It happened quite unexpectedly, as delightful surprises often happen, when I drove through South Berwick, Maine to meet one of New England’s many historic house managers. A young woman in pursuit of a career in historic museums, she was as one finds most all of the folks you meet in such organizations, generous with her time and willing to accommodate my interest in visiting one of the two historic house sites that she supervised. After meeting her in the beautiful and fragrant gardens at the Hamilton House, she sent me on my way to visit the Sarah Orne Jewett House. Prior to this August 2013 visit, Sarah Orne Jewett was not to be found anywhere on my scholarly “to do” reading lists. Never heard of her and never read any of her books, either. Worse, I didn’t particularly care to, as I’d been ruined by the Smith College department of English Language & Literature.
You see, I’d never really studied any of the great classics in depth, with a fabulous professor. So once I read, studied, researched, and wrote on the works of John Milton during my undergraduate years at Smith with just such a professor, I was done for, since it became my opinion that every single other author paled in his brilliant light. And no, Milton was not a misogynist, so please go back and reread Comus, again and again, until it gets you, if you still do not get it. And, no, nineteenth century American novels were not yet found anywhere on my favorites list either, except perhaps, Moby Dick, which is actually the closest thing we have in America to epic high literature, and written by the amazing Herman Melville. But, getting back to Sarah Orne Jewett…
The historic home that is now the Sarah Orne Jewett House is singularly the most intact historic home that I have ever visited, which is extremely rare in New England. In fact, after Jewett passed away, she left her home and its entire contents to her nephew, who continued to live in the house without changing much of anything. When the house was later transferred by him, to what is now an enormous collection of managed historic houses throughout New England, each room of the house was carefully photographed at that time, and each of the rooms of the house remains today, pretty much as it appeared in each photograph, with some slight adjustments over time for the benefit of preservation or restoration, where necessary.
This makes the Sarah Orne Jewett House a “must see” destination, when visiting New England. There, you will find the former home of one of New England’s regional literati, friend to Annie Adams Fields, guest of England’s Poet Laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and author of charming novels about life in nineteenth century rural and coastal Maine, such as her popular, The Country of the Pointed Firs. From the kitchen to the dining room, the parlor to the grand hall, and even from the bedrooms to the library, you will find well maintained examples of historic home architecture, wallpaper, paintings, carpets, furniture, china, books, and especially, prints, drawings, and photographs, all together in a lovely village just off the highway, north of Boston.
I was accompanying a small group of New England tourists, enjoying one of the last of the bright summer days, that August in 2013, when I first walked into the Jewett house library and stood in amazement, unable to speak, until I finally realized that our tour guide had finished her question and answer session with the genteel ladies among us, who quietly and tentatively whispered their inquiries and nodded in wonder at the enlightenment they experienced, as one does, when visiting a historic place. Here, one might notice every sense alert with eagerness to absorb the atmosphere and environment of the people that once lived and moved across the thresholds of the doorways, up the staircases, and into the unoccupied rooms, through what becomes a seemingly delicate and fragile moment of time travel into the past.
I suddenly heard my own voice, louder than everyone else’s in the library, break the spell of that moment as I asked with a croak, “The portrait of Alfred, Lord Tennyson… just there…above the fireplace,” I gestured, as everyone in the room paused, turned, and followed my gaze toward the solemn man, who looked out into the room in a sort of studied melancholy, “could you please tell me, do you happen to know the name of the photographer?” No, the tour guide said, they could not tell me the name of the photographer, but they could allow me to view the photograph of the room, and read about its contents at the end of the tour, if I liked. “I’d be so grateful,” I managed to reply, as our little circle of visitors continued the tour.
For the remainder of the tour, I heard nothing, saw nothing, and remembered nothing. I glided along with everyone, in what could only be described as a slightly open mouthed daze, because I knew the name of the maker and artist of the photographic portrait of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in the Jewett house library. I knew them very well. I had read, and researched, and studied, and written about them. In 2007, when I visited the Getty Museum in California, I found and purchased the very last published copy of their complete works in a three inch thick volume at the museum gift shop. I clung to it for the duration of my visit through the Dutch paintings, unable to experience the full, rich, wonder, that is the Getty Museum. I was terrified of allowing the heavy catalogue of their portraits out of my sight.
My poor Auntie, who brought me to the Getty Museum for my first visit that day, asked if I would like to leave the book at the coat check area, and I refused. Instead, I shifted my weight, and tightened my arms around it, hugging it even closer to my body, until I could get back to her home and pack the book away very carefully in my carryon suitcase for the journey to my own home office. And, even then, I kept a watchful eye on the overhead bin, until the plane landed at the airport. I had searched nearly over a year for that volume, only to discover that it was out of print, and at the time, worth over a thousand US dollars. It was the only chance to have a copy of my own. A copy of, Julia Margaret Cameron, The Complete Photographs.
I knew that the photographic artist who crafted the Alfred, Lord Tennyson portrait was none other than Julia Margaret Cameron. I knew it, but no one else seemed to know it. I carefully made inquiries, and read through the written materials about the library, again, with the historic house staff. How, I silently wondered, could this photographic portrait by Julia Margaret Cameron have been in what is now a museum, for over seventy-five years; this place that had been appropriated by all the work that is the effort of historic preservation, and no one, not one person knew anything, at all, about its origin? Historic homes are often filled with prints, drawings, and photographs, but unfortunately, in historic house preservation there is a tendency to focus on paintings. You can learn more about that, in my future installment, If These Walls Could Speak.
