An awareness of the precariousness of life – its vicissitudes, accidents, the omnipresent risk of death by disease; the risk to capital, the fear of the workhouse, the debtors prison, bankruptcy – permeated Victorian society, which, while ‘modern’ in many respects, in other respects (healthcare, surgery, social security, male-dominated legal system, women’s franchise) it was mediaeval. This underlying insecurity bred a morbid fascination with the plight of those who fell through the net of respectability, whether through disease, penury, accident or crime. This was especially the case with the ‘fallen woman’ – a woman who by bad fortune had lost family or husband, was not equipped to be a governess, who had no other means of support – often resorted to prostitution. The possibility of redeeming such a fallen woman is the subject of Holman Hunt’s famous painting The Awakening Conscience (1853).
William Holman Hunt: The Awakening Conscience 1853. This meticulously researched, styled and cast, oil painting by the co-founder of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood, resonated and gave expression to the Victorian fascination with the ‘fallen woman’ and the possibility of her redemption, through faith.
A recurring theme in painting and photography, the fallen woman is echoed in the Victorian fascination with the plight of Ophelia (from Shakespeare’s Hamlet), and accounts somewhat for the huge popularity of Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shallott (1832).
Leopold Burthe: Ophelia 1852. This rendition of the dispairing Ophelia, falling from the willows and allowing herself to drown in the stream, while not enacted in Hamlet, forms part of Queen Gertrude’s monologue: “In Act 4 Scene 7, Queen Gertrude, in her monologue (There is a willow grows aslant the brook), reports that Ophelia had climbed into a willow tree, and then a branch broke and dropped Ophelia into the brook, where she drowned. Gertrude says that Ophelia appeared “incapable of her own distress”. Gertrude’s announcement of Ophelia’s death has been praised as one of the most poetic death announcements in literature.” (wikipedia)
I want to deal with the Julia’s apparent interest in this topic – as it is expressed in her repeated attempts to capture Ophelia, and in her rendition of the Lady of Shallot (Elaine – Lily Maid of Astolat 1874).
Leoplod Burthe’s romanticised, melodramatic image of Ophelia dieing (above) helped to establish this image in the Victorian psyche – Ophelia drowning, Ophelia mad and deranged, and Ophelia in a suitable vessel or boat, are the three main ways she is portrayed. Burthe’s elegant erotic classicism was counterpointed by John Everett Millais’ more chaste, pre-Raphaelite styled Ophelia of the same year (1852).
John Everett Millais: Ophelia 1852. Victorian art expert Jeremy Maas, in his delightful Victorian Painters (1969), comments: “Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1852. The subject is from ‘Hamlet’, Act VI, scene vii. Reviewing the Academy Exhibition, the critic of The Times wrote, ‘there must be something strangely perverse in an imagination that souses Ophelia in a weedy ditch…while it studies every petal of the darnel and anemonee floating on the eddy and pricks out a robin…’ Elizabeth Siddal was the model.”
Thomas Francis Dicksee: Ofelia 1861. Dicksee explores the tropes of psychological derangement – the night-dress in dishabille, hair in disarray, enlarged, staring eyes – within a neo-classical style in this lovely vignette.
This was the visual context of Julia’s attempts to capture an image of Ophelia – the earliest images I have discovered are these two photographs from 1867
Julia Margaret Cameron: Ophelia (Mary Pinnock) 1867. Here Julia has stripped the signifiers of Ophelia down to a sparse flower: Sylvia Wolf in her brilliant Julia Margaret Cameron’s Women (1999), comments: “In another of her renditions of Ophelia, nothing in the picture alerts viewers to its subject. The sitter is draped in a black cloak. She is lit from above right, so that her nose and high forehead form a delicate silhouette. The model could be portraying any number of characters in literature or art. (Cameron appears to have sometimes had a title in mind when she began photographing, and at other times titled a work later in response to the way a picture looked.) Once the title of this photograph is read, we become aware that the white rosebuds at the sitter’s neck – both closed , the outer petals wilting – allude to Ophelia’s life cut short before its flowering.”
Julia Margaret Cameron: Ophelia, Study No 2 1867 Not much is known about Mary Pinnock, the sitter for both these 1867 versions of Ophelia, and for some other of Julia’s photographs. Here Julia applies the same pared-down austerity in her depiction. these sparse clues strike me as a very modern, very intellectual, attitude to the illustration of a literary theme.
Julia’s modernist approach to the Ophelia theme is notable. She provides just the bare-minimum of visual clues (the black cloak of mourning, the wilting rosebuds, as yet unflowered, the unkempt tonsure, the look of sad distraction) in an otherwise classic chiaroscuro image.
Julia Margaret Cameron: untitled (Ophelia) 1870. This is my favourite Cameron photograph, with the thoughtful Emily Peacock in an ornate embroidered silk-satin dress – an evening dress, though it is garlanded with flowers -pulling at her hair in distraction. Sylvia Wolf cites this as “an example of Julia’s interpretive range and her willingness to experiment with a single subject or theme.” (Sylvia Wolf: Julia Margaret Cameron’s Women 1998
John William Waterhouse: Ophelia 1891 No bare-breasted immodesty from Waterhouse, simply a reversion to the fair-damsel of the faux mediaevalism of the Pre Raphaelites.
Sarah Bernhardt: Death of Ophelia 1881 This beautiful bas-relief sculpture of Ophelia, created around 1880-81 was exhibited at several of the exhibitions she organised to accompany her tour of America at that time.