CAMERA, ACTION, JULIA MARGARET CAMERON– by Juliet Coombe
Norwood is full of pioneering characters and to learn more about the people living in the area, it is worth studying the work of the most significant 19th century female British photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron, who was totally bewitched by Sri Lankan plantation life. Leaving Norwood Ceylon Tea Trails Bungalow behind you, with its fine views of the eastern end of the Bogawantalawa valley, head along the trail to the next valley to find St, Mary’s Church and the grave of one of the worlds most famous female 19th century photographers that captured the spirit of the Sri Lankan people working at first in coffee and later tea. She was buried here in 1879, at the age of 63, having spent six years producing wholly original portraits of the islanders that decorate the rooms of the most elite bungalows in the area and in particular Tiensin Bungalow, part of the Ceylon Tea Trails collection. Cameron originally went to Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, to help manage the family coffee plantation, which was badly damaged by the blight, but was soon mesmerised by the ancient traditions, mental and physical strength of the people whose daily life she would capture on camera.
Julia Cameron’s grave
Her black and white photographs, already well known in London high society, showed a new level of respect for their knowledge of plants, creativity and resourcefulness, which are unmatched even to this day by other portrait photographers. Always supported by her coffee farming husband, Cameron wrote: “My husband, from first to last, has watched every picture with delight, and it is my daily habit to run to him with every glass upon which a fresh glory is newly stamped, and to listen to his enthusiastic applause.” Her obsession, to capture the beautiful people of the hills as she walked through the plantations daily, amused guests to her home, who would say, “if she took a fancy to the back of one of the people she was photographing, she insisted on her son retaining him as her gardener, though she had no garden and he did not even know the meaning of the word garden.” Cameron’s dramatically lit black and white pictures, with soft focus and angles that looked up at those she captured, instead of down like most of the other image producers of the period uniquely caught the inner strength of these inspirational people whose descendants still live in these remote pockets.
Ask about Cameron inside Saint Mary’s Church and you will be taken on a little tour to her grave and be told many fascinating things about the area including the best spot to have a refreshing cup of tea. The stain glass inside the church was provided by the Cameron family and the people who come to Sunday service have lots to say about her and her religious like depictions of their ancestors.One old lady told me she could even make sinners look like saints and gave ordinary folk like tea pickers mythical in status in her photographs. Sadly you can only see her best work by taking a trip to her home Dimbola on the Isle of Wight.
Thuppahi's Blog · This web site presents the interventions of MICHAEL ROBERTS in the public realm with reference to Sri Lankan political affairs. It will embrace the politics of cricket as well. ROBERTS was educated at St. Aloysius College in Galle and the universities of Peradeniya and Oxford. He taught History at Peradeniya University and Anthropology at Adelaide university. He is now retired and lives in Adelaide.
One response to “Sri Lanka’s Tea Country Trail from Yesteryear with Julia Margaret Cameron”
Julia Margaret Cameron was born in Calcutta in 1815 to a family of aristocratic Anglo/Franco-Indians. She and her sisters were considered great beauties. They were educated in Paris as well as Calcutta and finally settled in England and made strategic marriages.
Julia married Charles Hay Cameron, an eminent Scots colonial jurist, twenty years her senior. Cameron was son of the Governor of the Bahamas and grandson of the Duke of Errol. Along with Colebrooke, Cameron devised and helped write the 1833 Colebrooke-Cameron reforms which instituted the constitutional settlement by which Victorian Ceylon was governed.
During his several visits to the island, Cameron, who had bought a large acreage of up-country jungle-forested land, turned it into coffee plantations. The house that the Camerons made their home in Freshwater in the Isle of Wight was called Dimbola after one of their coffee estates.
Two of their sons managed the Ceylonese plantations but when coffee was hit by a blight, Charles and Julia went out to Ceylon to sort out Cameron’s properties and end their lives there. Charles was by this time in his eighties and Julia in her sixties. They took with them on their final sea journey to Ceylon, a cow for fresh milk and two coffins. Julia also took her camera equipment. Julia died in 1879 and Charles a year later.
For the several decades that Julia lived in Freshwater, Dimbola became a focal point for a crowd of bohemian artists, writers, philosophers and poets such as Alfred Tennyson, G. F. Watts, William Thackeray, Thomas Carlyle, Robert Browning, Sir John Herschel and Lewis Carroll. Through one of her sisters, Julia was also connected to Virginia Woolf nee Stephens.
Julia wrote of her obsession with photography “From the first moment I handled my lens with a tender ardour, it has become to me as a living thing, with voice and memory and creative vigour.”
I recommend a visit to Dimbola at Freshwater, Isle of Wight, or anyone interested, not just in early photography but also Victorian Ceylon. You will also find a sculpture of Jimi Hendrix in the front garden, something which Julia Cameron might have gazed on with amazement or perhaps great joy ?