Tennyson, Photography and Julia Margaret Cameron
Tennyson wrote ‘I prefer the Dirty Monk to others of me A Tennyson except one by Mayall.’ It was Tennyson who described himself as looking like a ‘dirty monk.’ Emily had said at the onset of Tennyson’s beard that it was like a ‘lazy monk’ and had hoped that the public could ‘compel Alfred by act of Parliament to cut off his beard!’
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Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) was a pioneer photographer in the 19th century. She met the Alfred and Emily Tennyson in 1850 and became their neighbour on the Isle of Wight in 1863. The following year she was given a camera by her daughter. She set to work, using family friends, neighbours and servants -and occasionally unsuspecting passers-by- as subjects for her images with the help of a very lively dressing-up box. By 1865, she had an agent, Colnaghi’s the print dealers, and was selling her work.
The Tennyson Research Centre holds two hundred Cameron photographs, which can all be seen by searching lincstothepast. They can be divided into three overlapping subjects described below with some examples above:
Studies of individuals:
Cameron’s Men (and Women) Alfred Tennyson, Charles Darwin and Robert Browning all sat for Cameron with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
Most of the prints of the women represented in the collection are given a title other than their name: they either personify a virtue or dress up as a character. This is the case occasionally with the men. Cameron apparently said of her reason for not photographing Darwin’s wife that ‘women between the ages of eighteen and seventy should never be photographed.’
Embodiments of Christian values:
‘Endless Madonnas…’ Emily Tennyson wrote to Edward Lear that ‘Mrs Cameron is making endless Madonnas and May Queens and Foolish Virgins and Wise Virgins and I know not what besides. (Letter to Edward Lear. 5508. TRC.) Within 18 months of taking up the camera, she had made about 100 religious studies, nearly always using women to embody the quality.
Illustrations of Tennyson’s poems:
‘Dense with Stately Forms.’
Cameron produced two volumes of illustrations for Tennyson’s The Idylls of the King, a 12 volume epic about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Tennyson had asked her to make some photographs for use as frontispieces to a new 12-volume ‘Cabinet Edition’ of his poems. In the event, only three were used, and these were from woodcut copies. Perhaps out of sympathy, Tennyson encouraged her to fund the publication of a large-format album with 13 of the photographs tipped in. It sold badly. Frustrated, she declared that she had taken about 200 photographs to produce it. Only a dozen or so copies seem to have survived. Some time later she made a few ‘Miniature Editions’ for her family and friends. There are only four known copies. You can see the Tennyson Research Centre’s copies of these books by searching lincstothepast.
You can see the Tennyson Research Centre’s full holdings of Cameron prints and copies of the rare Idyll books by searching lincstothepast.