Some small incidents have a way of living on in our lives. When I was a trainee in the fabulous Bodleian Library (many moons ago!) I was sent one day to rescue items that had suffered water damage and the items turned out to be photograph albums (you’d be amazed what has found its way into those thirteen floors of book stacks!)
When I showed them to Michael Turner , my boss at the time, he went straight to a colleague who agreed that the pictures were by Julia Margaret Cameron. Back then her name meant nothing to me, but I thought the pictures, taken in the 1860s, were remarkable, from portraits with a strong contemporary feel to illustrations for poems which were both ambitious and bizarre. As a result I had a minor fling with the history of photography during which I discovered that some of my own countrymen had played a part.
To be honest all of it faded from my memory until 2008 when I somehow stumbled across the story of Hill and Adamson again and got more caught up than ever. Then, on a visit last weekend to the Isle of Wight, I was delighted to discover Julia Margaret Cameron’s house in Freshwater is now a museum commemorating her contribution to photography.
Our visit reminded me that she used an unwieldy camera and did her own developing and printing at a time when photography was still a matter of experimentation and was known as ‘the black art’ because of the action of silver nitrate on skin. Because of her links to society she has provided us with a fantastic snapshot of literary and artistic life (Tennyson, Dodson, Carlyle) as well as her own family, often dressed as characters from poetry or fiction. Although they never met, her aims and values were not so different from those of Hill and Adamson and she is in many ways their immediate successor.
If you happen to be in the area, do visit Dimbola House. It’s one of those quirky places you won’t forget. As well as the main exhibition there’s a vintage camera collection and a changing programme of contemporary and historical photographic exhibitions.
I certainly enjoyed catching up with JMC but if photography doesn’t float your boat, help Dimbola House carry on its work by making use of one of the nicest tea-rooms on the island.
2 thoughts on “The Black Art on the Isle of Wight – Julia Margaret Cameron”
I love Dimbola Lodge! I was paying fairly frequent visits to the Isle of Wight some years ago, when they were just starting to restore it from a derelict wreck, and each time I went, another room had opened. It was very exciting to see history being reclaimed there, and fabulous to know it is now thriving (and yes, I remember the tea-room as being pretty amazing too!) Must go back again myself sometime…
Yes, it feels very personal and you can tell all the volunteer attendants really love the place. Also impressed by the contemporary exhibitions, currently lots of amazing photos of Paris and Berlin 1930- 1960 or thereabouts.