Mrs and Mrs Michael Spartali had a house outside Shanklin named Rylestone Manor, built in a sort of Black Forest style, where the family spent their summers. Some miles along the south coast of the Isle of Wight, Mr and Mrs Charles Hay Cameron also had a summer home, at Freshwater, very close to that of Mr and Mrs Tennyson. The Spartalis’ elder daughter Marie was a young artist, who studied with Ford Madox Brown in London and was already acquainted with J M W Whistler, D G Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and other artists, partly through the social network of cultured Greek families like the Ionides living in the Holland Park area, home also to Mrs Cameron’s sister and brother-in-law, Mr and Mrs Prinsep of Little Holland House.
Marie was now on the lower rungs of the professional ladder. Her exhibition debut in 1867 contained three works depicting an Ottoman widow, the ancient Greek poetess Corinna (‘with red disorderly hair’ as befitted poetic inspiration) and the allegorical damsel Praise-desire from Spenser’s Faerie Queene - who has lines expressive of chivalric ambition:
Pensive, I yield I am, and sad in Mind,
Through great desire of Glory and of Fame
Through great desire of Glory and of Fame
Ambition in young Victorian women, whether of British or Greek ancestry, was frowned on. Modesty, obedience, self-sacrifice were the approved virtues. Marie’s demeanour was modest and retiring, but her aspirations, as expressed in her picture-titles, were heroic. Her next works quoted Theocritos, Sophocles, Ovid and Renaissance figures, and in 1870 she sent works both to the Royal Academy and the Paris Salon.
Her father patronised artists and encouraged his daughter. In spring 1868 he paid Mrs Cameron twenty guineas for 24 prints of portrait photographs of Marie and her sister Christina. The photographer had her own ambition; as she wrote happily to Henry Cole: ‘I am likely now to acquire fortune as well as fame for as I told you …a woman with sons to educate cannot live on fame alone!’
Moreover, Julia Cameron’s aspirations chimed with those of her sitter. Portraiture as mere likeness was subservient to portrayals of beauty and intellect, and to depictions of allegory, literary scenes and sacred imagery. Later in the year and again in 1870 she invited Marie to Freshwater, to pose in costume for figures rather like Marie’s Lady Praise-desire; in the invocation of classical sources, roles in which Cameron cast her have evident links to Marie’s heritage. These included Hypatia, an early Greek mathematician; Mnemosyne, mother of the Muses; The Duenna; and The Spirit of the Vine, decked in vine-leaves and clutching grapes – perhaps brought from Michael Spartali’s own vineyard.
By 1870 Marie had her own heroic story. The American journalist William J Stillman, who had also studied art and become a follower of Ruskin, covered the recent Cretan rebellion against the Ottomans with partisan fervour, which got him expelled from the island and made him popular among the Greek community in Britain. His wife committed suicide, leaving him with three small children and no assured income. He and Marie met in London and both sat to Rossetti for portrait drawings. In January 1870 they became engaged, against the wishes of Marie’s parents – who doubtless saw a penniless widower wanting both a step-mother and a wealthy wife. Others saw it as romantic, including Julia Cameron’s niece Julia Duckworth, who encouraged the courtship (and would herself marry a needy widower). Marie was a loving and dutiful daughter, but withstood all pressure, and the Stillman wedding was due to take place in spring 1871. While her husband-to-be took his children to the US, Marie was at Shanklin with her family, and again visited Freshwater to pose for Mrs Cameron.
‘My days pass in sitting for pictures and reading aloud’ she wrote to a friend. I at once offered my services to the venerable host [Mr Cameron] and during the intervals of my sittings we read a learned article from the Revue on Paléontologie together.’ Another guest was Anne Thackeray, the author’s daughter, whom Marie found ‘delightful’. Veteran poet Henry Taylor – one of Julia Cameron’s pantheon – had just left, and one evening Marie was taken to meet Tennyson. ‘I have always heard him described as disagreeable and grumpy and he quite answered the description,’ she reported. ‘Just as I was going away he seized a lighted candle and passed it up and down within an inch of my face saying he was shortsighted. After this inspection he thawed a little and was gracious enough to walk to the end of the grove occasionally interrupting the s[ilence] of the night by some oracular remark.’ She added that after sitting again she was going home. ‘I was so fatigued yesterday that only two pictures succeeded. I worked in half a dozen and ruined them.’
It isn’t clear what the last remark signifies. A model does not normally ‘work’ during a photographic sitting, nor would any such work be likely to ruin the result. Whatever the meaning however, the implication is that as model or sitter she was partly responsible for the art produced, which is an interesting sidelight on the process. A few years earlier Marie and her sister had spent time in Whistler’s studio, while Christina posed for the Princesse du pays de la porcelaine, and had observed the painting process in action, as Marie had also done while sitting to Madox Brown. At Freshwater it was presumably the first time she watched a woman artist at work, observing both the elaborate technicalities of wet collodion photography and Cameron’s committed, concentrated effort to realise her conception in despite of changing light, tricky chemicals and tired models. While middle-class women of all ages were encouraged to draw, embroider and make music, these skills were subordinate to domestic responsibilities; Julia Cameron’s dedication to her chosen art form was unusual and even comical to many, but it could serve as an example to a younger woman now faced with competing artistic and emotional demands.
Marie Spartali was herself unusual in her dedication to art over nearly five more decades. That she has been written out, ignored and dismissed as an ‘amateur’, as if her painting were also an easily laid aside pastime, is as calumnious as the dismissal of Julia Cameron as a ‘wealthy woman able to indulge her hobby’. Both were professionally ambitious and committed.