Anne Thackeray Ritchie – From an Island, 1877

Julia Margaret-Cameron-Lilies and Pearls 1864-5

Chapter III. Pg 23

 The little procession comes winding up the down, Lord Ulleskelf and the painter walking first, in broad-brimmed hats and coats fashioned in the island, of a somewhat looser and more comfortable cut than London coats. The tutor is with them. Mr. Hexham, too, is with them; as I can see, a little puzzled by the ways of us islanders.
 As St. Julian talks his eyes flash, and he puts out one hand to emphasize what he is saying. He is not calm and self-contained as one might imagine so great a painter, but a man of strong convictions, alive to every life about him and to every event, his cordial heart and bright artistic nature are quickly touched and moved. He believes in his own genius, grasps at life as it passes and translates it into a strange quaint revelation of his own, and brings others into his way of seeing things almost by magic. But his charm is almost irresistible, and he knows it, and likes to know it. The time that he is best himself is when he is at his painting; his brown eyes are alight in his pale face, his thick grey hair stands on end; he is a middle-aged man, broad, firmly-knit with a curly grey beard, active, mighty in his kingdom. He lets people in to his sacred temple; but he makes them put their shoes off, so to speak, and will allow no word of criticism except from one or two. In a moment his thick brows knit, and the master turns upon the unlucky victim.

Chapter III. Pg 26

 As St. Julian walked on, he began mechanically to turn over possible effects and combinations in his mind. The great colourist understood better than any other, how to lay his colours, luminous, harmonious, shining with the real light of nature, for they were in conformity to her laws; and suddenly he spoke, turning to Hexham, who was a photographer, as I have said, and who indeed was now travelling gipsy fashion, in search of subjects for his camera. . .
 “In many things,” he said, “my art can equal yours, but how helpless we both are when we look at such scenes as these. It makes me sometimes mad to think that I am only a man with oil-pots attempting to reproduce such wonders.”
 “Fortunately they will reproduce themselves whether you succeed or not,” said the tutor. St. Julian looked at him with his bright eyes. The old man had spoken quite simply, he did not mean to be rude, — and the painter was silent.
 “My art is ‘a game half of skill, half of chance,’” said Hexham. “When both these divinities favour me I shall begin to think myself repaid for the time and the money and the chemicals I have wasted.”
 “Have you ever tried to photograph figures in a full blaze of light?” Lord Ulleskelf asked, looking at Aileen, who was standing with some of the children by Hester. They were shading their eyes from a bright stream that was playing like a halo about their heads. There was something unconscious and lovely in the little group, with their white draperies and flowing locks. A bunch of illumined berries and trailing creepers hung from little Susan’s hair: the light of youth and of life, the sweet wondering eyes, all went to make a more beautiful picture than graces or models could ever attain to. St. Julian looked and smiled with Lord Ulleskelf.
 Hexham answered, a little distractedly, that he should like to show Lord Ulleskelf the attempt he had once .made. “Nature is a very uncertain sort of assistant,” he added; “and I, too, might exclaim, “Oh, that I am but a man, with a bit of yellow paper across my window, and a row of bottles on a shelf, trying to evoke life from the film upon my glasses”
 “I think you are all of you talking very profanely,” said Lord Ulleskelf, “before all these children, and in such a sight as this. But I shall be very glad to come down and look at your photographs, Mr. Hexham, tomorrow morning,” he added, fearing the young man might be hurt by his tone.

Chapter VII. 59-61. 

 So the carriages were ordered after luncheon; but the sun was shining bright in the morning, and Hexham asked Hester and Aileen (shyly, and hesitating as he spoke), if they would mind being photographed directly.
 “Why should you not try a group?” said St. Julian. “Here are Hester, Lady Jane, Missie and Emilia, all wanting to be done at once.” Emilia shrank back, and said she only wanted baby done, not herself.
 “I was longing to try a group,” said Hexham, “and only waiting for leave. How will you sit?” And he began placing them in a sort of row, two up and one down, with a property-table in the middle. He then began focussing, and presently emerged, pale and breathless and excited, from the little black hood into which he had dived. “Will you look?” said he to St. Julian.
 “I think it might be improved upon,” said St. Julian, getting interested. “Look up, Missie — up, up. That is better. And cannot you take the ribbon out of your hair?”
 “Yes, uncle St. Julian,” said Missie; “but it will all tumble down.”
 “Never mind that,” said he; and with one hand Missie pulled away the snood, and then the beautiful stream came flowing and rippling and falling all about her shoulders.
 “That is excellent,” said the painter. “You, too, Hester, shake out your locks.” Then he began sending one for one thing and one for another. I was despatched for some lilies into the garden, and Lady Jane came too, carrying little Bevis in her arms. When we got back we found one of the prettiest sights I have ever yet seen, — a dream of fair ladies against an ivy wall, flowers and flowing locks, and sweeping garments. It is impossible to describe the peculiar charm of this living, breathing picture. Emilia, after all, had been made to come into it: little Bevis clapped his hands, and said, “Pooty mamma,” when he saw her.
 “I don’t mind being done in the group,” said Lady Jane, “if you will promise not to put any of those absurd white pinafores on me.”
 Neither of the gentlemen answered, they were both too busy. As for me, I shall never forget the sweet child wonder in my little girl’s face, Hester’s bright deep eyes, or my poor Emilia’s patient and most affecting expression, as they all stood there motionless; while Hexham held his watch, and St. Julian looked on, almost as excited as the photographer. As Hexham rushed awav into his van, with the glass under his arm, we all began talking again.
 “It takes one’s breath away,” said St. Julian, quite excited, “to have the picture there, breathing on the glass, and to feel every instant that it may vanish or dissolve with a word, with a breath. I should never have nerve for photography.”
 “I believe the great objection is that it blackens one’s fingers so,” said Lady Jane. “I should have tried it myself, but I did not care to soil my hands.”
 As for the picture, Hexham came out wildly exclaiming from his little dark room: never had he done anything so strangely beautiful, — he could not believe it; it was magical. The self-controlled young man was quite wild with delight and excitement. Lord Ulleskelf walked up, just as we were all clustering round, and he, too, admired immensely.
 Hexham rushed up to St. Julian. “It is your doing,” he said. “It is wonderful. My fortune is made.” He all but embraced his precious glass.
 St. Julian was to be the next subject. What a noble wild head it was! There was something human and yet almost mysterious to me in the flash of those pale circling eyes with the black brows and shaggy grey hair. But Hexham’s luck failed him, perhaps from over-excitement and inexperience in success. Three or four attempts failed, and we were still at it when the luncheon-bell rang. Hexham was for going on all day; but St. Julian laughed and said it should be another time.

Anne Thackeray Ritchie, 1837-1919               From an Island 1877

Image: Julia Margaret Cameron – Lilies and Pearls, 1864-5

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Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space - creator of art projects - writer on art

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