You may have read recently that the National Portrait Gallery have acquired an album of Oscar Gustave Rejlander’s work and it will be unveiled to the public in the autumn. It will a great opportunity to enjoy the work of a photographer whose photographs are not displayed that often. Having said that, I saw some of Rejlander’s work not that long ago in the context of an exhibition…
|Maids Drawing Water at Freshwater (or At the Well) (1863) O G Rejlander
This image of Mary Ryan and Mary Kellaway by the well in the back garden of Dimbola was an exciting find as part of the V&A’s 200th anniversary exhibition of Julia Margaret Cameron. Rejlander and Cameron were early collaborators and his friendship with her helped shape her as a photographer in many ways but the reason I like Oscar Gustave Rejlander is that he raises more questions than he answer in the life of Julia Margaret Cameron. That has to be a good thing.
|The Two Ways of Life (1857) O G Rejlander
Starting with Rejlander’s life before Cameron – Not very much is known about his early life before he arrived on a ship name the Woodhouse from Clausen to Hull on 2nd August 1839. He was the only ‘alien’ on the ship, and he gave his profession as bokhållare, or book-keeper. By the 1841 census, Rejlander is living in lodgings in Lincoln and is listed as an ‘artist’, and indeed he exhibited a painting entitled Oh Yes! Oh Yes! Oh Yes! (probably not wise to google that at work) in the Royal Academy’s exhibition in 1848. He had trained in Rome to be an artist but if his chosen profession of ‘book keeper’ is anything to go by, he might not have had a large amount of faith in his skills. In Edgar Yoxall Jones’ book Father of Art Photography: O G Rejlander 1813-1875 (1973), it becomes clear that although Rejlander continued to call himself an artist, photography was in his future, culminating in a friendship with an amateur photographer and then a trip in 1851 to the Great Exhibition where he saw the Daguerreotypes and changed his course. The artist could immediately see how photography could improve draughtsmanship and assist in knowledge of anatomy. A photograph would not move, would be patient to the whims of the artist and would be ever ready with the consistent pose, day or night. You can see by Rejlander’s photographs that some of them are very familiar versions of paintings and although it is not widely known exactly who his clients were, some paintings do seem to owe a lot to his photographic images, such as the one Jones uses as an example, Burne-Jones’ Flamma Vestalis…
|Flamma Vestalis Edward Burne-Jones
|Truly Thanksful (c.1860s) O G Rejlander
So, how does Julia Margaret Cameron fit into this story? Well, for me, this is the interesting bit as fitting Rejlander into Cameron’s story is a slightly tricky issue as there are a few ways they could have met. We know for certain that Rejlander travelled to Freshwater in 1863, where he took photographs of the Tennyson family, and this formal portrait of Alfred Tennyson, celebrity poet…
|Alfred Tennyson (1863) O G Rejlander
Then we also have the Idylls of the Village, a series of staged domestic scenes taken around Dimbola using members of the household as the models (sound familiar?). In addition to the two Marys at the well, there are images of the postman’s arrival, Julia at her piano and the various Cameron boys involved or watching the women work. These photographs are most notable now because the Marys by the Well scene features the glasshouse that Cameron used as a studio in the background. It also shows the now familiar faces of Mary Ryan and Mary Kellaway in their household tasks (It’s very useful for me as well as it shows Mary Hillier was not working at Dimbola when the images were taken, showing she did not start work there until after the Spring of 1863).
|Mrs Cameron and her staff receiving letters from the postman (1863) O G Rejlander
|The Hurdy-Gurdy Man (1863-5) O G Rejlander
|The Three Graces (1863) O G Rejlander
In Amanda Hopkinson’s biography of Julia Margaret Cameron there is a suggested explanation of why such emphasis was placed on the staged scenes of the postman’s arrival at Dimbola. Whilst Rejlander favoured such domestic genre scenes as this, there is the added element that Cameron relied on the post to hear from her husband when he was away, and other friends and family, in her relative isolation of the Island.
|Mrs Cameron and maids receive letters from the postman, Freshwater (1863) O G Rejlander
So, why was Rejlander on the Isle of Wight? It is sometimes suggested that he was just on holiday, or had been invited over to the Freshwater community as a fellow artist. Certainly, he shared many interests in common with Cameron if his photographs are anything to go by, and whilst in Freshwater he took not just the formal portrait of the Laureate but also some rather more informal images of both families.
A possible explanation for this visit came in an interview with Henry Herschel Hay Cameron, Julia’s son, in an issue of Sun Artists. The publication, under the editorship of P H Emerson (also a photographer), ran an eight part special on Cameron’s work between 1889-91 (one issue of it can be viewed here). In the interview, Henry Cameron claimed that before starting her own career, his mother paid commercial artists to photograph friends and family so she could assist and learn from the sittings, and he listed Tennyson as one of those who had been photographed. It is therefore possible that Rejlander was in Freshwater in 1863 because Cameron had paid him to photograph Tennyson and because they had got on so well, he had stayed a little longer and created more photographs, more obviously the work of them both. Starting with the Tennyson images, much has been made of the images of the family in the garden of Farringford, how different they are from the normal stiff formality of his contemporary portraits.
