No-one had warned him that walking in Freshwater left one at the mercy of sudden interruption and near-abduction, especially if your face was pleasing. A matter of minutes after reaching the boundary wall of Dimbola Lodge, by Freshwater Bay, he had found himself 'halloo-ed' from above and as he had turned to find out where the call had come from, a woman had appeared, her hands clasped and her face rapturous. There had been no reasoning with her, no excusing oneself, either politely or otherwise, as she was insistent. Beyond insistent in fact, tantamount to obligatory. Before he had known it, he had been snatched from the sunlight and thrust through the doors of a turret that joined to buildings together, and commanded up the stairs, to find ‘the Virgin Mary’. The Lord himself could not have been more compelling.
|The Day Spring (Mary Hillier and (1865) Julia Margaret Cameron|
The young man paused in the doorway of the wide, sun-sparkled room. He was barely into his twenties, dressed well even in the progressing heat of the July morning, and he gave his collar a slight wiggle out of both warmth and discomfort. There was barely any furniture where it should be, all of it stacked to the side, higgledy piles of chairs against a table, and books in stacks that tilted precariously. Instead, a wide white sheet had been pinned out across the chimney breast as if to hide the fireplace out of modesty, and two lone chairs were placed forlornly in front. On one of them sat a girl of around 16, in a pale grey dress, her hair loose down her back in a cascade of chestnut waves which she was brushing out in grand sweeps. A gentle breeze floated out strands into the air like silks at a tapestry. For a moment the unreality of the scene caused the visitor to pause, a smile forming on his lips, but time was pressing upon him and so gave a slight inclined bow to the girl.
'Excuse me? Might you be Mary?'
'Aye, and who might you be?'
The man smiled brightly, 'I'm your Gabriel.' He cast a look behind him to the stairs, and pulled a slightly apologetic face. 'Well, that was what I was told.'
If he expected her to question him further, he was mistaken as Mary just shrugged and continued her brushing, catching a snag which she viciously raked clear.
'That'll do it,' she murmured and turned her attention back to her newly arrived angel. 'Now then,' she continued, looking the man over, 'where's Mrs Cameron?'
'Oh,' he gestured behind him, but instead another young woman came in, carrying a pile of assorted fabrics. She left them on the other chair.
'Who's this then?' the new girl asked, her voice rich with an Irish warm. Her baring was prouder and her manner leasurely, at odds with her maid’s garb.
'He's our Gabriel, apparently.' Mary pulled a face and the other girl laughed.
'Sorry, I'm Arthur,' the young man interrupted, blushing slightly as the Irish girl, who was rather pretty, drew closer, her gaze flitting over his face appraisingly.
'Pleased to meet you,' the girl smiled and gave a little bob. 'I'm Mary.'
|After the Manner of Francia (Mary Ryan and Elizabeth Keown) (1865-66) Julia Margaret Cameron|
'Oh, but I thought...' Arthur started, and a third girl entered the room, this time carrying a cumbersome potted lily. She shushed him out of the way as she hauled it to the space between the two chairs, placing it down with a thud
'I thought she was Mary,' continued Arthur, pointing at the first Mary.
'And so I am,' she retorted in a country burr.
'As am I,' replied Irish Mary.
'And me,' added the third girl, pressing her hands to her back, stretching.
|The Three Marys (Mary Kellaway, Mary Hillier and Mary Ryan) (1864) Julia Margaret Cameron|
The man pulled his hand through his hair and paused for a moment, assuming it was a joke, but none of the Marys laughed, nor paid him any further attention. The first Mary, a sturdy girl with an open, pleasant face which rested in an entirely neutral expression, concentrated on draping a large rectangle of cream silk around her face. Irish Mary continued to regard Arthur with a reserved speculation and humour. The third Mary puffed out a breath of exhaustion, and she paused only to briefly arrange the drapery around the first Mary's shoulders before briskly leaving the room. Arthur shuffled awkwardly and edged back towards the door, almost colliding with an older man, watching the scene unfold from the doorway. He chuckled, placing a hand on the young man's arm.
