gives no explanation, just the fact that there is a curse and you have to abide by the rules.  So is it a woman problem?

"I am half sick of shadows" said the Lady of Shalott Sidney Harold Meteyard
At the heart of 'The Lady of Shalott' is a woman who broke the rules, so did Tennyson think women should know their place? That seems unlikely as I have never seen Tennyson as a particularly sexist writer, even by the norms of the nineteenth century.  It doesn't seem very likely that the poem is about the misadventure of women who stray beyond their sphere and attempt to participate in the outside world and feel all sexy.  Plenty of poems probably exist on that subject but 'The Lady of Shalott' isn't one of them, so what was he getting at?

The Lady of Shalott Henry Peach Robinson
The bare facts of the story are these: the woman lives in a tower.  If she looks out of the window she will die.  She has to leave the tower to complete this, it seems. It is the irresistible pull of the outside world that enacts the curse. She leaves the tower, gets in the boat, by the time she floats down to Camelot, she is dead. She doesn't die of lovesickness, or pine away like other doomed heroines, it is the act of living, or feeling alive that kills her.

The Lady of Shalott Elizabeth Siddal
I wonder if Elizabeth Siddal was thinking the same thing as me when she did the above drawing.  She, like many women, had the experience of miscarriage.  In some ways 'The Lady of Shalott' can be seen as a metaphor for still-birth, the child alive within the safety of the mother but then not, once out in the world.  In times before the many and various tests we undergo now while pregnant, the outcome of pregnancy and birth were without backstory, without reason.  What it lacked in explanation it made up for in danger and the whole process terrified and baffled the most reasonable of people.  That's a little too specific though, for a man in his mid twenties.  I doubt Tennyson, no matter how empathic I find his verse, wrote a metaphor for still-birth, but I do believe I'm in the right area.

The Lady of Shalott (c.1894) J W Waterhouse
When the Lady decides to participate in the outside world, it kills her.  I think what Tennyson is showing us is the moment of birth to death in a blink of an eye. While in the tower, she is safe but she is unable to remain there, she is going to look and that will be it.  The curse is life.  Life is what kills us, which is entirely true, but the positivity or negativity of that statement depends on your attitude.  Tennyson hands us a life in a heartbeat, gone before you even reaches your destination.  The Lady brings with her the tapestry she has been working on, but to what end? She is evaluated by the crowd at Camelot but she is dead and so will never know what they said.  Is Tennyson making a statement on how he will be remembered, how he will be weighed up at the end of his life? Is Tennyson saying that the curse is life? It is sobering to think of a young man seeing life as a scrabble to shove your achievements in a boat before the end, but that's what it amounts to. To think of life as the Curse that befalls us all makes you consider the state of mind of the poet, and one can only imagine how the death of his friend the same year it was published galvanised this view. To live is to walk towards death and oblivion, or in Tennyson's case, take a boat, it's quicker.

As the poem continues to have a strange resonance with us after all these years, possibly we all feel like that in the end.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Review: Julia Margaret Cameron by Marta Weiss

A highlight of this year will undoubtedly be the Victoria and Albert Museum's upcoming bicentennial exhibition of Julia Margaret Cameron's work, coming in the autumn.  If you can't wait until then, you will be delighted to know that you can buy the catalogue now, splendidly entitled Julia Margaret Cameron: Photographs to electrify you with delight and startle the world...

@ Victoria & Albert Museum Courtesy MACK
The story of the exhibition and the catalogue is not only that of Cameron's excellent photography but the relationship it holds with the V&A.  It is not only 200 years since Cameron's birth but also 150 years since her first museum exhibition, held at the South Kensington Museum (the V&A) in 1865.  The museum was founded in 1852 using profits from the 1851 Great Exhibition and was intended to educate and inspire British artists, designers and manufacturers, first in Marlborough House, then after 1857 in South Kensington.  The South Kensington Museum was the only museum to exhibit Julia Margaret Cameron in her lifetime but also the museum that most extensively collected her work.  Further to this in 1868, Henry Cole, the museum's director, gave Cameron two rooms to use as a studio, making her the first artist in residence.  This is the story of an artist and a collection, explored through letters, diaries and exploration of her art.

