Tom Hunter is a contemporary British photographer whose work has reached international acclaim. He creates striking tableaux, often inspired by the urban landscape of east London (particularly Hackney) and drawing on the postures and compositions of Western genre and history painting, re-imagining them for a modern audience. See, for example, his Death of Coltelli (below) which uses the slumped pose of the female nude at the centre of Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus for an image of abandonment and isolation.
Of interest for this blog is a series of 10 photographs entitled Life and Death in Hackney which Hunter began in 1998. In them he re-stages Victorian paintings by Millais, Waterhouse, Alfred Wallis and Arthur Hughes, among others, in a contemporary London setting. The result is a peculiarly heightened sense of reality — a reality of industrial decay and patches of nature quietly existing on the fringes of urban environments. A poignance and beauty is found in these otherwise maligned locales.
Hunter saw modern parallels for Millais’s Ophelia in a news story about a young woman who, on her way home after a night out, slipped into a canal and was tragically drowned. Like Ophelia, The WayHomeis dominated by swathes of brilliant green foliage flecked with flowers. If Millais’s painting explores (among other themes) human life competing for existence in amongst nature, then Hunter’s suggests the fight for survival in a landscape in which the natural and the urban have become jarringly intertwined. Youth and freedom waver on the brink of tragedy and danger, leaving only lost hopes and dreams.
The above comparison is particularly striking, with Hunter quoting directly from Arthur Hughes’s 1862 Home from Sea. The empty arched window in the background of Hughes’s rambling country churchyard is echoed in the multiple broken windows of the abandoned warehouse in Hunter’s image; while the small bush of dog roses to the right of the young sailor’s head has expanded into a tangled mass of briars which threatens to engulf the couple. Hughes, it should be noted, originally exhibited his painting under the title A Mother’s Grave; but Hunter leaves the narrative of his photograph open-ended, for each viewer to decide. He also expresses a tension between past and present: the couple seems to be mourning for a lost loved-one, but the cemetery itself (which is probably Victorian) has been left to sink into disrepair, neglected by modern society.
Just as the Pre-Raphaelites did in paint, Hunter photographs in a sharp, even focus to capture every fine detail of his sitters’ surroundings. Rich, luminous colours are combined with subtle effects of natural light. The relationship between painting and the new art/science of photography was one the original Pre-Raphaelites were conscious of, at the time — though of course paintings still had the advantage of colour over sepia and black-and-white photographs.
Hunter’s work demonstrates that, far from being distant and Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite art engaged with social themes still very much relevant today: love, loss, death, social alienation. He explains on his website that Life and Death in Hackney is rooted in urban areas which were
the epicentre of the new warehouse rave scene of the early 90s. During this time the old print factories, warehouses and workshops became the playground of a disenchanted generation, taking the DIY culture from the free festival scene and adapting it to the urban wastelands. This Venice of the East End, with its canals, rivers and waterways, made a labyrinth of pleasure gardens and pavilions in which thousands of explorers travelled through a heady mixture of music and drug induced trances.
Is there some suggestion, then, that this urge for young people in the 1990s to formulate their own vibrant subcultures, consciously breaking away from mainstream norms, had its roots in the spirit of youthful artistic rebellion which led to the founding of the P.R.B.? Such a supposition is actually quite ingenious given the persistent general view that Pre-Raphaelite art is stale and sentimental. In casting the compositions of Millais, Hughes and others in a new light, Hunter invites us to reconsider our relationship with them, as viewers in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries, and to remember how radical and controversial the art of the P.R.B. was in its day.
This year marks the bicentenary of the birth of Julia Margaret Cameron, the pioneer Victorian photographer whose work has rightly been praised by scholars and the public alike. Indeed, the V&A will honour the occasion with a large exhibition of 100 of her photographs this November, while Will Gompertz recently made a case for her as the face of the new £20 note. Previous shows include the 2003 retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery, her inclusion in The Pre-Raphaelite Lens: British Photography and Painting in 2010, and a display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2013. I forget how or when I discovered her photographs but they’ve been a passion of mine for several years, making her my favourite photographer. It’s appropriate, then, to write this for the 11th June, on which day in 1815 she was born – although even a quick glance at her work, much of it still breathtaking and timeless in its immediacy, makes that difficult to believe. Rather than attempting to encapsulate her entire oeuvre in a humble blog post, I will highlight five of my favourite images by this brilliant, innovative photographer.
