Framed in Constructed New England Regional Literary Identity

“O brother, had you known our mighty hall,                                                                    Which Merlin built for Arthur long ago!
 For all the sacred mount of Camelot,                                                                                   And all the dim rich city, roof by roof,                                                                               Tower after tower, spire beyond spire,                                                                                     By grove, and garden-lawn, and rushing brook,                                                             Climbs to the mighty hall that Merlin built.                                                                        And four great zones of sculpture, set betwixt                                                                  With many a mystic symbol, gird the hall:                                                                           And in the lowest beasts are slaying men,
 And in the second men are slaying beasts,                                                                          And on the third are warriors, perfect men,
 And on the fourth are men with growing wings,                                                                And over all one statue in the mould
 Of Arthur, made by Merlin, with a crown,                                                                            And peaked wings pointed to the Northern Star.                                                                And eastward fronts the statue, and the crown                                                                   And both the wings are made of gold, and flame                                                                   At sunrise till the people in far fields,                                                                              Wasted so often by the heathen hordes,                                                                          Behold it, crying, ‘We have still a King.’” 
 
Alfred, Lord Tennyson from, Idylls of the King  

Julia Margaret Cameron, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1867

Upon entering the well appointed front room of New England author Sarah Orne Jewett’s grand colonial house, one’s eye is drawn immediately to a large fine art photographic portrait featured prominently there. The subject, an elderly bearded gentleman, gazes downward from within a stylized arts and crafts frame in solemn contemplation, as an ethereal quality of light surrounds his distinguished countenance to illuminate that singular moment in 1867 when artist Julia Margaret Cameron crafted this, one of her first compositions of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. As England’s poet laureate during the reign of Queen Victoria, Tennyson was renowned for his epic prose that regaled his reading audiences with tales of maidens, quests, sorcerers, and battles. Jewett referred to Tennyson in her October 1892 letter to her friend Annie Adams Fields as, “A king in captivity, one of the kings of old, of divine rights and sacred seclusions.” And, as his Merlin crafted a likeness of Arthur for the “people in far fields” to see at sunrise in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King — so too, did Cameron craft a likeness of Tennyson in her portrait of him, found in Jewett’s home.

Jewett’s visit with Fields in the summer of 1892, to see Tennyson before he died in winter that same year, profoundly affected her. As Jewett wrote to Fields, “If somebody said come and see Shakespeare with me I couldn’t have felt any more or deeper than I did about Tennyson.” As a representation of one of England’s great men of letters, Tennyson’s image silently watched over the literary ambitions of Jewett’s New England regional writing through Cameron’s composition of him that resided above the fireplace in a room meant for reading and contemplation. It surely reminded Jewett of Tennyson’s cherished time spent with her, his high literary achievements, and his enduring celebrity. Moreover, Cameron’s portrait of Tennyson, as it was situated in Jewett’s New England home, represented both British and American nineteenth century literati influence over contemporary viewers, even while that influence triumphantly escorted New England culture and society into the twentieth century. For just as Merlin’s statue of Arthur above the spires of the great hall reminded everyone who visited Camelot, from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, so too did Cameron’s portrait of Tennyson above her fireplace remind everyone from literary society who visited Jewett’s house that, “We have still a King.”

In 1892 it had not been Jewett’s first meeting with Tennyson, since ten years before on 24 May, she and Fields embarked together on a voyage to Europe, leaving from New York on the Scythia. The occasion was so momentous that in honor of their departure, writer John Greenfield Whittier composed the sonnet “Godspeed,” which celebrated both their popularity among friends and his wishes for a safe journey. Fields’ husband, James, of the distinguished publishing firm of Ticknor & Fields in Boston, Massachusetts passed away in the spring of the year prior and it was the custom of the time for upper middle class widows to seek refuge from mourning by spending time abroad. Jewett, a client of what was once Ticknor & Fields, became a loyal support to Fields with the blessing of her husband, who was quoted as saying that Jewett was the friend that he would choose for his wife, above all others. While the two women were in England, they visited with Tennyson and his wife, Lady Emily, at their Farringford House in Freshwater, on the Isle of Wight. This journey to the Tennyson’s home was to be Jewett’s first and one of numerous for Fields, as poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote about Fields in a letter to her after his own visit there, “At Farringford your memory is fresh and fragrant.”

Sarah Orne Jewett House, Library with Cameron Portrait of Tennyson over Fireplace

Whether as a gift from Annie Adams Fields to Sarah Orne Jewett, perhaps as a thoughtful and commemorative reminder of their visit together with Alfred, Lord Tennyson in the summer of 1882; or maybe as a purchase by Jewett, while passing through London at the time, for her own growing collection on the walls of her Berwick, Maine house; or possibly as a memento for Jewett, as a gesture of endearment from among the many he obtained from his friend and neighbor, by England’s Poet Laureate himself — a fine art print of the 1867 photographic portrait of Tennyson by artist Julia Margaret Cameron was framed by an affluential Boston, Massachusetts art gallery, and after their autumn journey home from Europe it was displayed in the library at Jewett’s house. All of the rooms in the Jewett home are adorned today with various prints, paintings, and photographic portraits that form a large collection which speaks to the cultural and social activities of nineteenth century New England regional literati, many of whom styled themselves as the leading American intellectuals of their age. Today, Cameron’s portrait of Tennyson shares space upon the walls of the house with other eminent authors and artists such as Charles Dickens, Sarah Wyman Whitman, and Henry James; each one, a collected object that reflects Jewett’s own interests, passions, and aspirations.

Among Cameron’s numerous photographic portraits of famous Victorians, that which belonged to Jewett functions today as a historical record that suggests a critical relationship between portraits made by Cameron and the New England regional literati collectors who obtained them for display. Moreover, New England regional literati as subjects for Cameron’s compositions, such as poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, publisher James T. Fields, and Mabel Lowell, daughter of poet James Russell Lowell and friend to artist Abigail May Alcott, point to those Cameron portraits not only in possession of these collectors, but of these collectors, themselves. Other New England collectors, such as philosopher Bronson Alcott, father of children’s author Louisa May Alcott; Boston hostess and author, Annie Adams Fields, wife of James T. Fields; and artist Alexander Wadsworth Longfellow, brother of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, bring focus to transatlantic relationships between influential literary society from Boston to London, Concord to Freshwater, and even Portland Maine to Ceylon India.

Cameron’s photographic portrait of Tennyson, in particular, demonstrates the constructed New England regional literary identity that framed it, which includes an alignment with high and low art classifications in New England culture and society that pertain to the crafting of it by Cameron; the commodifying of it through literary fame associated with Fields and New England publishing; and the collecting of it for one of the most important rooms in Jewett’s New England home. Each of these: crafting, commodifying, and collecting, express the values and ideals of beauty, truth, and art among the nineteenth century New England regional literati as they sought to frame their own identity through appropriation and assimilation that included fine art photographic portraits by Victorian artist Julia Margaret Cameron.

Text from, Framed in Constructed New England Regional Literary Identity: Julia Margaret Cameron Photographic Portraits of Famous Men and Fair Women, by Robin Whitham McCrady, Copyright, 2020.

All references, citations, sources, and bibliographies are available upon request. 

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