Annie (1864)
@ Victoria & Albert Museum Courtesy MACK 
The book is wonderful, not only because of the information it contains but because of the design of it.  The book is split between an opening essay explaining Cameron's craft and her relationship with the V&A and other photographers, through to her plates which stretch almost a hundred pages.  There is then a catalogue of all the Cameron works in the V&A (which is an unexpected godsend for researchers) together with how they were acquired, then finally to Cameron's letters to Cole both in actual image and transcription.

After the Manner of the Elgin Marbles (1867)
@ Victoria & Albert Museum Courtesy MACK
The plates are split into Portraits, Madonna Groups and Fancy Subjects for Pictorial Effect, then sections entitled 'Electrify and Startle', 'Fortune as well as Fame', her work on Tennyson's Idylls of the King and finally 'Her Mistakes Were Her Successes', reflecting different aspects of her craft both in the way she would have described the photographs and in our modern appreciation of her experiments and happy accidents.  Although she had a concern with earning money, which is usually overlooked when discussing her work, she does not seem to have compromised her vision or tempered her relentless pursuit of things and people that filled her work with passion.

One surprise of the catalogue is an otherwise little known photograph by Oscar Rejlander taken during his stay in Freshwater in 1863.  This photograph of Mary Ryan and Mary Kellaway, two maids at Dimbola, was already well known...

Maids Drawing Water at Freshwater (1863-4) Oscar Rejlander
...the following had not been recognised as the same scene but from the other direction, with the house at the photographer's house.  Now backgrounding the two maids is a glazed house, the 'glass house' of Julia Margaret Cameron's Annals of My Glass House which she was to make her studio.

The Idylls of the Village or The Idols of the Village (1863)
Oscar Rejlander with possible collaboration with Julia Margaret Cameron
When I received the catalogue I was immediately struck by the beautiful design of it.  The cover is matt and free of text, just the beautiful photograph of Julia Stephen, mounted like a photograph.  The ink throughout is sepia and there is a change in paper quality between the essays and appendix and the plates, making it easy to navigate quickly from section to section.  Appendix 1 which contains thumbnail pictures of all the V&A collection of her pictures is ridiculously helpful to me as I compile a biography of Mary Hillier and I appreciated the fact that the catalogue is generally presented as a tool for study as well as a thing of beauty. Marta Weiss at the V&A and MACK are to be congratulated on an innovative and classy catalogue that examines Julia Margaret Cameron as not only a photographer but also a business woman and passionate artist.  It does writer, publisher and subject credit.

Beatrice (1866)
@ Victoria & Albert Museum Courtesy MACK
For further details on the catalogue see MACK website (here) or the V&A shop (here).
Details for the exhibition which runs from 28th November can be found here.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Rossetti's Women by Joan Greening

As you will know if you follow my work, I am very Fanny-centric.  Imagine my delight, fair reader, when I discovered there was a play about Fanny Cornforth, using her to view the life and work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the circle of women that inspired his art and filled his love life.  Not only that, the same actress, Julia Munrow, plays all the roles of Fanny, Elizabeth Siddal and Jane Morris. How could I resist?
 
 
I got in contact with the playwright Joan Greening to ask her more...
 
Q. When and where did you first experience the Pre-Raphaelites?
 
I have been interested in art from a young age and I feel I have always been aware of the Pre-Raphaelites. I think it was originally Millais' Ophelia which made me take notice of the Pre-Raphaelites as I am also a Shakespeare fan. Once I had noticed the Brotherhood, I began to search out their paintings and became intrigued by their technique and obvious love of nature. I then discovered their personal lives was became fascinated with them all. I particularly like how they all inter-connect as a group.
 
Q. What drew you to Rossetti?
 
I wanted to write a one woman show for Julia who is an astoundingly good actress. I thought that a number of characters played by the same person would be different and intriguing. My thoughts then went to Rossetti who had a number of women in his life and his appalling treatment of Elizabeth Siddal. I could see a play that surrounded him, made him an awful/appealing off stage character and would give Julia enormous scope for her talent.
 
Q. Similarly, what drew you to Fanny Cornforth?
 
I chose to tell the story from Fanny's perspective because I have always liked her feisty character. I also believe she was devoted to him and he spoke about her at the end of his life. I find that very touching and heart breaking that she wasn't allowed to see him.
 
