Julia Margaret Cameron by her son Henry Herschel Hay Cameron, 1870
The portrait above is the last photograph taken by Cameron’ s son. It shows his mother aged fifty nine, a well established professional with grown children of her own, an English matron. She is swathed in Indian shawls, a substantial figure who fills the frame. Her hair is graying and uncurled. Her hands are capable and almost rough around the knuckles. Her expression is firm not cold but not warm and yielding either. The portrait emerges from a deep black background, without any details to reveal time or place except for the Indian shawls. This portrait reveals a woman who had stood her ground against the photographic establishment for the past ten years and garnered the celebrities of her age to sit still for her. Cameron had changed, of course, but so had the times.
‘Yes, the history of the human face is a book we don’t tire of, if we can get its grand truths, & learn them by heart. The life has so much to do with the individual character of each face influencing form as well as expression so much. It is so refreshing to meet one who has not had enthusiasm trodden out but in whose soul love, reverence, and trust survive the dust of this 19th Century life of hurry, worry, crush and crowd.’
(Unpublished letter from Cameron to Samuel G. Ward, June 16, 1869, Houghton Library, Harvard University)
Who would have ever guessed that the first known portrait of Julia Margaret Prattle would be a French Romantic painting? Jean Francois Garneray, a student of the neoclassicist Jacques Louis David painted it around 1818. The painting shows an elegant bourgeois family. The mother reclines graciously on a bench, while her four eldest girls lean against her. As the third eldest, Julia Margaret is probably the small child at the far left of the canvas, with her arms full of flowers. The females are all dressed alike, in Regency gowns with puffed sleeves and flounces around the hems. Flowers are everywhere: large bouquets frame the family group and blossoms seem to spill out onto the girls’ arms and laps. The composition centers on the female group of mother and daughters, emphasized by the pale masses of their dresses and the poses and flowers that unite them as they lean into each other. The father, on the other hand, stands behind the bench in dark clothes, facing in the opposite direction. Julia Margaret’s parents, Adeline de l’Etang and James Prattle, were born and married in the Indian colonies, though each of them was educated at least partly in Europe, as was the custom among colonial families. Together they founded a clan that would be determinedly English by the end of the century, and that would pride itself on its birthright of beauty and privilege. The beauty was already apparent in this early portrait. She was born on June 11, 1815 in Calcutta, then the capital of the British government in India. James was an eccentric Englishman and a high ranking employee of the British East India Company, a private, for profit institution that governed the British colony and dominated trade in India from the late seventeenth century until the mid 19th Century. Adeline was a beautiful daughter of French émigrés. She had been born and raised in the French colony of Pondicherry, south of Madras on the eastern coast of India.
Adeline’s father and Julia Margaret’s grandfather, the Chevalier Antoine de l’Etang, came from a long established noble family. At age thirteen he had been made a page to the young Marie Antoinette at the court of Versailles and later a member of King Louis XVI’s Carde du Corps. He was suddenly exiled from Versailles to serve in a cavalry regiment in Pondicherry some time in the 1780s. In 1788 the Chevalier married Therese Joseph Blin de Grincourt and Therese became Julia Margaret’s grandmother. The Chevalier spent his long career in India in the service of the British East India Company. There in Calcutta they raised three daughters who all went on to marry Englishmen. Within two generations the family was “English”, more importantly, part of an elite class of British civil servants who lived like aristocrats in a colonized land. Julia Margaret seems to have always considered herself English, but she probably did not set foot in England until she was a young woman. She grew up speaking English, French, and Hindi, which was used to talk to servants even in the Bengali region of India. She later learned German well enough to publish translations from that language.
Between 1812 and 1829, Julia Margaret’s mother Adeline bore ten children of whom seven girls survived to adulthood. Having a large family coincided with Adeline Pattle’s trips to and from Europe to visit her husband who was always travelling when work took him away.
The Pattle girls had an unconventional upbringing, even by colonial standards. It was the custom of British families in India to send their children back to the mother country for their early life and education. The climate of India was thought to be unhealthy for small children, and it was considered a parent’s clear duty to send them away. So it was not surprising when the time came for the Pattles to send their daughters abroad for their educations to France instead of England. So off they went to their grandmother’s home located at 1 Place St. Louis in Versailles between the ages of three and six. There they were educated to be a young lady by their grandmother, Therese de l’Etang whose husband the Chevalier was away in India until his death in 1840. The Pattle children became accustomed to their mother, Adeline Pattle ferrying her daughters back and forth between their two homes in Paris, Versailles, and Calcutta during the 1810s and 1820s. The fact that these separations were standard colonial practice did not make them any easier to withstand. Later, when Julia Margaret became Julia Margaret Cameron, a colonial matron herself, she too sent her children to England for their health and education.
Photographs are famously useful for transcending distances between people and alleviating the strains of separation. Photographs make the absent present, and that may have held a powerful psychic appeal for Julia Margaret. She first took up photography as her children left home, and she eventually left England, and her photographic career, to be reunited with her family in Ceylon. She gave important photographic albums of her work and other family portraits to her sisters Maria and Virginia. Julia Margaret’s life was defined by great distances and separations from loved ones. Her upbringing in France may have brought her close to her grandmother and sisters, but it created a distance from her father and mother, her aunts and her uncles. That distance mattered: Julia Margaret was arguably never as close to anyone as she was to the sisters with whom she spent most of her childhood. And she spent the rest of her life trying to manage the separations that inevitably occurred between herself and her husband, her sisters, her closest friends, and her children.
For instance, Cameron’s later photographs of children also emphasize an infantile unity between pairs. In photographs like The Double Star, Cameron places two children in very close proximity and fills the large glass plate with their almost interlocking heads.
The filmy cloud around them frames them in a halo or an amniotic web that insists they are both single and double. Surprisingly, Cameron’s Madonna and Child series of photographs seem less enchanted with the transcendent bond between mother and child than found in this sample photograph:
The sibling bond between young children may surpass even maternal or divine love in Cameron’s symbolism. Portraits of mothers and children seem framed by the pain of an inevitable separation to come; portraits of siblings seem to hold no threat of any parting. This would be in keeping with the emotional realities of Julia Margaret’s early life.
Emily Tennyson said of her dear friend Julia Margaret Cameron, ‘We are not likely to find one to take her place so loving and strong in her woman’s way and so child-like in her faith’.
SOURCE From Life Julia Margaret Cameron and Victorian Photography by Victoria C. Olsen, 2003, Palgrave Macmillan Publishing