Light & Love - the story of Julia Margaret Cameron and Mary Hillier
10th September 2020
Two lives whose meeting created a little magic in the world of Victorian photography.
Dimbola Lodge, situated in a pleasant bay on the Isle of Wight, is these days a thriving museum of photography dedicated to it’s former owner the celebrated Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–79). It is she who is the subject, in part, of a new book by author and historian Kirsty Stonell Walker. There have been previous biographies on the subject of Julia Margaret but this one is different because it deals in equal measure with a hitherto (as far as I’m aware) unstudied associate of the photographer, namely her housemaid and model Mary Hillier.
The distinctive profile of Mary Hillier features on the cover of Light and Love.
Ever-present assistant and model
Mary is important because of all the many people that Mrs Cameron entreated, persuaded or otherwise cajoled into posing for her photographs at her island home, Mary’s distinctive presence in front of the lens spans the whole length of Cameron’s creative presence there, from the days of her very first hesitant attempts at the complicated Victorian process of wet collodion photography, to her final accomplished and highly professional portraits of some of the most significant men and women of the age.
Julia Margaret in shawl
The early chapters are taken up with the background of the Pattle family (Julia Margaret’s maiden name). We learn how she and her sisters when young alternated from their place of birth in Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) to Europe, also later spending time in South Africa where Julia met two of the most influential figures in her life, the astronomer John Herschel and her future husband Charles Hay Cameron.
We follow Mrs Cameron to London and, eventually, in 1859, to the Isle of Wight – home not only to Queen Victoria at the time, but also to the poet Tennyson – her friend and neighbour in the seaside village of Freshwater. Here, she began to experiment with her first camera, enlisting local people and her household staff as subjects and models. And it is also here that Mary Hillier enters the picture, so to speak, and we learn the peculiar nature of her employment, being at once both parlour maid, assistant and photographic model.
Dimbola Lodge, Freshwater, in times past
Mary sat mostly for allegorical studies - group compositions echoing themes from history, art and literature, popular in Victorian times. The solo portraits that Julia Margaret also specialised in were reserved more for the many famous guests who, upon visiting the island, would often drop in at Dimbola to have the likeness captured by the increasingly well-known society photographer. Despite this, there are photos of Mary in which she is posed alone, and these are arguably some of the most striking and evocative of all JMC's images.
Mary Hillier as Maud from Tennyson's poem
The book itself, though full of extensive research and fresh information, is a comfortable read, and richly illustrated with numerous examples of JMC's art. In Light & Love, the author succeeds in conveying the Cameron’s colonial background and the all-pervasive class structure of Victorian society in a plain, non-judgemental style, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions concerning just what this might have meant to the relationship between the two women. I liked the overall design and physical presence of the book, too – being a sturdy hardback with an unusual and attractive combination of colours on the spine and cover.
Final Chapters - Mary after Julia
Julia Margaret and her husband left England in 1875 to return to their plantation life and their family in Ceylon. And it is at this point that the two women's unusual relationship comes to an end. The final chapters, therefore, could easily fall pray to being something of an anticlimax. But they do not. The life of Mary after Julia was eventful and wholly reflective of a time of considerable social change in England and, indeed, much of Europe. Mary remained in the village of Freshwater. She married and had children, some of whom were lost in the dreadful carnage of the First World War.
At quite an early age her sight began to fail, possibly hastened by an earlier exposure to so many toxic chemicals in the darkroom of her former employer. In this context, there is a most poignant observation, accompanied by a photograph of a household medical book, which, all these many decades later, still tends to fall open on those pages dealing with eyesight - so often must it have been consulted and contemplated with a mixture of sorrow and foreboding.
Curiously, too, for the remainder of her days, Mary never consented to have her photograph taken by anyone else.
Mary as 'Mother'
Unique - but why?
There is speculation on just what makes Mrs Cameron’s photographs so special and why they continue to become more highly regarded with time. I think it could be, in part at least, due to the very process of 19th century photography and the partnership between photographer and model (for partnership it undoubtedly was). The early cameras demanded that the model must pose in absolute stillness, not just for seconds but in some cases whole minutes at a time. And for us, today, in an age when a selfie on a phone results from little more a twitch of the thumb, the mysterious images of Julia Margaret Cameron gaze out at us from their darkened backgrounds to reveal people in a state of exceptional calm and almost meditative repose. This is what makes these photos unique, and is why they cannot really be emulated today.
The journey to the area of Julia Margaret’s former home on the Isle of Wight (just off the south coast of England) is really something worth considering, by the way. It is one of those special places where the veil between the present and the past is just that little thinner than usual. And in ‘Light and Love’ you have a delightful volume to accompany you on your travels.