'A visitor, I see, or should I say a recruit? I am Charles Cameron and I am assuming you are here at my wife's insistence?'
'I ... yes, I seem to have been recruited for a photograph. I was merely passing, on my way…'
Arthur trailed off as Mr Cameron nodded, his face suffused with wisdom, enhanced by his snowy white hair and beard.
'Press-ganged, I should say.' He gave a chuckle. 'Is it to be Tennyson or Bible?'
Arthur looked surprised, ‘Oh, how did you know...?’
The first Mary gestured to her head.
'Bible,' she said, drawing a circle in the air above her.
'Am I needed?' The old man asked, his voice a mixture of hope and humour. Both the Marys laughed at a joke which Arthur couldn’t quite catch.
'No, Sir, not this morning.' First Mary replied, adding, 'leastways, I can't think how.'
'Not even as an angel?'
|The Annunciation (Sophia and Mary Hillier) (1864-5) Julia Margaret Cameron|
Both girls laughed. The old man gave them a twinkling smile and turned his attention back to Arthur, who grimaced.
'I believe that's to be me, or at least, that's the instruction I received.' Arthur paused, aware of how he had just obeyed the commands of the woman in the garden, clad in her fine, red silk dress. 'I was told to come here and find the Virgin.'
'Well, that's a bit much,' snapped the First Mary and the second one laughed behind her hand.
'Really, Sir, that's an impertinence...' Mr Cameron began, giving a decent impression of a stern patriarch of the highest order, but at the complete collapse of Arthur's compose, his expression melted into humour again.
'Oh dear no! Oh, that's not what I meant, I only meant ... and they are all called Mary! Sir, really, are they all called Mary?' Arthur flustered, his cheeks burning. 'I only came to visit an old friend, and now I seem to have found myself here, and I really didn't mean...This is not how it was meant to be at all…'
Mr Cameron placed his hand on Arthur's shoulder, his face all kindness.
'I quite understand, there is no offense, really, my dear boy, calm yourself.' At the old man's words, the two Marys allowed themselves a giggle and Arthur settled. 'Now then, where did my wife find you?'
'I was in the lane outside, she appeared from your garden and I couldn't seem to refuse.'
'Ah,' Mr Cameron smiled and nodded, 'yes, I find that often to be the case. And you are to be?'
'He's Gabriel,' answered First Mary and her expression left no-one in any doubt how unconvinced she was of the young man's angelic qualities.
'And he will be simply superb!' Entering in a flourish of skirts and fringed shawl, Mrs Cameron was by the young man's side in a moment. Her neat, dark head nodded decisively and with confidence. 'He was passing and look now at his countenance! He is just what I need! That is a face of such gravity and purpose, he will do splendidly. Did I not tell you this?'
Arthur was left without a reply at the sudden question but could only stammer, 'oh, yes...' as that was exactly what had occurred. Before he could ask further or indeed excuse himself from the whole situation, Mrs Cameron had summoned the third Mary back, this time carrying a box camera. He might have imagined it but Arthur felt sure both the Third and Irish Marys gave him a look of almost pity, tinged with relief that it was not them this time.
|A Christmas Carol (1865) Julia Margaret Cameron|
'Now then my angel! Look full of holy purpose! Annunciate dear, annunciate!' Mrs Cameron shouted from behind the camera, under a dark sheet. Her legs and vast silk skirt were the only thing visible, her body becoming part of the contraption.
'How am I meant to...?'
Arthur looked at the First Mary, now the only Mary in the room. She was kneeling by the potted lily and her hands were clasped around the stem.
'Look to Mary, filled with her holy purpose. Have a go at it, dear boy...'
Mary flicked her eyes to him in encouragement or impatience, it was hard to tell, before her face fell back into that wonderful peaceful vacancy she seemed to inhabit at the will of her mistress.
