Frances Spalding

At Home in Kensington

From Life: Julia Margaret Cameron and Victorian Photography

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Julia Margaret Cameron: A Critical Biography

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‘That was where it was!’ So Virginia Woolf’s mother, Julia Stephen, once cried aloud, while walking with her children down Melbury Road in Kensington. The area had revived childhood memories of Little Holland House, a rambling old farmhouse that her uncle and aunt, Thoby and Sara Prinsep, had leased in 1850 from the Holland family estate. In those days the area was still rural, although large houses with elaborate wrought-iron gates bordered the nearby Kensington High Street. Here Sara Prinsep held ‘at homes’, with the help of her Pattie sisters. All except one were famous for their beauty. The exception was Julia Margaret Cameron, a short, rather squat woman who, once she took to photography, often stank of chemicals. But although she did not have beauty, she spent her life in pursuit of it, enlisting family, friends and servants as models for her photographic tableaux, accosting beautiful women on sidewalks and asking them to sit for her, and even, it is said, selecting her gardener in Ceylon because of the beauty of his back. Another story records that on her deathbed, while gazing through a window at the sunset, she uttered her final word: ‘Beautiful!’

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