Q. What do you want people to take away from your play in terms of the dynamic between the painter and his muses?
 
I simply want people to enjoy the play and laugh and cry with Fanny. She has some very funny lines but the thrust of the play is very sad. The play suggests that Rossetti was a charismatic man who needed women to be his muses but was incapable of being faithful. Such was his appeal that women loved him no matter how he treated them.
 
Q. What do you make of any of the other plays/films/tv based on the Pre-Raphaelites and their love lives?  Why do you think we find it so fascinating and focus so much on this aspect?
 
I have seen was the recent t.v. series which I thought was great fun but historically inaccurate and I particularly objected to the portrayal of Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris. Rossetti was  believable although far too good looking! I also saw the film Effie which I thought was very dull. A non-consummated marriage is a riveting subject but somehow the film never came to life. Each of the Pre-Raphaelites had a very interesting love-life. There were so many scandals in such a straight laced age.  Complicated love lives are always far more interesting to write about than an ordinary marriage!
 
Julia Munrow in Rossetti's Women
As I mentioned, Julia Munrow plays the roles of all three of Rossetti's women, an ambitious and clever twist on the complicated love life where the women are often seen at odds with each other.  I had the pleasure of asking Julia a few questions about being Fanny...
 
Q. Before the play, what (if anything) did you know about Fanny?
 
Before the play, I knew nothing about Fanny. I knew about Lizzie Siddal and had seen some of the TV series  - but wasn't aware of Fanny's existence.
 
Q. What's it like playing all three muses?
 
It is a fantastic opportunity for an actress to stretch herself but by playing three totally different characters, particularly having to transform yourself in an instant from one to another without the help of costume or lighting changes. It is very physically and emotionally demanding. It is a gift for any actress.
 
Q. How did you prepare for the part?
 
Joan made me aware of many of the historical aspects of the three characters and to be honest it is all there in the play so it was a matter of emotionally connecting with the parts that were written.
 
Q. If you could go back and give Fanny one piece of advice, what would it be?
 
I think Fanny could give me some advice because she manages the balance between heart and head. Although she clearly loved Rossetti she didn't allow disappointments in love to overwhelm her. She also seemed to have a very sound financial sense and made sure she provided for herself in old age. I also love the way she throws herself into life.
 
Q. What's your favourite Fanny picture?
 
 
My favourite painting of Fanny is Lady Lilith.
 
Thanks to Joan and Julia for giving me their time and my very best wishes for the play. For more details on Joan's work look on her website here.  Rossetti's Women opens 6 August at Venue 278 in Edinburgh, and for tickets call 0131 220 5911. I look forward to hearing further venues and will of course let you know as I'd certainly love to see Julia bring my heroine to life!


Sunday, 5 July 2015

Mary, Mary, Maids of Tennyson’s Isle: Julia Margaret Cameron’s Marys and Her Fantasy Made Reality

For those that know her photographs, and no doubt all here present, it will come as no surprise that Julia Margaret Cameron seemed to have selected her maids due to their looks rather than their ability.  Even before she took up the art of photography in 1864, Mrs Cameron had taken into her household the two young women, Mary Ryan and Mary Hillier, who would later become her constant models.  In both cases she seemed to delight in the fact that she had employed them for their beauty.  After such an avante-garde beginning to a relationship, it could be believed that Mrs Cameron intended a different life path for her maids than one of domestic servitude but how far did she try and change their stars through her art, and with whom did she have the most success?

 
Mary Ryan (1848-1914)
 
Mary Hillier (1847-1936)


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  
 

Of the two Marys, it would be easy to argue that Mary Ryan was Mrs Cameron’s triumph.  Found begging with her mother on Putney Heath in 1859, 10 year old Mary Ryan’s beauty touched the heart of Mrs Cameron who secured employment for the mother, and took the child into her own home. When the Cameron’s moved to Freshwater, Mrs Ryan remained in London, possibly providing Mrs Cameron with the autonomy to raise Mary Ryan as she saw fit. When the playwright Henry Taylor visited in 1861 he found Mary taking lessons with the Cameron boys.  Although Mary was fond of reading and learning, as Taylor asked ‘What will become of her? If she is to be a servant, I am afraid there is no such thing as a good servant who is fond of reading.’  However Mrs Cameron, being blessed with more hope than reason continued to educate her parlour maid who was reported as ‘rather naughty’, which Taylor inferred was due to the confusion in her place. But still in the 1861 census Mary is listed merely as a servant and in Oscar Rejland’s photographs at Freshwater in 1863 she appears as a maid, cheerful in her work or as an Irish peasant.
 

