What follows is the next instalment of my re-posting of the various pieces that first appeared in the Financial Times in early 2013, in my discontinued series Hodgson’s Choice. I have had some misgivings about this one, not because of any doubt that the picture is wonderful – it is, and my insistence on having it in my ‘collection’ is unchanged. But re-posting reminds me of the deficiencies of my own scholarship – and nobody much likes that.
Once it appeared in the FT, I was contacted – very civilly – by Scott Thomas Buckle to point out that some weeks before, he had published a long and detailed piece of research updating the rather older research by Colin Ford upon which I had based myself here – to the effect that the model used by Julia Cameron pretty certainly was not the one I wrote about, but another. I simply hadn’t read his article. According to Buckle – and his view will not, I think, be displaced as the orthodox one in the future – the model for the great Iago was not Angelo Colarossi but a member of another family of professional models connected to his, Alessandro di Marco, who posed, among others, for Frederick Leighton and Edward Burne-Jones and the sculptor Sir William Hamo Thornycroft. I don’t doubt that Scott Thomas Buckle is right. But I don’t want to re-write the piece because I’m reposting the series as they were. I hope that the gist of the little piece I wrote is not too badly affected by having the wrong name, because the new sitter proposed was another professional model – a rarity in Cameron’s portraits. The best I can do, I think, is to acknowledge my error and Buckle’s careful research. If anybody wants to follow in his tracks – and you all should, for it’s a fine piece of detective art history – his article is to be found here :
Is this the face of Alessandro di Marco? The forgotten features of a well-known Italian model, by Scott Thomas Buckle. The British Art Journal, Volume XIII No.2, Autumn 2012, pp 67-75
And with that mea culpa, here’s what I wrote, warts and all.
What a piece of work Mrs Cameron was ! Eccentric, name-dropping and unbelievably pushy; absolutely incapable of taking ‘No’ for an answer, she would have been a handful in any society. But as a grand Anglo-Indian administrator’s wife in High Victorian England, she was amazing.
Here’s her niece Laura Gurney casting back her mind: “Aunt Julia appeared as a terrifying elderly woman, short and squat, with none of the Pattle [her maiden name] grace and beauty about her. Dressed in dark clothes, stained with chemicals from her photography (and smelling of them, too) with a plump, eager face and piercing eyes, and a voice husky and a little harsh, yet in some way compelling and even charming… No wonder those old photographs of us, leaning over imaginary ramparts of heaven, look anxious and wistful. This was how we felt. ‘Stand there’, she would shout, and we stood for hours… ”
Her grand-niece, Virginia Woolf, found her pretty odd, too. Here she is: “I must note for future use, the superb possibilities of Freshwater [on the Isle of Wight, where Mrs. Cameron lived], for a comedy. Old Cameron dressed in a blue dressing gown & not going beyond his garden for twelve years, suddenly borrows his son’s coat & walks down to the sea. Then they decide to proceed to Ceylon, taking their coffins with them, & the last sight of Aunt Julia is on board ship, presenting porters with large photographs of Sir Henry Taylor and the Madonna in default of small change.”
For years after that departure to Ceylon, Mrs. Cameron was treated as not much more than an eccentric amateur dabbler. She was an easy target. Her imprecision offended those for whom photography was above all the careful following of recipes. Even today, her deep, deep sentimentality grates with many, and while everybody today acknowledges the portraits as the towering, pioneering achievement they are, there are still many who find her illustrations of Tennyson, her religious allegories, and many of her pictures of children too mawkish – impossible to bring back across the gulf of taste between then and now.
This is one of the very few pictures she made of a professional model. Detailed research by Colin Ford identifies the sitter as Angelo Colarossi, a member of (in effect) a dynasty of professional models. Colarossi posed for Lord Leighton and John Singer Sargent and G.F.Watts among others, and his son posed for Alfred Gilbert’s Anteros, the memorial to Lord Shaftesbury that gets moved every few years as new traffic schemes alter the shape of Piccadilly Circus. The Académie Colarossi, run by a relative, was an art school in Paris, whose students included Amedeo Modigliani and Alphonse Mucha.
It’s important that the sitter was a model: it took skill to sit for the agonizingly long exposures that Mrs. Cameron required. As a result of Colarossi’s professional patience, this portrait has less of that over-excited blur that Mrs. Cameron sometimes went in for, and more control than she sometimes achieved. It’s partly because Colarossi could bear the exposure time that the picture is so startlingly modern. I’ve also, on the other hand, felt it a slight shame the sitter was a model. Given what she did to Thomas Carlyle it would be wonderful to think this a literary or cultural figure whom we could imagine we knew better through the portrait. There’s so much expression in that face it deserves to be associated to a character rather than merely to a professional mien.
Still. Can’t complain. It’s as strong a portrait as anything Nadar ever made. It’s a beautiful print, too, luckily, because there’s only one known print of this portrait, in the Herschel Album which was ‘saved for the nation’ in the mid 1970s. It’s now in the Science + Media Museum in Bradford.