It is difficult to view Iago and not be mesmerised, even if (unlike me) you aren’t a tiny bit in love with him. The only surviving print is kept at the National Media Museum, Bradford, where I had the good fortune to spend a day last winter examining boxes of original Camerons. One of the first things that struck me was the print’s size: it’s virtually life-size, heightening the sense that you are looking into a face which might have been photographed yesterday, rather than in 1867. Cameron acquired her first camera in 1863, aged 48, as a Christmas present from her children, and after getting to grips with the lengthy, complex and even dangerous photographic process (juggling noxious chemicals and light-sensitive glass negatives) she perfected her technique and style. When she purchased a new lens in 1866 she began producing atmospheric head-and-shoulder portraits, of which Iago is a fine example.
The sitter’s identity has been the subject of speculation: Colin Ford identified him as Angelo Colarossi, famously the model of Alfred Gilbert’s Eros statue at Piccadilly Circus; but convincing new evidence by Scott Thomas Buckle suggests that he is Alessandro di Marco, another professional Italian model who sat for Burne-Jones, Leighton and Watts. At any rate his chiselled, striking features are the photograph, intended to portray the villain of Shakespeare’s Othello. To my mind this is not the scheming Iago but the penitent man reflecting, perhaps years after, on all that has happened. Or perhaps he’s on the point of deciding whether to pursue or retreat from his villainous course. Are we conflicted in finding a soft, romantic beauty in a man who after all manipulated Othello into murdering his wife Desdemona? He could equally be Romeo or Hamlet, and these ambiguities are why the portrait deserves continual revisiting, his expression appearing to change according to each viewer’s mood. Another proposed theory is that it has been mis-titled, and this is actually a head of Christ as the ‘Man of Sorrows’ – though this ignores the fact that Cameron herself listed the picture as Iago, Study from an Italian in the album index.
Along with Iago, this portrait of May Prinsep posing as Christabel is probably my favourite Cameron photograph. Prinsep, positioned slightly off-centre against a misty background, gazes directly out at us with heavy-lidded eyes from a pale, oval face. The expressiveness of the image is partly due to Cameron’s innovative, deliberate use of soft focus, gently blurring the sitter’s contours and receding into a haze; she also allowed movements of the head during the long exposure. This directly opposed the stark, pin-sharp clarity and rigid postures favoured by conventional Victorian studio photographers (and most of the all-male photographic establishment). Meanwhile, the title comes from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s unfinished poem Christabel (1816), a strange gothic ballad in which the eponymous maiden is bewitched and seduced by a mysterious enchantress, Geraldine. In an essay written for my degree, I argued that the female character presented in Cameron’s photograph is ambiguously either Christabel or Geraldine – the title could refer specifically to the former, or more generally to the poem itself. The soft focus blurs distinctions between the virginal, virtuous Christabel and the wicked enchantress Geraldine, making her at once the seduced and the seducer. This is heightened by her sultry, dreamy expression which for Sylvia Wolf connotes ‘a kind of post-coital languor’; her loose, dishevelled hair indicates a lack of decorum more suggestive of the boudoir than the drawing-room.
Cameron also explored female beauty in group portraits. The above photograph from 1868 takes its title from an especially lovely song from Part XXII of Tennyson’s Maud: A Monodrama (1855):
Queen rose of the rosebud garden of girls,
Come hither, the dances are done,
In gloss of satin and glimmer of pearls,
Queen lily and rose in one;
Shine out, little head, sunning over with curls,
To the flowers, and be their sun.
The sitters are, from left to right, Nelly, Christina, Mary and Ethel Fraser-Tytler – Mary was herself an artist who eventually married George Frederic Watts in 1886. The relationship between Cameron’s female portraits and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s opulent paintings of beautiful women in the 1860s has often been noted; she was on familiar terms with the Pre-Raphaelite circle, photographing Holman Hunt and sending prints to Rossetti, who greatly admired them. The Rosebud Garden recalls his The Beloved (below) with its close arrangement of costumed women in floral, foliate surroundings, though it’s difficult to know if Cameron ever saw the painting in person (it was created for private patrons, George and Julia Rae). Also like the Rossetti, the shallow depth of Cameron’s image eliminates any sense of perspective and brings the women forward, very close to the picture plane. By positioning the four Fraser-Tytler sisters with the middle two lower, and alternating between full and profile faces, she lends her composition a beautiful symmetry and a gentle curve which leads the eye in a continual circular rhythm.