'I'm not sure I know...'
Mrs Cameron emerged from under the sheet looking perplexed, her hands finding her hips. She considered him from a distance before stalking forward towards him at a terrifying pace.
'Now see here, Angel Gabriel, we need you to project the Will of God upon this your handmaiden who is patiently waiting to hear the Word of her Lord, so let's not keep her waiting, shall we?'
Mrs Cameron spoke with determined emphasis and proceeded to strike a couple of demonstrative poses, her arms raised and her body rising, then curving in a grand gesture of bestowing some invisible present upon the kneeling girl.
'I see, I think. I shall do my best...'
The young man, frowning his lack of confidence, echoed her poses. She watched him with a frown.
'Is that not what you meant?' Arthur asked, and Mrs Cameron wrinkled her nose in thought. 'I really do have somewhere I need to be.' Arthur murmured as his photographer seized his left arm and raised it.
'Yes, yes, but that will have to wait. Concentrate upon your holy task!'
Arthur sighed and pulled a rueful face. Below him, the kneeling Mary raised her eyes to him as if to implore him to get on with it and annunciate her already as she had things to do as well. He raised his head, his hands reaching into the air and allowing the feeling of lightness to infuse his reach, before collapsing back into being a mere man.
'I'm sorry, but I just don't feel I can do this,' Arthur sighed, his hand racking through his hair once more.
'Oh, don't say that!' Mrs Cameron fussed. 'I really feel we were getting somewhere. I had a really sense of the holy from you. Come along, try again. I shall have my annunciation if it kills me!'
|Mary Ann Hillier (c.1865) Julia Margaret Cameron|
Mary raised her eyes again to him, narrowing them slightly and Arthur was left with no illusions that if the annunciation was going to kill anyone, he would be first in line.
Mrs Cameron was muttering in distress from under her camera sheet again about light and shadows, while Mary sat back on her heels, her cheeks puffed out in frustration. Arthur strode over to the piles of books, just for something to do. From the top of the heap he lifted a small, dark-bound book and allowed it to fall open in his hands. The spine was tired and the pages hanging on to each other by sheer willpower, but the text was fresh and clear, even if the edges were slightly foxed. Arthur turned back to Mary, and read,
‘The time draws near the birth of Christ:
The moon is hid; the night is still;
The Christmas bells from hill to hill
Answer each other in the mist.
Four voices of four hamlets round,
From far and near, on mead and moor,
Swell out and fail, as if a door
Were shut between me and the sound:
Each voice four changes on the wind,
That now dilate, and now decrease,
Peace and goodwill, goodwill and peace,
Peace and goodwill, to all mankind.
This year I slept and woke with pain,
I almost wish'd no more to wake,
And that my hold on life would break
Before I heard those bells again:
But they my troubled spirit rule,
For they controll'd me when a boy;
They bring me sorrow touch'd with joy,
The merry merry bells of Yule.’
There was a pause as Mrs Cameron slowly emerged from under the sheet, uncharacteristically speechless. Mary’s vacant expression had changed, to one of astonishment, her lips parted and jaw hanging. Arthur gently closed the book and placed it back on the stack before striding to his mark in front of the kneeling Madonna. He tapped Mary under her lowered chin gently so her mouth shut and then place a hand on her head.
Mrs Cameron glided out from behind the camera and snatched the cap from the lens, her face enraptured.
Time ticked in golden seconds, the air thick with the honey scent of jasmine and cumin from both indoors and out. A bird called from the garden and softly, in the bay, the waves rolled onto the beach, in happy shushing sighs.
The lens clipped back smartly and there was a pause as Arthur lowered his hand from Mary’s head.
‘Excellent!’ Mrs Cameron exclaimed, ‘and our first try! We shall see how it develops and try again.'
Seizing the slide at the back of the camera and briskly whisking it clear like a reverse guillotine, Mrs Cameron strode away with the first Mary hastening to take off her headress in order to follow.