Louisa Young & Mary Ryan (1863)
Oscar Rejlander


Irish and Isle of Wight Peasants (1863) Oscar Rejlander
In Mrs Cameron’s own photographs, Mary Ryan appears as a variety of heroines, unmarried beautiful maidens, The May Queen, Juliet, Queen Esther as well as reminders of her roots as in ‘The Irish Immigrant’ and ‘My Beggar Maid, Now 15!’ (left). Her use of ‘beggar maid’ would turn out to be prophetic. Taking Taylor’s assertion that Mrs Cameron saw no contradiction in Mary Ryan’s two states, it is unsurprising that she would aid her ‘Beggar Maid’ in finding a suitable King Cophetua. Rather than hide her parlour maid, Mrs Cameron sent Mary to London to almost be a part of an exhibition of her photographs, to write receipts and give information on the works.  George Price Boyce, water-colourist and keeper of an invaluable dairy noticed her at French’s Gallery in 1865 in the way that George Price Boyce is wont to do with pretty girls. He was not the only one. 
 
Prospero and Miranda (or Cordelia Kneeling at King Lear's Feet) (1865)

Henry Cotton, a child of the East India Company, like Mrs Cameron, was studying to join the Indian Civil Service when he saw Cordelia kneeling at the feet of King Lear (above). He fell in love.  He bought every image of the beautiful young woman, took her hand-written receipt and kept it in his breast pocket next to his heart. Two years later after graduating, the wildly romantic young man with long hair travelled to Dimbola Lodge in Freshwater and requested the maid’s hand in marriage.  Well, that is the more dramatic and romantic version of the story, as told by Emily Tennyson.  Cotton himself in his autobiography Indian and Home Memories gave a far more prosaic narrative of the meeting. He came across Mary at Little Holland House, which is possible but really just sounds more respectable.  Obviously, Cotton’s version doesn’t mention she was the maid.  Mrs Cameron celebrated this unconventional romance with a series of pictures and the couple were married in Freshwater in 1867.  The poet Laureate, Alfred Tennyson placed a respectable seal on the occasion by lending the happy couple his carriage and his youngest son for the wedding.
 
Romeo and Juliet (Henry Cotton and Mary Ryan) (1867) Julia Margaret Cameron

An interesting side tale is that the love-blind groom took one look at the bridesmaid Kate Shepherd on his wedding day and announced that he had made a mistake and Kate was actually the model he had fallen in love with, not Mary Ryan. That smacks of poking fun at the whole Pattledom ethos of art and love above all and Mrs Cameron’s own eagerness and considerable effort to ensure a happy ending for her own Beggar Maid and any available King Cophetua.

Mary Ryan lived a life that reflected her mistress, becoming the colonial memsahib, living in India for seven years before returning with her children and living apart from her husband for periods of time.  Her final reward was to become Lady Cotton in 1902, for her husband’s work campaigning for fair treatment and constitutional reforms for plantation workers in Assam where he was Chief Commissioner. When she died in 1914, she had climbed the social ladder and repaid Mrs Cameron’s faith and investment in her.

 
St Agnes (1864)
Julia Margaret Cameron
St Agnes (1864)
Julia Margaret Cameron
 


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
So what could Mary Hillier do to rival that?  Possibly Mrs Cameron’s best known maid/model, Mary Hillier was similar picked by her employer on her looks.  At 14, she was sent to Dimbola with a message and impressed by her looks, Mrs Cameron offered her a situation as a maid.  For the next 13 years Island Mary provided her employer with assistance both in front and behind the lens. There are descriptions of how Mrs Cameron would show Mary off to her friends using various devices to exhibit her to the best advantage. As recorded by Wilfred Philip Ward in Men and Matters, Mrs Cameron behaved thus: ‘Mary do stand on that chair and pull down that high curtain’.  Then turning to her friend, ‘Isn’t she perfect in that light, and in profile as you see her now?’’ (This really reminded me of the incident when Rossetti pointed out Fanny's beauty in rather florid ones to his friend as Fanny reclined on a couch.  Fanny, unlike Mary, had no fear of telling him to pack it in). Mrs Cameron herself spoke in typically rapturous tones on the beauty of her ‘little maid’ in Annals of My Glasshouse: ‘in every manner of form has her face been reproduced, yet never has it been felt that the grace of the fashion of it has perished.’ Mary sat regularly for images of the Madonna, earning her the nickname ‘Mary Madonna’, her patient expression repeated over and over as she cradled various babies and children in her teenage arms. Her beauty was also recognised by other artists in the Cameron circle. Coutts Lindsay apparently used her for Lady Godiva and G F Watts used her in Fair Daffodils as well as modelling this Madonna scene after her from a photograph given to him by Mrs Cameron.
 
