This has been a bit of a peculiar year, to say the least. One wonderfully sparkly highlight for me has been the publication of my biography of Julia Margaret Cameron and Mary Hillier, Light and Love. It would be remiss of me to not include one of Cameron's wonderful photographs as part of Snogvent, so let's have this one...
Here we have little Elizabeth Keown being kissed on the forehead by Mary Hillier. A 'kiss of peace' is a traditional Christian greeting, where a blessing of peace is given to the recipient. These days in church you normally only have to shake someone's hand awkwardly during the Peace, there's no kissing (thank goodness, because it doesn't need to be made more awkward than it already is), unless you belong to the sort of church where you're more relaxed about that sort of thing. Lawks. Anyway, it got me thinking about the the array of meanings of kissing in Cameron's art.
|Romeo and Juliet (1867)|
It's not that Cameron doesn't do romance - her pride in the match of Mary Ryan, her housemaid, with Henry John Stedman Cotton was expressed through their appearance as Romeo and Juliet on the occasion of their engagement. It is a bit of a wonder that she didn't go the whole hog and show them as King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, as Cameron was so proud that her Irish 'beggar maid' would go on to become Lady Cotton.
|The Affianced (1867)|
It actually came as a surprise when I started thinking and searching for more images of young people in love that I didn't find more than just the Cottons. Heaven knows Cameron was no prude, and had a healthy adoration of handsome men and beautiful girls and all things delicious. I think The Affianced is one of the sweetest images of love I've seen for ages as they would have had to sit there staring at each other for quite a while while the photograph was taken. I suppose that is why she didn't do more, as you would have to sit or stand around kissing someone, absolutely still, while the image formed on the plate. Unless you were very much in love, that would have become weird quickly. Also, it has to be taken into account that photographs of kissing, unlike paintings, had unseemly shades of 'gentlemen's relish' rather than maintaining the pretense of art...
|Kissing Couple (early 20th century postcard)|
Cameron had loftier artistic intentions than titillation or mere dizzy romance so however pretty that early 20th century postcard is, it is not aiming any higher than a bit of romantic fluff. Cameron places her real-life lovers in the context of Shakespeare, elevating a civil servant and a housemaid into literary icons personifying love, in all its complexity, triumph and tragedy. For the most part though, the kisses in Cameron's photographs are not those of romance, but of a different type of love...
|Iolande and Floss (1864)|
The two novices, Iolande and Floss, are characters from Henry Taylor's 1862 play St Clement's Eve. Iolande falls in love with the Duke of Orleans and then gets shot by an arrow at the end (sorry, spoiler alert). Her fellow novice, Floss gets to witness all the stabby, shooty excitement and say things like 'approach her not' to murderers and the such like. The swirling of developing fluid over the image gives the girls, Mary Hillier and Kate Dore, a ghostly and ethereal presence as they float morally above the murderous awfulness of life. The kiss between these women is one of solidarity, one of sisterhood, a bit like this one...
|The Salutation (1864)|
Mary Hillier is kissed on the forehead by Mary Kellaway in a presumably Biblical manner. This vague moment of greeting might refer to the Virgin Mary greeting Elizabeth on the revelation of both of their miraculous babies, however neither Mary looks particularly cheerful or hopeful. I know these images took a long time and so sometimes the facial expressions are those of quiet impatience and boredom, but these women seem to be greeting each other with sorrow and a shared understanding of their unhappiness. Being generous, it could be that these two women with their holy babies have a moment of fate and realise that neither son will live long lives. Motherhood is as terrifying and devastating as it is joyful and I've been in mothers groups where we greet each other in tired resignation and sometimes horror and sorrow. They don't put that on a baby-grow in JoJo Maman Bebe...
|The Turtle Doves (1864)|
Children kissing is a different matter. Cameron is no different from a lot of Victorian artists in portraying the innocence in children kissing each other. Honestly, it looks a bit weird to us now, but it's still cute. Again, I am struck by the fact that these images are not moments in time but the girls, Alice and Elizabeth Keown, would have had to sit there pressed together for a good few minutes. Either Cameron was terrifying (so I have read) or she knew how to bribe children. Possibly both.
|Grace Thro' Love (1865)|
The kisses I'm most familiar with in Cameron's photography are those bestowed by Mary Hillier in the role of the Virgin Mary upon the children she cuddles. Here she holds little Freddy Gould as a little Holy bundle with his beautiful wavy hair. Her kiss is of quiet peace and comfort, a kiss that expresses all the goodness of the bestower.
|Blessing and Blessed (1864)|
These are from a series of images of Mary as the Blessed Virgin, often kissing the children she holds. The kisses she delivers are a blessings, special gifts that pass on a bit of that holiness on to the recipient. The kiss that most frequently happens in Cameron's photographs are those of mother to child, but also from someone with power to those without. The kiss bestowed by Mary Hillier upon little Freddy Gould is one that says 'It will be okay, hang in there, I'm here.' It seems deeply unfair in a year that would really benefit from some reassurance like that, we are not allowed to kiss each other, so all we can do is offer the same strength to each other in words.
It will be okay, hang in there, we'll all see each other again soon.
I'll see you (virtually) tomorrow...