|The Tennyson Family (1863)
|The Tennyson Family (1863)
There are a number of images in this sequence some with the house behind them, some with the wood, some in full sun, some in shade. The obvious explanation is that Rejlander turned them around and photographed them, in a short space of time rather than spending an entire day wandering the woodlands and gardens of Farringford (which is unlikely given how much patience the poet had with such nonsense). However, we are left with some of the most natural and intimate images of the Tennyson family, hand in hand, arm in arm, enjoying each other’s company. If we take Cameron Jnr’s statement as truth, it can be supposed that Julia assisted in the capturing of these images. Certainly the image of the family backgrounded by trees has a rather more soft-focused appearance, which would become her trademark in later images. If Julia had been involved, it would be understandable why the Tennysons would be patient and willing to pose in a different way to the normal formal portrait, and look relaxed whilst doing it. A good comparison to this is the famous Marshall image of Tennyson and the Marshall family by Lewis Carroll where he looks neither patient nor relaxed.
|The Tennysons and the Marshalls (1857) Lewis Carroll
So, that seemed to clear up the mystery of how Julia met Oscar, but then I came across a hilariously ‘Julia’ story in Helmut Gernsheim’s biography of Julia Margaret Cameron. Ever aware of their precarious finances, Cameron came across an article about how silver could be recovered from waste photographic solutions. She gathered up a dozen pots filled with her old chemicals and took a cab to Rejlander's lodgings, demanding to be shown how to manage it. Gernsheim asserts that at this point they were 'complete strangers', and that Cameron had taken it upon herself to find him out to demand the secret. Rejlander actually knew how to extract the silver but had to tell her that the amount she could recover would not even have paid for her cab fare. It is unlikely they were strangers at this point as Rejlander was still living in the Midlands in the 1850s, only lodging occasionally in London and it seems unlikely that Cameron would have found out a stranger at his lodgings when she had other London-based photographers to ask, not least in her own family. So, how else could Julia have met Oscar?
|HHH Cameron, Arthur Prinsep (?), CH Cameron, Val Prinsep (1850s-60s)
A possible answer lies in unpicking the narrative Julia herself spins about her career in photography. If you took Annals of My Glasshouse at face value, you would think that photography for Mrs Cameron began on her 48th birthday with the surprise gift of her camera from daughter Julia. However, all that tells us is that is the first time she owned a camera, not used one. Little Holland House, home of the Prinseps, Julia's sister's family, and G F Watts were often a focus for family and friends to gather and create art, hence series of photographs taken and previously attributed solely to another brother-in-law (and photographer) Lord Somers. Gradually, researchers are bringing forward an alternative, that the photographs, like those in Freshwater in 1863, are the product of collaborations. Watts' biographer and Little Holland House expert Barbara Bryant names Oscar Gustave Rejlander as one of the photographers present at the gatherings in the 1850s. It could be that Cameron or Lord Somers met with Rejlander and invited him to participate, or that Watts used Rejlander's photographs in his paintings (as he did with Julia's in the 1860s and 70s) and Rejlander became part of the circle.
|Julia Jackson (1860s) O G Rejlander
That explains how they could have met, but how did they remain friends? Other photographers knew Julia but weren't privy to collaborations or continued friendships like Rejlander was (yes, Lewis Carroll, I'm looking at you). An obvious guess is that Oscar and Julia shared interests as expressed through their models. Rejlander, once admitted to the Little Holland House circle, used people like Julia Jackson, not just once, but repeatedly.
|Gerald and Julia Duckworth (Jackson) (1871) O G Rejlander
He also showed respect for Cameron's sacred cows, taking images of Tennyson and his family, and Henry Taylor. It might also have been that Rejlander had begun as an artist that his vision of photography was rooted there rather than the technical ability to reproduce in crystal clear clarity. In fact in Cameron's defence, Rejlander wrote in the British Journal of Photography:
"much may be said in favour of the idea of having a representation of flesh without an exaggerated idea of the bark of the skin, such as we have seen in many large photographs by eminent photographers..." (BJP, 9 September 1864)
|Hosanna (1865) Julia Margaret Cameron
It might also have been from Rejlander that Cameron learned about montages (or 'cut and shuts', as I like to call them). The second image above, The Two Ways of Life, is a set of different images all combined to create a scene, as are a number of Cameron's Holy Family images. Not only that but it is easy to see that Cameron shared Rejlander's idea of what made a good photograph: the similarity between Rejlander's Truly Thankful (above) and many images of Mary Hillier are obvious, not least in the drapery and edged shawl worn, but also in the occasional piece of narrative art created by Cameron that reflected Rejlander's story-pictures...
|Pray God Bring Father Safely Home (1872) J M Cameron
|Caught! (1860) O G Rejlander
Piecing together Rejlander and Cameron will take time and possibly it is impossible to tell how much they collaborated until all the photographs of their circle are finally identified with the correct photographer, but even then some can be seen as group efforts. heaven knows I've taken wet collodion photographs and the more hands available the better, so it is almost unfair to pin down the Little Holland House work so definitely. A good place to start to see what I mean is Graham Ovenden's 1978 A Victorian Album (which can be bought quite cheaply second hand, for example here). It is the album of photographs Cameron gave to her sister Mia in 1863, which was sold at a Sotheby's auction in 1974 for a world record price. These are photographs taken by Cameron and her friends and family and show how hard it is to untangle the narrative of who took what and when. Hopefully the NPG's purchase will light more interest in Rejlander and his relationship with Cameron as I feel he has a lot more to tell us.
|Kate Dore with light sensitive paper frame (1863) O G Rejlander and J M Cameron