'Again?' asked Arthur meekly, and Mary grinned.
'I shouldn't move if I was you, we shall return in a moment for you to bless me again.'
'Yes, but I have somewhere else I should really be...'
Maid and mistress had already busied away, leaving the young man gazing after them. Mary turned in the doorway with a word of consolation on her lips but the man's expression was hidden, the light from the window so bright behind him for a moment that his expression was entirely hidden.
'Sharn't be a tick, Sir,' she replied, apologetically, and for a moment the curtains flapped behind him, almost like wings.
‘A disaster!’ Mrs Cameron announced striding back into the room, but found only her husband sitting in the chair by the window, reading from a small, tired book.
‘Disaster?’ Mr Cameron looked up, concerned. His wife stopped abruptly, her hands on her hips.
‘Now, where is my angel gone? I need him back immediately! Mary is preparing the glass as we speak, he must be back in position again!’ Mrs Cameron turned on her heel, striding through the adjoining rooms in desperate search, before returning.
‘I assumed he had escaped your clutches…’ Mr Cameron chuckled, and his wife frowned indignantly. The old man gave a self-admonishing cluck, before tapping the chair beside him.
‘He was just perfect, Charles, he turned into the most appropriate angel. I was so sure it would be a triumph, but try as we might the fluid just would not find him on the glass. We tilted and were so careful but there must have been drying or a hair or something, and he remained stubbornly undeveloped. Only Mary remains, gazing at an empty space.’
‘As she often does,’ murmured Mr Cameron, although not unkindly.
Mrs Cameron huffed, examining her black streaked fingers, stained from the developing fluid.
‘I thought I had captured something in truth holy, dear one, but it has vanished, as has my angel. It is all so disappointing.’
|The Holy Family (1864) Julia Margaret Cameron|
The First Mary appeared at the doorway, a wooden sleeve containing a prepared glass plate in her hands. She looked as confused by the lack of her angel as her mistress. The second and third Mary appeared at her shoulder, eager to see the young man again but equally as crestfallen by the sight of the employers, sitting by the window.
‘Never mind, M’am,’ offered Irish Mary brightly. ‘We’ll keep an eye out for him, he’s bound to return this way.’
‘He’s only gone as far as Farringford,’ added the third Mary, and the rest of them turned to look at her.
‘Farringford?’ asked Mrs Cameron sharply.
‘Aye, the butcher’s lad said a stranger asked him the way. A young man, he said, and he purposely sent him by us to see if you fancied him for a picture.’ The third Mary paused, as Mr Cameron chuckled.
‘You bribe that boy too much to procure your models…’ he murmured, and his wife pointedly ignored him.
‘He’ll have to pass by, we’ll catch him again,’ repeated Irish Mary and Mrs Cameron nodded in resignation.
‘Well never mind,’ she sighed and waved the first Mary into the room with the plate. ‘Quick then, before it dries and another plate is wasted. You’ll have to be annunciated on your own, Madonna.’
The spare Marys bustled out again and Mr Cameron rose, leaving the scene that was being constructed. He placed the small volume of verse on the top of the camera box, regarding his wife with fondness and a glimmer of something curious, something so preposterous that it drew a smile to his lips. With a slight twinkle of mischief, he called across to Mrs Cameron who was hurriedly draping and arranging her Madonna.
‘Dear one, what was the name of Alfred’s friend, the one who was to marry Miss Tennyson but who died so unexpectedly young?’
Mrs Cameron turned, frowning at having to pause while racking her memory.
‘Hallam,’ she replied, turning back to the drapery, but the turned back sharply. ‘Arthur Hallam,’ she repeated, and gave a little exclamation of disbelief. Mary Madonna made a timid little sound of awe, and Mr Cameron chuckled tapping the copy of In Memoriam resting on the roof of the camera.
‘Only you could delay an angel, dear one…’ he intoned with affection before leaving the two women gaping in astonishment as he left the room.