Saturday 2 May 2015

May Prinsep, My Princess

Welcome to a weekend of posts about a beautiful woman, which is always a good thing. Hers is the face that gazes out of many of Julia Margaret Cameron's photographs, and her life is like a page out of who's who.   This weekend I will be talking to you about the wonderful May Prinsep...

Elaine (1874) Julia Margaret Cameron
Any of you who have studied Victorian art or society will have come across the name 'Prinsep'.  The family had reach and influence of exciting proportion and anyone who was anyone found their way to their homes and tables. May, born Mary Emily Prinsep, was the daughter of Charles Prinsep, standing counsel to the East India Company and Judge Advocate General of India.  Born in Khidirpur (Kidderpore) in Kolkata (Calcutta) in 1853, she was one of eight children, six of whom survived infanthood.

The Prinsep children: (from left) Annie, May, Harry, Jim and Louisa (Charlie is missing)
(from Henry Prinsep's Empire by Malcolm Allbrook)

Connected closely with the presence of England in India and the growth, spread and success of the East India Company, the family lived in Belvedere House in Kolkata, here shown in a painting by May's uncle William Prinsep...

Belvedere House (1838) William Prinsep
May's mother, Louisa, was the daughter of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Lewis White of the Bengal Army. 1855 saw the birth of youngest Prinsep child, James (also known as Jim), followed by Louisa's death. Probably connected to this, Charles suffered a debilitating stroke, causing the family to return to England.  By the 1861 census, the family are settled in the comfortable town of Walton on Thames in Surrey.  Charles and four of his children lived on Church Road (just near the Aldi, which is handy).  Eldest brother Charles John (Charlie) had returned before his family to attend school in Brighton, then back to India with the 19th Hussars.  Left paralysed  by his stroke, Charles senior's health continued to decline and he died in 1864.  At that point the children went to live with their plentiful relatives, May making the journey to live with her Uncle Henry Thoby Prinsep and Aunt Sara at Little Holland House...

Little Holland House in the 1860s
Home to the Prinseps until its demolition in 1871
Henry Thoby Prinsep, younger brother to Charles, had also been in India, working in the legal system and the East India Company until his return to England in 1843.  By the end of the 1840s, he and his family had moved into Little Holland House, the dower house of Holland House in Kensington, London. Uncle Henry was married to Sara Monckton Pattle (sister to Julia Margaret Cameron) and among their children was the painter Valentine Prinsep. May became a member of the Little Holland Household and became known as 'the vision of beauty' (according to Mary Seton Watts in The Annals of an Artist's Life) as can ably be seen in her cousin's paintings of her...

May Prinsep (1868) Valentine Prinsep
May Prinsep and her Persian Cat Valentine Prinsep
George Frederic Watts had taken up residence at Little Holland House in 1850 as part of the ever-growing Prinsep household, his life dedicated to his art under the maternal care of Sara Prinsep.  Mary Seton Watts recalled that while staying there, Watts worked with 'arduous devotion' to his painting, his only break being a daily ride which he took for his health and his companion was more often than not May.  May's own devotion to Watts began in this time and it is unsurprising that her attachment to him, so soon after the death of her father, took a lifelong paternal slant. He also used her as a model in a handful of works from this period...

May Prinsep (c.1867) G F Watts

Prayer (1869) G F Watts

There will be more of Watts in tomorrow's post...

Being such a large yet close-knit family, it seems almost inevitable that May would find herself in Freshwater Bay, at the home of Julia Margaret Cameron.

The Neopolitan (1866) Julia Margaret Cameron
Spending several of her summers on the Wight, May quickly became part of Cameron's artistic vision, appearing in scores of her pictures for the next ten years.  Alongside the faces of her maids and neighbours, Cameron imagines May as a beauty of historic measure, in photograph after photograph...

Christabel (1866) J M Cameron

Beatrice (1866) J M Cameron
May (1869) J M Cameron
In 1870, Cameron took a series of photos of May one of which was entitled Pre-Raphaelite Study...

Pre-Raphaelite Study (1870) J M Cameron
Whilst it is likely that Cameron was influenced by various artists in the making of her Pre-Raphaelite Study, I agree with Graham Ovenden (amongst many) who suggest that the engraving of William Holman Hunt's Isabella and the Pot of Basil (left) in 1869 seems the most overt influence over the pose held by May in this picture.  It was believed to be a snub for Rossetti in some way as he refused to meet or pose for the photographer, but more likely it was just straightforward praise and inspiration from another artist and a very popular print of the moment. Cameron also knew Hunt, having taken his picture in 1864, dressed in his Eastern garb.

William Holman Hunt (1864) Julia Margaret Cameron
You could track the visits made by May by her occurrence in Cameron's work, all through the beginning of the 1870s. George du Maurier (cartoonist and author) described a visit to the Wight at the beginning of the 1870s when he met a young stockbroker, also on holiday: '...a very good looking chap of 40 with loads of tin - He has hired a yacht of 64 tons and is going to take us cruising about the island'.  That 'good looking chap' was Andrew Kinsman Hichens, who may have been already acquainted with May and her household from London but it was no coincidence that he was in Freshwater at the same time as she was. He was brought in to pose for Julia Margaret Cameron in a suitably romantic fashion for a photograph entitled Gareth and Lynette. This was her aunt's way of heralding a marriage as May and Andrew were married at All Saint's church in Freshwater on 10th November 1874...

Gareth and Lynette (1874)
It is an interesting subject to have as a wedding piece for the couple, taken from Idylls of the King and I wonder how much could be read into the fact that Lynette is quite a difficult character until she realises the true worth of Gareth?  Anyway, the couple were married and less than a year later the Camerons move away from the Isle of Wight, back to Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka).  Andrew and May lived in London and Compton, a small village outside Guildford in Surrey, but that is not the end of her story by any stretch.

Join me tomorrow for part two...


  1. It might just be me, but doesn't Sophie Turner, (Sansa Stark), bear more than a passing resemblance to May? (It's probably just me).

  2. Did Watts move to Compton before or after May?

  3. Thank you, all will be revealed tomorrow!

  4. And yes she does look a bit like Sansa (and Aretha from Raised by Wolves)...

  5. Lovely! I'm at "Victorian Giants" tomorrow, the Watts Gallery on Sunday and in Compton for three nights so will have had my fix of Cameron/Prinsep/Watts before returning to the real world!


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx