Leaving her close-knit artistic community on the Isle of Wight at the age of sixty to join her husband on the coffee plantations of Ceylon was not an easy move for the celebrated British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Eugenia Herbert explores the story behind the move and how the new environment was to impact Cameron's art.
July 9, 2014
The Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron is currently undergoing a revival with a recent exhibition of her work at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. She has long evoked interest not only because of her distinctive style but also because of her eccentric personality, her dominant — very dominant — role in a circle that in many ways prefigured the Bloomsbury of her grandniece, Virginia Woolf. But there was another strand in her life that was quintessentially Victorian: the imperial. She was daughter, wife and mother of Empire. To top it off, four of her five sisters married “Anglo-Indians” — civil or military officials serving in India.
Her own embrace of this legacy, however, was equivocal at best; she went to Ceylon not by choice but by necessity in the twilight of her life. When she at last settled there, she had been immersed in photography for only just over a decade and was at last coming into her own as a very visible, if sometimes controversial, practitioner of the art. What is poignant are the ways that Ceylon affected not only the shape of her life, but also that of her art. It happened like this.
The progenitor of the clan, James Pattle, was part of the British establishment in India, the latest in a long line of officials in the East India Company. While James rose to a high rank, he was notorious as a drunkard and a liar. His wife, Adeline, was a French aristocrat, the daughter of the Chevalier de l’Etang, who had been exiled to the French outpost of Pondicherry, allegedly for being too close to the young Marie Antoinette. After a spell fighting the British for control of the continent, he had little difficulty in changing sides; in fact it was just as well he was far off in India when the French Revolution broke out. Adeline’s mother was the daughter of French-Swiss missionaries who had been in Pondicherry for several generations.
Fortified with this impeccable imperial pedigree, Julia Margaret was born in Calcutta in 1815 at a time when the British East India Company was still at its zenith. She was the second of seven surviving daughters. Like most colonial children she was sent back to Europe for her education with several of her sisters. In their case, most of the time was spent with their maternal grandmother roaming around Paris and Versailles. In contrast to the miseries detailed in Kipling’s “Baa Baa, Blacksheep”, the girls seem to have had a pleasantly relaxed (not to say, haphazard) education and to have suffered little from the separation from the parental fold. They were finally reunited with their parents in England for a brief period during James’s only home leave. When Julia Margaret returned to Calcutta the age of eighteen after an absence of fifteen years, it was assumed she would focus her attentions on finding a suitable husband.
This indeed she did, albeit in no particular haste. She met Charles Hay Cameron in Cape Town in 1836 where both were convalescing from illness. A Scot of aristocratic lineage but modest means, Cameron was twenty years her senior. He was collaborating with Macaulay on Indian legal and educational reform, and eventually succeeded Macaulay as legal member of the Council of India. They were married in Calcutta and spent the next twelve years there. Though a marriage of extreme opposites, it seems to have been a happy one. Four of their six children were born in India.
The family left India for good in 1848. There were probably several factors in their decision to abandon the ample salary and privilege Charles’ position offered. Julia Margaret always hated separations and dreaded sending her children off to school in England as was the universal custom; by then, too, her much loved sisters were also settling down in England. Furthermore, her husband’s health was precarious. Once in England Julia Margaret’s natural gregariousness found an infinite outlet in a large circle of friends. Indeed, both in London, and later in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight, she attracted an assortment of painters and writers to complement her absorbing family life.
Over what would otherwise have been a very happy life, however, hung the ever-present cloud of financial uncertainty, indeed distress. Charles never had a job the rest of his life, although he doggedly held out hopes of appointment as an official in one of Britain’s colonies — he would have loved to return to Ceylon as governor — but his poor health was against him. As a classic Victorian valetudinarian he spent most of his days clad in a “dressing-gown of pale blue with black velvet buttons and a heavy gold chain”, receiving visitors in his bedroom or walking about the garden reciting Homer and Virgil, his long white locks giving him the air of an Old Testament prophet. What kept them afloat were generous — very generous — “loans” from family members and above all from Charles’ old friend Lord Overstone, one of the richest men in England.
Charles had first succumbed to the charm of the Eden-like island when he went out as co-chairman of the Colebrooke-Cameron Commission, appointed in 1829 to propose much needed reforms to the administration of Ceylon. As a jurist, Cameron’s mandate was to formulate a uniform code of justice for the island, to bring order out of the chaos of competing and poorly implemented systems of law: Roman Dutch, British, and Kandyan. This he did, inspired largely by the utilitarian theories of his friends Jeremy Bentham and James Mill.
Ceylon had become a British possession in 1796, mostly for strategic reasons — it boasted the finest harbor on the Bay of Bengal. When British hegemony in South Asia was solidified after the Napoleonic Wars, its strategic importance was downgraded and the government was faced with the dilemma of what to do with a territory that was a veritable palimpsest of foreign rule since the sixteenth century: Portuguese, Dutch, the British East India Company, the Presidency of Madras, and finally its incarnation as the first Crown Colony. Hitherto Europeans had been unsuccessful in attempts to control the interior of the island, but with the British conquest of the Kandyan Kingdom in 1815, their rule embraced not only the littoral but also its less hospitable hinterland with quite different social and legal structures.
The year Cameron spent in Ceylon – 1830-31 – was never forgotten. Indeed, he would have much preferred to settle there for good with his family rather than return to England (they stopped off in Ceylon on the way “home”), and he clung to this dream for the rest of his life. He had gotten in on the ground floor of the coffee mania that swept the island in the early 1840s, buying up large tracts of land at bargain prices to which he added over the years until he may well have been the largest single plantation owner in the colony. One tract became known as Cameron’s Land.
Coffee, he felt confident, would support his large family and set up his five sons as they grew to maturity. It is something of a mystery that this never happened. To be sure, coffee was vulnerable to all the dangers besetting monoculture on a grand scale. Some were domestic: extremes of weather, blights and rodent infestations, poor management and ignorance, absentee landlords (which were the rule rather than the exception) demanding quick returns; others were global: competition from other producers such as the East Indies, periodic depression in England and Europe. Coffee consumption in England had risen every bit as fast as tea in the nineteenth century, but when times were hard it was adulterated with chicory and other cheaper ingredients.
Then there was the constant problem of an adequate labor force. Most of the field workers were recruited from the impoverished peasantry of southern India and crossed by sea to Colombo or to the northern part of the island via the Palk Straits, which was wider than the English Channel and even rougher. From there they had to make the rest of the long journey to the highland plantations by foot, often weakened by hunger and disease; many died on the way. Getting Ceylon coffee to market was itself a nightmare since the best regions for coffee growing were also the most remote — it had taken Charles eight hours by pony to go from his estate at Rathoongodde to the largest town, Kandy. Road building proceeded in fits and starts, depending on the health of government coffers. Until the railroad reached Kandy in 1867, coffee had to be hauled by bullock carts, far slower than ponies, over roads that were often little more than tracks. The bullocks themselves were in short supply since Ceylonese grasses were notoriously poor. It cost twice as much to transport the coffee the hundred miles or so from the Central Highlands to Colombo as it did to ship it half way around the world to England.
In spite of everything, the 1850s and 60s were boom years, a “Golden Age” of Ceylon coffee — in the early 1860s the island briefly led the world in coffee exports. Even into the mid-70s expansion of cultivation and high prices abroad minimized the initial impact of the fungus that would soon destroy the industry. It is hard to fathom why all this was not reflected in the Camerons’ finances. In fact, things had come to a head already in 1864 when even the patient Lord Overstone agreed with their son-in-law Charles Norman that the estate of Rathoongodde should be sold as the precondition for any more loans. Cameron stalled, however, even though by then he admitted to being virtually “penniless”; instead, he sent his son to manage the plantation. Perhaps Julia Margaret was indulging in some wishful thinking when she declared soon that under Ewen’s direction the estate was turning a profit of £1,000-£1,500 a year in contrast to the thousands of pounds of debt run up by the agents previously charged with administering it: only a few years later they were desperately pleading once more with Overstone for more loans — and this at a time when coffee prices were climbing to new heights.
But it was not just speculative fever and the sacra aurae fames that inspired Cameron to invest in ever more land in Ceylon and to insist on holding onto it through good years and bad. “[H]is reigning passion for his Ceylon properties,” Julia Margaret wrote an old friend in 1860, “has held him in sway + weakened his love for England for the last 20 years.” He truly loved the island and especially the wild landscape of the interior highlands ideal for coffee growing. Whatever his allegiance to the rather mechanistic doctrines of his fellow Utilitarians, he was a romantic at heart. Victoria Olsen, author of a splendid biography of Julia Margaret Cameron, quotes a moving letter to his wife when he paid a visit to his plantations in 1850. The bungalow he had had built at Rathoongodde was like a “Swiss cottage,” he wrote, then took her on a tour of its setting:
If you follow the path which winds round the grassy hill on the right you come in about 200 yards to a deep ravine down which flows a lovely mountain stream which I have christened the Julia oga….When it crosses the path it forms a beautiful cascade falling in two white and foaming sheets of water, over the smooth face of a huge and solid mass of granite rock. At the bottom of the cascade it forms a pool about five feet deep, always cool and clear as crystal….You see nothing on either side but the steep and wooded banks of the ravine with ferns and wild flowers in profusion….The side of the valley so rising in front of you [sic], is covered, for about two thirds of its height, with fine coffee, then comes a belt of forest, above that the bright blue sky or the floating clouds.