As the new Graduate Research Scholar from Smith College, in the American & New England Studies department at the University of Southern Maine, I was obligated to alert my advisors about the discovery I made that summer, but before that, I knew that I needed to confirm it. Moreover, together with the other independent research I accomplished throughout my undergraduate career, particularly at the Cunningham Center for Prints, Drawings, & Photographs at Smith College Museum of Art, I realized that I now had the framework for my lengthy graduate thesis and gallery project over the next two years, thanks to an extraordinarily lighthearted August day in Maine, with a group of charming tourists, and a kindhearted historic house staff.
When I returned to my office, I eagerly began and continued to complete the research and writing for the provenance on the portrait by Cameron, of Tennyson, from the Jewett house library. I used my trusty copy of Cox and Ford’s Julia Margaret Cameron, The Complete Photographs, from my journey to the Getty Museum, (which was by now entirely uploaded in tiny print, on their Internet site), as well as, numerous other volumes on Victorian photography, Cameron, and nineteenth century literati. What remained for me to do, was to actually inquire about seeing the photograph again, at the historic house lab site, then remove it from its frame, examine it, and verify that it was an original fine carbon print, from Julia Margaret Cameron’s own handmade original glass negative, and not a modern facsimile, nor a museum copy. I was confident that it would not be too difficult.
Once I made the appointment through the folks at the Sarah Orne Jewett House, I was able to examine the photograph in late May, of the next year, 2014. At the time of my visit to see the portrait, my daughter was also visiting at home for a weekend in Maine, so that she could see her brother in hospital. It was bittersweet at the time, as I could never have known that my son would not live beyond more than another two academic years of his own life. And so, she was able to accompany my husband and me to the lab, as we were driving her back to Massachusetts where she had become an undergraduate student at Smith College, just as I had done in 2009. We three, a now weary family of scholarly folk, rang the bell at what appeared to be a warehouse in the old mill district of Haverhill Massachusetts, along the Merrimack River, and waited together with enthusiastic anticipation. As fate would have it, indeed, it was a very good thing that my daughter was with me that day.
As soon as I walked into the lab, I saw that Cameron’s photographic portrait of Tennyson, then removed from the Jewett house library, had been thankfully removed yet again, from its frame. From beneath the long arm of the microscope, I realized that it was an authentic Cameron print, from her original hand crafted glass negative. I didn’t really even need to examine it, since I had enough experience with such objects that I could identify it, immediately. Every feature and characteristic of a Cameron original fine carbon print was evident at first glance, from the texture of the paper, to the hue of image. It was a formality, really, or so I thought at the moment, to look so closely at the print. But, to think of Sarah Orne Jewett hanging it so proudly in the library of her home, to imagine that she reflected on her visit with Tennyson at Farringford, Isle of Wight, in 1882, and to believe that she sat looking at it in admiration, was really quite extraordinary. She knew of its value at the time, as I did then, and of Cameron’s growing fame, to be sure.
It was overwhelming to be able to examine it so freely, but my instinctive attention eventually took me away from the table where the portrait was located, to another table where the portrait’s arts and crafts styled frame with gallery markings, had been left for me to examine, together with the original nineteenth century newspaper that was used as backing for the print itself, before framing. I stared at the old paper, reviewing some of the headlines, and realized for the first time that the portrait had not been removed from its frame since it was first brought to the Jewett home, over one hundred years, before. The significance of the newspaper and the frame would slowly become more evident, as more research took me to Washington, DC, and to the Archives of American Art, where I learned that both would eventually become more important to my research than the portrait.
After I was invited to examine the print with both microscope and magnifying glass, my daughter asked if she could take a look, as none of us could find any identifiable markings on it. The few members of the staff, seemed not to mind, and I encouraged her to come closer and have a look through the microscope. As she carefully and slowly moved the instrument across the print, I returned to my husband and the staff to answer their questions about Cameron, and Tennyson, and about what I had researched and written over the course of the two previous semesters of graduate school. As well as, about all the work I completed on the extraordinary connections between Cameron, and Tennyson, and the New England regional literati since the summer before, on that day in August, 2013, when I first saw the Cameron photograph of Tennyson in the Jewett house library.
It was then, that I heard my daughter’s sweet, melodic voice gently interrupt us. “Mum,” she said, “I think you need to see this.” I turned and walked to where she had positioned the microscope toward the lower corner of the print and as she stepped away, she touched my arm reassuringly and nodded to me, indicating with a smile, that I should look and see what she had found. There, just barely visible, was what I later determined as the raised stamp of the Autotype Company, of London England. I was amazed and asked the staff if we could please have the print turned for us, verso, in order to examine the stamp more carefully. And there, quite plainly, was something else. Something even more important. A very large and very grand handwritten number scrolled across the back of the print in pencil, as though left there for me, as the clue to my next Cameron photographic portrait discovery, ready to be found somewhere in Maine.
From, On Finding Julia, Copyright, Wise Welsh Witch, 2020.