Dimbola Lodge, home of Mrs Julia Margaret Cameron, lies just a mile from Freshwater Bay at the foot of the chalk ridge that rises high above the sea and extends all the way to the Needles.  Alfred, Lord  Tennyson, the poet laureate, who lived just down the road at Farringford, was her neighbour; their estates were connected by a private gateway. 

The Tennysons had moved to Farringford Lodge to escape the attentions of celebrity, but people followed him there.  It became a place of pilgrimage.  Tennyson affected not to enjoy the attention he attracted; he even had a bridge build over the road so he could walk up onto his beloved High Down without being seen.  But he disliked the lack of attention more. Bad reviews would cause him to fret for weeks, so much so that Emily, his wife, took pains to hide bad reviews from him, and Julia even wrote good reviews which were published anonymously.  It was largely due to the eccentric energy of Mrs Cameron that there was a constant stream of visitors (pilgrims) to her Tennysonian  salon, where guests feasted on Indian cuisine and erudite conversation with the laureate.  West Wight attracted the luminaries of the day including  Charles Darwin, the repressed pre-Raphaelite painter GF Watts and his child bride, the actress Ellen Terry,  Elizabeth Barrett Browning,  The Reverend Dodgson (Lewis Carroll,  who had a thing about little girls), the astronomer John Herschel, Thackeray, Charles Kingsley, George du Maurier, Edward Lear, Anthony Trollope, Henry Longfellow.  Julia even got Alfred to send an invitation to John Ruskin but received this dusty reply,  ‘Thank you, you’ve got nothing there but chalk and sand.’   Ruskin was not a man to indulge in frivolity and humour          

 Julia was in love with Alfred,  but he was faintly amused by her ardour, which he regarded as quite understandable though he thought her photographs made him look like a dirty monk.  She arrived at Dimbole Lodge shortly after the Tennysons and stayed on when her husband, who was much older than her returned to India.  Julia was a woman of great impulses and enthusiasms.  She came from a large family with connections in the East India Company.  The three sisters were known as Dash, Beauty and Talent.  Julia was the most clever but the least beautiful.  She was always trying to please, but never quite hit the mark.  When Alfred said he liked white roses, she had all the roses in her garden painted white, but the great man failed to call.  Spurned by Tennyson and neglected by Cameron, Julia devoted her formidable energies to the developing art of photography.  She mastered the techniques for coating glass plates with a colloid of light sensitive chemicals and would capture romantic images featuring strong bearded men, like Tennyson and Watts, striking pre-Raphaelite women and cute children.  Julia almost single handedly invented the art of photographic portraiture.  She liked the natural, not to say wild look and by skilful combination of camera angles and lighting, could emphasise the personality etched into a person’s face.  She even washed Hershel’s white hair and made it stick up to create a perpetual air of astronomical surprise.   

Tea parties at Dimbola tended towards the eccentric.   There was the brooding presence of Watts, the histrionic Terry, the strange Reverend Dodgeson and Tennyson, who was quite oblivious to everything except his own eminence.  Many a time her guests were alarmed by screams and a photographic plate would come skimming over the grass and smash against the wall.  People didn’t communicate very much and strange things tended to happen.  It seemed an ideal setting for Alice’s adventures in Wonderland.    

Now Dimbola is a local art gallery, staging frequent exhibitions as well as displaying a permanent collection of Julia’s work.  A statue of Jimi Hendrix, who died just three weeks after the 1970 Isle of Wight pop festival dominates the strip of lawn in the front of the house. I asked the man in the bookshop, a member of the local Tennyson society, what Mrs Cameron would have thought of the statue He was in no doubt. ‘Oh, if she could cope with a Victorian pop star like Tennyson with all of his antisocial and insanitary habits’, she would have had no problem with Hendrix.  She supported creativity, no matter what form it took. He would have been a welcome guest to her island salon. There would have been a clash with His Lordship the laureate though. He couldn’t tolerate rivals and he hated noise and crowds.’

Advertisements