Cameron’s close friendship with Tennyson (they were neighbours on the Isle of Wight) resulted in the Poet Laureate suggesting she create a series of photographic illustrations for his Arthurian narrative cycle Idylls of the King (1859-85). In 1875 she set about the great task, and the resulting tableaux have been variously lauded as hallmarks of art-photography and decried as mock-serious Victorian playacting. Certainly it is difficult for modern viewers to get past the obvious staging of the above image, with its fabric water and crescent moon painted on the negative. On the other hand these very elements are a testament to Cameron’s experimental, imaginative approach to the medium, also bringing to mind the makeshift surrealism of films by George Méliès and more recently Michel Gondry. Its subject and composition are unmistakably Pre-Raphaelite; the crowned, long-haired damozels grouped around the reclining Arthur echo Rossetti’s illustration of ‘King Arthur and the Weeping Queens’, from the Moxon Tennyson of 1857 (below). But Cameron’s Arthur, drifting off to the Isle of Avalon, stares quite unsettlingly at the camera, establishing a curious connection with us from the mythical past. The photograph thus adequately portrays the following lines:
Then saw they how there hove a dusky barge,
Dark as a funeral scarf from stem to stern,
Beneath them; and descending they were ware
That all the decks were dense with stately forms
Black-stoled, black-hooded, like a dream — by these
Three Queens with crowns of gold. […]
Then murmur’d Arthur, ‘Place me in the barge,’
And to the barge they came. There those three Queens
Put forth their hands, and took the King, and wept.
But she, that rose the tallest of them all
And fairest, laid his head upon her lap. […]
So like a shatter’d column lay the King.
For the frontispiece of Illustrations by Julia Margaret Cameron of Alfred Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and Other Poems (1875), Cameron used her evocative portrait of the poet taken in 1865, famously nicknamed ‘the Dirty Monk’ by him and one of only two pictures of himself he liked (below).
In the same year as publishing the Idylls photographs Cameron moved to the family’s coffee plantations at Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), remaining there until her death in 1879. In just over a decade she had produced more than 1,200 images, a body of work which defied the conventions of Victorian photography and broadened the creative horizons of a still relatively new medium. From 1865 onwards she regularly staged solo exhibitions in London and exhibited abroad, winning numerous photographic awards in Berlin, Dublin, Paris and Groningen. Her unfinished autobiography, Annals of My Glass House, written in 1874 and published in 1890, adequately describes her artistic project:
The gift [of her first camera] I received from those I loved so tenderly added more and more impulse to my deeply seated love of the beautiful, and from the first moment I handled my lens with a tender ardour, and it has become to be as a living thing, with voice and memory and creative vigour. […] I longed to arrest all beauty that came before me, and at length the longing has been satisfied. […] 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.
The full text of Annals of My Glass House, as reprinted in Illuminations: Women Writing on Photography from the 1850s to the Present (1996), can be read in full on Google Books here.
An informative mini-site on Cameron’s life and work can be found on the V&A website.
The very kind people at Getty Publications have made the complete catalogue of her photographs, first published in print in 2002, available free online, readable or downloadable. It contains illuminating essays on thematic and technical aspects of Cameron’s oeuvre before the fully illustrated catalogue.
When I recently visited the National Portrait Gallery’s current exhibition, Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision, I was delighted to discover several gorgeous photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron displayed in the first room. Here was a connection between one of my favourite writers and my favourite photographer; I had previously been aware of Woolf’s familial ties to Cameron, but seeing the latter’s beautiful photographic portraits of Victorian cultural greats displayed alongside images of the former really brought it home. Woolf is often described as boldly departing from Victorian traditions, a leading light of literary Modernism — this is certainly true of her writing, with works such as To the Lighthouse (1927), Mrs Dalloway (1925) and Jacob’s Room (1922; my personal favourite) taking the English novel in far more experimental directions. Nevertheless, the inclusion of Julia Cameron in the NPG exhibition got me thinking about Woolf’s ancestry and artistic background.
