Arresting Beauty

Written by Heather Cooper
Review by Katherine Mezzacappa

Putney Heath, 1858: Julia Margaret Cameron finds the ten-year-old Mary Ryan begging, and takes her in as a maid, later using her as a photographic model. Mary however states: ‘I was not a blank sheet of glass; nor was I a clean page, waiting to be written upon. I was already there. It is just that she could not see me.’ Mary’s vividly drawn unconventional mistress comes across as inadvertently rather than deliberately kind; the reader empathises with the exasperation some of those dragooned into sitting for her feel. Yet Julia encourages Mary to read; Mary herself learns that to survive in this new setting she must modulate her Irish accent. Her longing for her mother, who walked away from Julia’s magnanimity, is heartbreakingly described, yet each time her mother reappears, the gulf between their two lives widens.

The arcadian setting of Julia’s home, Dimbola, on the Isle of Wight, is so compellingly described that the reader would want to visit. Here Julia’s august friends, appealing children, tradesmen and servants are transformed into figures from mythology or literature by the aid of drapery and homemade props, to become the images for which Cameron was both admired and derided; the physical process of Victorian photography is so vividly got across that it can be touched and smelled. Tennyson is the nearest neighbour; he doesn’t so much flout convention as appear not to notice its existence. Dodgson, Lear, Darwin, Rossetti and the Carlyles appear; there is an appealingly acerbic cameo of Jane Welsh Carlyle. But poor Mary learns that she forms part of this world only on sufferance – until she meets Henry Cotton. Cooper writes lyrical prose, and her research is impeccable. The sitters in Cameron’s photographs move and speak.

(Ed. note: Please see Beachy Books for purchasing options.)