The paths through coffee and forest went on for miles, with the “glorious prospects of mountains and valleys…before you. It would be nothing less than an eternal shame to you,” he added pointedly, “to be the owner of such a place and not to come and see it.” Life was so much cheaper than in England that even with the expense of their passages, they would come out ahead, he argued, if the family settled there for a spell. He was sure, too, that his health would be far better on the island.
But Julia Margaret resisted the idea of removing to Ceylon just as strenuously as Charles resisted selling Rathoongodde. She might name their refurbished home Dimbola Lodge after the valley in Ceylon where one of their estates was located, but her Dimbola was in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight, next door to the Tennysons, and there she intended to remain.
The standoff continued until 1875 by which time Charles was 80 and Julia Margaret 60. Then at last, she resigned herself to settling in Ceylon. Her change of heart was due not only to their chronic penury but also to the fact that four of their five sons were already established there (her only daughter had died a few years before). Her circle of family and friends in England had gradually been diminished by death, and it was all the more important to her to be united with her sons and husband for whatever time was left to her. Given her views on the perils of the island (her husband had almost died on a visit there 1859-60), she made sure to bring along two coffins (and a cow).
Charles perked up immediately at the prospect. He had always insisted that “Ceylon is the cure for all things,” and so it proved. Like Lazarus he rose from his bed and mingled with friends and neighbors for the first time in twelve years. When the celebrated botanical painter Marianne North visited them in Ceylon, she marveled to find him “perfectly upright. He read all day long, taking walks round and round the verandah at Kalutara with a long staff in his hand, perfectly happy, and ready to enjoy any joke or enter into any talk which went on around him.” To her pleasure he would quote poetry and read aloud to her while she was painting. At other times he rode around on his pony.
Even Julia Margaret acknowledged the tropical beauty all about her. “The glorious beauty of the scenery — the primitive simplicity of the inhabitants & the charms of the climate all make me love Ceylon more and more,” she wrote to her old friend Sir John Herschel. She divided her time between Kalutara on the southwest coast, the home of her son Hardinge who was a colonial official, and the family estates in the Highlands. Nevertheless, the coffins did not go to waste (though there is no information about the cow): Julia Margaret died in 1879, Charles the following year. Plantation workers from the Rathoongodde estate carried the bodies the last difficult track to the churchyard in Bogawantalawa, a fervent believer buried alongside a fervent non-believer.
What does all this tell us about Julia Margaret Cameron the photographer? The contrast with her husband highlights all the more her own character and its embodiment in her work. Ceylon — and particularly the highlands of his beloved Rathoongodde — appealed to Charles’s love of nature, the wilder the better. Isolation not only did not bother him, it actually seems to have attracted him. His was a love of the classics, hers a love of the most contemporary artists and men of letters whom she scooped up in her personal embrace. He did not need, as Julia Margaret did, to be constantly surrounded by people — especially people she could boss around and at the same time shower with impetuous generosity. Her photography is intensely people-oriented. For her, beauty lay first and foremost in the human form, a form indeed with a face. She once declared: “The history of the human face is a book we don’t tire of if we can get its grand truths and learn them by heart.”
Her contemporaries found it next to impossible to refuse her when she demanded to photograph them — G. F Watts, Darwin, Carlyle, Tennyson, Herschel, a galaxy of famous men. She favored pensive, even melancholy poses with an emphasis on contrasts of light and shadow. Given her own inclination for exotic attire, it is not surprising that she garbed her female subjects, as Olsen notes, in almost Oriental extravagance. For her representations of religious subjects or characters from literary works such as Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, she would virtually shanghai her models on the grounds of beauty alone. It was commonly believed, reported Thomas Wentworth Higginson, that she “selected her housemaids for their profiles, that she might use them for saints and madonnas in her photographic groups.” Even children did not escape her clutches when it suited her agenda. What is almost entirely missing from her oeuvre, however, is any interest in landscape for itself. She might portray a female figure holding a flower or framed by a deeply-shadowed backdrop of leaves and blossoms, but they were not the focus themselves, not even in photographs such as The Gardener’s Daughter or The Rosebud Garden of Girls.
