Those first summer into autumn weeks in 2013, after I discovered the Julia Margaret Cameron fine art photographic portrait of Alfred, Lord Tennyson at the Sarah Orne Jewett House, in South Berwick, ME were very, very stressful. It took several months of phone calls and emails with Historic New England, a few meetings with advisors and professors at the American & New England Studies department in the University of Maine, as well as, numerous conversations with colleagues and friends at Smith College before I was finally able to meet with folks from Historic New England at their repository in Haverhill, Massachusetts to examine Cameron’s work with a microscope in the spring of 2014. My son was seriously ill in hospital, recovering from nearly a whole month of unconsciousness in an induced coma, after seizure disorder medication known as Lamictal had badly damaged his lungs for over six years. We had been told that he would assuredly not live, but live he did, after he fought like mad to save his own life. He would only be granted two more years. So many memories of the quest On Finding Julia, would become intertwined with my son’s last quest on this earth, making them equally bittersweet and cherished.
After that initial examination, what followed were a lot of strange occurrences, most notably, a newspaper interview that I granted after I was assigned a lovely publicist by the University of Southern Maine. I was packing to leave for Massachusetts General Hospital for the beginning of several weeks of neurological treatment for my son in the summer of 2014, when the phone rang and I suddenly found myself speaking with a nice reporter. Terribly worried about my son, I stumbled through what I could, answering questions to the best of my ability, not speaking too openly about my thesis work, and instead, mentioning something about the connections between Victorians and social media activities. I was a disaster. The story went global in print and media, and when I later attended, at the last minute, the Julia Margaret Centennial Conference at Portsmouth University and Isle of Wight in the summer of 2015, I embarrassingly admitted that, yes, I was the woman who discovered the Cameron portrait at the Jewett House, which made British press, as well. But, no matter, everyone was really very kind, and I made some lovely new acquaintances from across the pond.
But, before that, back in Boston, I began to wonder about Cameron portraits of “famous men and fair women,” throughout New England. How many could there possibly be, lurking on the walls of the many historic sites located in the region, both unidentified and unexamined, as the Jewett House portrait had been? If one member of the New England Regional literati had collected a Cameron for their home, how many others might have done the same? More importantly, where might they be located in Maine, since Jewett and others, such as Hawthorne, Stowe, and especially Longfellow claimed it as their residence for some or all of their lives? Maine, a seaside destination for some of the New England Regional literati, offered a respite from nineteenth century city living in Boston, which many of them longed to experience. James and Annie Fields owned a summer residence at Manchester-By-the-Sea on Cape Ann, in Massachusetts, which was visited by some, but other towns and villages up the shore to Ogunquit, Maine were also popular, as well, making travel from Boston to Portland, quite frequent in summer months. There certainly had to be more Cameron portraits in Maine.
Longfellow, a contemporary of Tennyson, indeed, some believed an American counterpart to the Poet Laureate himself, was also an acquaintance. The legendary tale of Longfellow’s visit to Tennyson on the Isle of Wight, as well as, his portrait session with Tennyson’s neighbor, Cameron, was not unknown to me. James and Annie Fields of their famed #148 Charles Street residence in Boston, too, were important among their charmed circle, as the publication of authored works fell to Ticknor & Fields in Boston. It followed then, that I should drive up to Maine Historical Society in Portland, Maine, which housed their collections next to the preserved historic home of Longfellow, and visit with the Maine Historical Society curator in winter of 2015 to examine another fine art photographic portrait by Cameron, of Longfellow. Unframed, and with a magnifying glass, I searched feverishly for the Autotype company stamp like the one I found on the Tennyson portrait, a fine carbon print, at the Jewett House. As it happened, no such coincidence occurred; the image itself was slightly tinged in a differing hue and speckled with chemical dust that identified it as an original albumen print from Cameron’s own negative, almost certainly distributed by Colnaghi. What more could I find, I wondered, as I turned the print to the other side and made yet another, new discovery, verso.
There, I discovered something incredible; the very large and very grand handwritten number 2483, scrolled across the back of the print in pencil, which was sequential to the one I discovered on the back of the Tennyson portrait at the Sarah Orne Jewett House, in South Berwick, Maine. That number, 2484, had been the clue which led me to the location of this Cameron fine art photographic portrait of Longfellow at the Maine Historical Society, in Portland, Maine. I was stunned to realize something more, even far more, significant to the history of the Julia Margaret Cameron fine art photographic portraits of famous men and fair women, not just in Maine, but in the entire New England region. It was not only that each of the portraits had sequential numbers, identically hand written in large nineteenth century script, verso, but that they had both been framed in exactly the same arts and crafts styled frames, each with identical markings. The Longfellow portrait was originally owned by Alexander Wadsworth Longfellow, brother to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and an acquaintance of Annie and James Fields. The curator then explained that the backing of the portrait had been long ago disposed with the day’s rubbish, but that one item had been saved. I was startled by my next clue, a small card, which the curator pulled from an envelope and carefully handed to me.
I stared at the delicately styled markings on the card and took in a sharp breath at what was the identification emblem of the gallery where the Cameron fine art photographic portrait of Tennyson, at the Sarah Orne Jewett House had been framed in the summer of 1882, and which I could now plainly see was exactly the same as the identification emblem of the gallery where the Cameron fine art photographic portrait of Longfellow at Maine Historical Society had been framed at the same time. That summer of 1882 found the widowed Annie Adams Fields, together with the author, Sarah Orne Jewett, traveling together in England where they visited Tennyson at his Farringford Home on the Isle of Wight. Longfellow had recently passed away in spring of 1882, while Tennyson was enjoying his rambles toward the downs by the sea later that summer. It was also in the summer of 1882 that Standard Oil of New Jersey was established, the Women’s Property Act received royal assent, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture debuted in Moscow, Thomas Edison lit up Lower Manhattan, and the first Labor Day Parade was held in New York. And, it was in the summer of 1882 that somewhere in New England, someone was framing two fine art photographic portraits of the most influential literary men of the nineteenth century. Soon, I would need to pack for a trip to the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, in Washington, D.C. to learn why.
From, On Finding Julia, by Robin Whitham McCrady, Copyright, 2020.
“Wise Women, such as Midwives, Astronomers, Mathematicians, Healers, Philosophers, Herbalists, and Storytellers were once persecuted, as Witches,” from Wise Welsh Witch.