Framed in Constructed New England Regional Literary Identity

Julia Margaret Cameron, New England regional poet,
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1868.

Cameron’s 1867 composition of Tennyson required her subject to sit for long periods of time, as she quickly rushed between her glass house and her dark room before he became impatient, weary, or even vexed.  Gernsheim’s legendary account of Tennyson escorting New England regional poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to Cameron’s studio for the making of his portrait in 1868, claims that he told his friend and neighbor Cameron, “I have brought you a great man; he will let you immortalize him.”  But there is another, perhaps more insightful remark that Tennyson made to Longfellow upon leaving him there, as he was reported to have said, “I will leave you now, Longfellow.  You will have to do whatever she tells you.  I will come back soon and see what is left of you.” 

This accounts for the necessary time for exposure that required Cameron’s subjects to sit long and uncomfortably in the rising claustrophobic heat and increasing chemical vapor of her studio, while she instructed them on their use of clothing, posture, and gaze in order to achieve her end.  Here, it is important to consider, again, that all of Cameron’s original albumen print compositions of each of her subjects is a unique and individual fine art photographic portrait created by the artist herself, which is a distinction from the fine carbon prints later made by companies from Cameron’s original glass negatives, at her request.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Boston Publisher,
James T. Fields, 1869

The Tennyson and Longfellow portraits, both made long before Jewett and Fields’ 1882 travels abroad together and visit at Farringford, were followed by two other Cameron portraits of noted members of nineteenth century literary society, from the New England region.  Publisher James T. Fields, and Mabel Lowell, daughter of New England regional poet James Russell Lowell, who joined James and Annie Fields on one of their journeys to Farringford, in 1869, and were both photographed by Cameron during their visit there with the Tennysons.  The portrait of Fields was used as a frontispiece for his published works, while the very large portraits of Mabel Lowell belonged to the Burnett family, before they were given to Smith College Museum of Art’s Cunningham Center for Prints, Drawings and Photographs. 

In New England, some of the private collection belonging to Annie Fields, whose Boston home received visits from numerous famous Victorians, is housed at the Boston Atheneum and contains several Cameron portraits, including a portrait of British author Anne Thackeray Ritchie, daughter of British novelist William Makepeace Thackeray.  And, New England’s own nineteenth century authors Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne each lived in the village of Concord Massachusetts, which is the location of what is known today as Orchard House Museum, the home of author Louisa May Alcott’s family, where her father, Philosopher Bronson Alcott, kept Cameron’s portrait of British essayist Thomas Carlyle, in his study.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Mabel Lowell,
daughter of New England regional poet,
James Russell Lowell, 1869.
Julia Margaret Cameron, Mabel Lowell,
daughter of New England regional poet,
James Russell Lowell, 1869.

Photographic portrait subjects, both of, and in the possession of New England regional literati constitute a gathered authorship in both literature and fine art that conveys a layered textural reading of the individually interpreted narratives that framed them.  In his writing on the subject of  what he termed “author-function,” Michel Foucault describes literary discourses that come to be accepted, only when endowed with author-function, and insists that each poetical or fictional text asks: from where does it come, when, who wrote it, under what circumstances, or beginning with what design?  In the context of constructed New England regional literary identity, Cameron’s compositions of Longfellow, Fields, and Lowell each radiate their influential lives onto the New England culture and society where they are displayed. 

Julia Margaret Cameron,
Annie Thackeray Ritchie, 1870.

Longfellow as a subject, and as America’s counterpart to England’s poet laureate of the time, Tennyson, articulates a new frontier in epic poetry, even as his own authorship strides boldly toward the grandeur of an established old style.  Fields, as a subject, whose hallmarked career ushered in both American and British literary celebrity through publications that sold well in the marketplace,  declares the power associated with the merchandising of those who would aspire to inherit new mantles.  And Lowell, as a subject, fortunate enough to be invited by Fields to accompany her while her husband worked tirelessly with clients, expresses her membership among New England’s emerging young and privileged ingenues who occasionally travel abroad for pleasure.  In this, Cameron’s compositions grew in value and status owing to both the meaning of authorship as seen through the powerful lives of her subjects, as well as, the individual authorship she forged within a distinct new artistic style that she voiced as a fine art photographic portrait artist who immortalized famous Victorians.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Historian and Essayist,
Thomas Carlyle, 1867.

Cameron’s depictions of Victorian celebrities also represented an artistic departure from those crafted by contemporary photographers Lewis Carroll or John Mayall.  In comparison on their use of style and concept for each of their portraits of Tennyson; Cameron’s insistence on using soft focus, filling the frame with the face of her subject, and arranging the subject’s appearance fastidiously — all contributed to her success.  Her aim to create high art in photographic portraiture which emulated the Pre-Raphaelite painters, such as that of her friend, G.F. Watts, prompted his comment on the border of one of Cameron’s portraits of her niece, Florence Fisher, as he wrote, “I wish I could paint such a picture as this.” 

Inspired, Cameron pressed on with her artistic goals after her 1864 election to membership in the mostly male Photographic Society of London.  Despite mixed reviews of her early exhibited work, with one critic writing in the Photographic News, “A lady, Julia Margaret Cameron, sends some rather extraordinary specimens of portraiture, very daring in style, and treading on the debatable ground which may lead to grand results or issue in complete failure,” through the advancement of merchandising photographic arts through exhibitions, dealers, and galleries came the success of Cameron’s commodification of the visualization of the Victorian celebrity, even as she acted as her own agent in securing both London and Boston distributors for her fine art.  Over time, her photographic portraits came to be known in the New England region, simply as, “Camerons.”

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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