Ceylon was ill adapted to this repertoire. Madonnas and literary figures seemed out of place. There were few famous men — the governor, Sir William Gregory, rebuffed her attempts to photograph him. Fortunately the celebrated botanical painter, Marianne North, paid the Camerons a visit at Kalutara. “In a fever of excitement” at having a European model, Julia Margaret made a number of photographs of her, four of which survive. In defiance of the climate, she dressed North up “in flowing draperies of cashmere wool [such as Cameron herself was wearing], let down my hair, and made me stand with spiky cocoa-nut branches running into my head, the noonday sun’s rays dodging my eyes between the leaves as the slight breeze moved them, and told me to look perfectly natural (with the thermometer standing at 96°).” She was trying with indifferent success to replicate the portraits for which she was famous: North reading a book and gazing into the distance, North standing against a backdrop of trees (the prickly cocoa-nuts), and so forth. But one photograph is quite different from her usual style. The painter is standing at her easel to the left on the thatched verandah at Kalutara; to the right is a figure — a “native” — stripped to the waist, wearing a dhoti, and holding an earthen vase over his shoulder; the vista opening up beyond the house is virtually unreadable.
North found the setting entrancing: “Their house stood on a small hill, jutting out into the great river which ran into the sea a quarter of a mile below the house. It was surrounded by cocoa-nuts, casuarinas, mangoes, and breadfruit trees; tame rabbits, squirrels, and mainah-birds ran in and out without the slightest fear, while a beautiful tame stag guarded the entrance; monkeys with gray whiskers, and all sorts of fowls, were outside.” Her painting, Bombay Pedlars on Mrs Cameron’s Verandah shows a group of figures, the peddlers, sitting cross-legged in the foreground surrounded by luxuriant tropical foliage with the water behind them. The house by the “great river” might well have reminded Julia of her home at Garden Reach overlooking the Hooghly River in Calcutta, but she seems to have been interested only in the painter painting the scene, not the scene itself.
If she made no photographs of Kalutara and its relatively tame environs, she also made none of the far wilder scenery that her husband loved so much (and which Marianne North painted on at least one occasion) — no woods and mountains and cascades, not even Adam’s Peak rising dramatically to the south of their plantations in the highlands. Nor did she choose to photograph indigenous art in any form in spite of the array of Buddhist and Hindu temples on display all around her. The only concession to Ceylon was a modest collection of individual or group portraits of maidservants and plantation workers, posed rather unnaturally outdoors and often at a distance from the photographer, and clothed to emphasize their exoticism. North notes that in one case she took such a fancy to the “superb” back of a young man that she insisted her son hire him as gardener, “though she had no garden and he did not know even the meaning of the word.” Nevertheless all of her Ceylon models are nameless — the titles seem to have been added later: Girl, Ceylon; A group of Kalutara peasants; and the like. Most critics have dismissed these as of more ethnographic rather than artistic interest.
There are two photographs so unlike anything she had ever done in either country and so similar to a host of pictures taken around the same time by other photographers that one questions their attribution. The photographs lack both the strong contrasts and the focus on the human face typical of her work. One shows large, indistinct groups of “natives” gathered in a forest clearing. A white diagonal extends into the left foreground — possibly tea chests? The other is a muster of plantation workers in descending height from men to women to children, their dress far from exotic and apparently revealing their status in the hierarchy from overseer to lowly field hand. The background is bleak rather than muted or decorative: a vast expanse of smoldering tree trunks and debris, with mountains vaguely delineated in the distance — the scene is typical of many other pictures of the clear-cutting and burning of whole forests to make way for coffee and, about this time, tea. Why pass up the sublime landscapes of Rathoongodde in favor of nature despoiled? Could these photographs in fact have been taken by one of her sons, Hardinge Hay or Henry Herschel (who later set up as a professional photographer in London)?
Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographic vision was not that of Samuel Bourne or Felice Beato or W.L.H. Skeen. She had no desire to portray the imperial world as they did, ranging throughout India and Ceylon in search of the picturesque and the exotic. Anglo-Indian by birth, her tastes and ambitions were nevertheless circumscribed by the mid-Victorian world of England, the fleeting idyll that was Freshwater.
Eugenia Herbert is Professor Emeritus of History at Mount Holyoke College. She is the author of books on American, European and African History, including Twilight on the Zambezi: Late Colonialism in Central Africa. She is the author of Flora’s Empire: British Gardens in India.