Back to Dimbola Lodge, and writing in her book Annals of My Glass House, Julia Margaret Cameron spoke of one of her maids : 'one of the most beautiful and constant of my models...The very unusual attributes of her character and complexion of her mind, if I may so call it, deserve mention in due time, and are the wonder of those whose life is blended with ours as intimate friends of the house.' That maid was the daughter of a local shoemaker who had come to work for Mrs Cameron as a parlourmaid, photographic assistant and Virgin Mary. She was Mary Hiller.
|Pound Green, Freshwater|
Mary was still living at home in the spring of 1861, where she and her brother are listed as scholars, but all that would change when she left home and moved down the road to Dimbola, into the employment of Julia Margaret Cameron. Normally, I would be cautious in describing the post of 'maid' as being positive, so many young women worked long, hard hours in menial, back-breaking labour, but in the case of the Cameron household, things were a little different. After all, how many maids got to act as a photographic assistant, both sides of the camera?
|Mary Hillier, Elizabeth and Kate Kuhn (1864) Julia Margaret Cameron|
|Mary Mother (1867)|
|Madonna and Child (Mary Hillier and Percy Keown) 1866|
|Sappho II (1865)|
Mary assisted her employer not just in front of the camera, but also did a large amount of the practical business of developing the images. Doing so in the 1860s was a hard process, including preparing and developing the negatives and producing the large finished prints. Cameron used the wet collodion method, which involved polishing the plate to produce a clean surface then pouring a layer of liquid collodion (cotton dissolved in nitric and sulphuric acid mixed with potassium iodine which would stain anything and everything black) evenly over the surface. Before that dried the plate was bathed into a solution of silver nitrate to make it light sensitive. This prepared plate was then mounted, in the dark, into the wooden holder of the camera. The plate was ready to be exposed and the picture captured.
|The Kiss of Peace (Mary Hillier and Elizabeth Keown) (1869)|
|Call, I Follow, I Follow, Let Me Die! (1867)|
|Friar Lawrence and Juliet (Sir Henry Taylor and Mary Hillier) (1865)|
|War Memorial, All Saints, Freshwater|
|Godfrey and Thomas Gilbert are listed among the fallen|
The family remained in Freshwater and three of Mary's daughter followed her into domestic service She was known for her grace and beauty even when an old, blind lady. Local schoolchildren remembered her as the elderly woman who allowed them into her garden to pick apples for 'a 'apenny a 'atful', which sounds like something my Grandma would say in probably the same accent. Her husband died in 1928 and Mary died, aged 88 in 1936, and is buried in All Saints churchyard, close to the Tennyson family vault.
|Mary Hillier (1873)|
It seems a fitting epitaph for a maid who will be forever remembered as the Freshwater Madonna.