Charity (1898) G F Watts
 
Madonna and two children (1864) Julia Margaret Cameron
(I have tried tracing the Coutts Lindsay picture, yet it remains illusive.  However, looking at G F Watts image of Godiva, I am struck by how much the composition resembles Cameron's Queen Esther, so possibly that is what Mary Hillier remembered, or simply that Watts took his composition for Godiva from a Cameron photograph.)
 
In typical Cameron fashion, ignoring any distinction of rank, Julia Margaret Cameron dressed her maid in the same dress as a lady, making Sappho no different from Lady Ritchie, the same distinctive dress appearing in both.  It was not unusual for Mrs Cameron to drape her subjects with the same paisley shawl or pieces of jewellery, but it is unusual even by her standards to put a titled lady in the same dress as her maid for a straight portrait.

Sappho (1865) Julia Margaret Cameron
 
Lady Ritchie and her nieces (1868-72) Julia Margaret Cameron
I think it is a mark of affection between mistress and maid that Mary Hillier did not marry until after the Cameron’s returned to Ceylon in 1875. She married Thomas Gilbert, gardener to George Frederick Watts, and lived at Watt’s Freshwater home, The Briary, giving birth to at least two of her children there.  Suitably, her first two children were named after the artists in her life, her daughter Julia and her son George Frederick. In later years, Mary revealed that she detested sitting for the photographs, but was willing to suffer in order to give others the pleasure of photographing her.  This might explain why she refused to be photographed after Mrs Cameron left England, and it was no empty promise.  There is even a sad space in her son George Frederick’s wedding photograph of 1918 where Mary should have been. Bearing in mind that George appears in First World War uniform and by that point in the War, Mary had already lost two other sons in the conflict, her refusal to appear in the image is remarkably poignant. 
 
Mary Gilbert (1927) Ida S Perrin
She lost her eyesight in later life due to cataracts and possibly also the effects of silver nitrate, the photographic solution she spent so much of her early life in contact with. One final image of her exists, a painting of her at 80, by Ida Perrin, as a blind and still beautiful old lady, a celebrity in her corner of the Isle of Wight, well remembered through articles in the Isle of Wight County Press. In her obituary in 1936, it was recalled how G F Watts had referred to her image as ‘Quite Divine’ and how all who knew her loved her.

 
Each of the maids accomplished something that was a reflection of Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs.  Mary Ryan shook off her beggar roots and became the Lady, her education not going to waste as Henry Taylor had grimly predicted. She moved from the bottom to almost the top of the Victorian social scale, wife of a peer and an MP, so easily can be seen as the greatest success.  However it is Mary Hillier we return to when we talk about Julia Margaret Cameron, hers is the image that we arguably think of as typifying Mrs Cameron’s art.

For I'm to be Queen of the May Mother Julia Margaret Cameron
(Mary Hillier second left back, Mary Ryan centre)
It could be argued that through her photographs Julia Margaret Cameron predicted the lives of her maids.  In Mary Ryan she saw a woman whose origins were forgotten in the face of her beauty, whom she referred to as her real life ‘Beggar Maid’ awaiting her King Cophetua, elevated all the way to Lady Cotton, late of the colonies.  Mary Hillier became the mother to many children and beloved Madonna to an entire community who cherished her and her memory. She was their link to the golden years in Freshwater, of Mrs Cameron, Watts, and Tennyson. In Mary Hillier, it is possible that Mrs Cameron in turn saw a cipher for Freshwater, the peace, security and nurturing sought by her circle, who remained golden even after they had gone.