In the late 1860s Marie Spartali (born 1844) acted as model for pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (born 1815). Both families had holiday homes on the Isle of Wight and were acquainted through the Pre-Raphaelite painters. The photo sessions took place in Cameron’s studio in Freshwater, over several days, Marie recording the fatigue of sitting for repeated shots.
Marie was at this time studying with Ford Madox Brown and enjoyed a successful exhibition debut in 1867. Cameron was always seeking willing models for her photographic compositions where sitters were posed as fictional and allegorical figures, requiring elaborate preparation and accessories. Marie posed as ‘Imperial Eleanore’ from Tennyson’s poem, as Hypatia, as 'The Spirit of the Vine', as Mnemosyne Mother of the Muses (maybe in allusion to her Greek heritage), and as The Duenna.
Some of the original prints, given to Marie by Cameron, will feature in our forthcoming exhibition Poetry in Beauty The Pre-Raphaelite Art of Marie Spartali Stillman, at Delaware Art Museum and the Watts Gallery next winter.
I will also be showing them at the forthcoming conference marking Cameron’s bicentenary, when I argue that Cameron’s example as a professional female artist, committed to perfecting her then-difficult medium, and to exhibiting and selling her work, served as a role model to Spartali, especially after she herself married and took on domestic responsibilities, when women were conventionally expected to give up professional practice.
I further explore the links between Spartali, Cameron’s niece Julia Stephen - who composed her aunt's entry for the 1886 Dictionary of National Biography - and Julia’s daughters Stella, Vanessa and Virginia, suggesting that in turn Marie’s long exhibiting career was an encouragement to a younger generation, struggling against the engrained prejudice (as Woolf put it) that ‘women can’t write, women can’t paint’.
The conference is organised by University of Portsmouth, 3-5 July 2015.
- It includes a performance of Woolf’s comedy Freshwater and a visit to the Cameron home and study centre Dimbola on the Isle of Wight.