Although she was a key member of the progressive Bloomsbury Group, which sought to shake off the restrictive social mores of the previous century and their parents’ generation, Virginia Woolf’s heritage was deeply Victorian. Her mother, Julia Stephen (née Jackson, formerly Mrs Duckworth from her first marriage), was famed for her beauty, a former model for Edward Burne-Jones and George Frederic Watts who was also photographed extensively by her aunt Julia Cameron (above). Meanwhile Virginia’s father, Leslie Stephen, was an eminent Victorian author and critic, the editor of twenty-six volumes of The Dictionary of National Biography and a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery; he was also photographed by Cameron and painted by Watts (below). They were two impressive, imposing figures in Virginia’s early life, exerting a powerful influence upon her long after their deaths — she famously wrote To the Lighthouse as a kind of elegy to them and her childhood memories of summer holidays in St Ives.
Virginia grew up surrounded by her great-aunt Julia Cameron’s photographs and hearing anecdotes from Julia Stephen about the bohemian artistic circle at Little Holland House of which her mother had once been a part. The house was frequented by G. F. Watts, John Ruskin, Tennyson, Burne-Jones and Robert Browning among others, and although Woolf never visited it (it was demolished in 1875, seven years before her birth) she appears, according to Frances Spalding, to have been ‘haunted’ by the house and its associates. In 1923 she wrote her first and only play, Freshwater, a frivolous parody centred around G. F. Watts’s rather disastrous marriage to the actress Ellen Terry, who was thirty years his junior. Julia Margaret Cameron also features prominently, as the play is set in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight where Cameron (and also Tennyson) lived and worked. On the one hand this burlesque was Woolf poking fun at her Victorian heritage, turning it into a farce; on the other hand, the fact she chose the Little Holland House set as a subject matter reveals her preoccupation with the past, and the play’s sometimes very obscure references to specific Victorian painters indicates a familiarity with their history. The parodic tone is affectionate rather than vitriolic, and it was only performed once, in the art studio of Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell.
Three years later in 1926, the Hogarth Press, which was set up by Virginia and her husband Leonard Woolf, published Julia Margaret Cameron: Victorian Photographs of Famous Men and Fair Women. Virginia contributed an introductory essay, as did Roger Fry, an influential Bloomsbury Group artist and art critic, and these were followed in the book by a series of plates illustrating Cameron’s portraits and costumed tableaux. It is interesting to consider this publication of Victoriana alongside the Press’s more famous Modernist productions, which included T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Katherine Mansfield’s Prelude and, of course, Woolf’s own short stories and novels. Woolf gave an inscribed copy of this book to the French photographer Gisèle Freund when she came to photograph Woolf’s portrait in June 1939; it appears Virginia was proud to have a famed photographer, one of the most accomplished and original in the history of the medium, as part of her own ancestry. (As a side note, Virginia’s mother had also written the entry for Cameron in The Dictionary of National Biography, speaking from ‘personal knowledge’.)
There are many more connections between Woolf and the Victorian art world which I am yet to pick up on. The National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition provides a fascinating introduction to Virginia’s nineteenth-century heritage, and also explores the close relationship between writing and painting in her work. Vanessa, Virginia’s sister, was a painter influenced by more modern, experimental methods of painting which distinguishes her paintings from the likes of Watts, Burne-Jones and Rossetti. In fact, when she and Virginia went to see the Watts memorial exhibition at the Royal Academy in January 1905 they became disillusioned by what they saw through maturer eyes, with Virginia writing: ‘The Watts show is atrocious; my last illusion is gone. Nessa and I walked through the rooms almost in tears. Some of his work — indeed most of it — is quite childlike.’ This indicates that the revered, magic world of the Victorians — revered and made magical by tales from their mother — was suddenly losing its charm. And yet, in spite of this, when Vanessa moved from the Stephen family home at Hyde Park Gate, Kensington, and into 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, she chose to hang Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs of great Victorians and portraits of her mother in the entrance hall. The relationship between the Victorians and the ‘Bloomsberries’ remains ever complex.
Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision, is on view at the National Portrait Gallery, London, until 26 October 2014.
Much of the information in this post was found in the excellent exhibition catalogue of the NPG exhibition, Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision by Frances Spalding. Listen to a talk on the exhibition with Alexa Wilding and Frances Spalding on BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinkinghere (play begins at the relevant point in the programme).
A generous selection of Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs can be viewed in high-resolution on the Google Art Project.