9 AUGUST 1975, Page 21

Talking of books

Snap! goes the easel

Benny Green

I have often tried to picture the scene at the breakfast table of a highly successful portrait painter of the mid-Victorian era on the day the news arrived that photography had come in. The little .wife, stitching contentedly away at an egg-co'sy, remarks in well-bred tones and without looking up, "I see where they've dished you at last, dearest", to which the disconsolate lion, sitting opposite her thoughtfully wringing the cocoa out of his pendulous moustaches, responds with "They say the camera never lies; well, my paintings do, and that's why continue making a go of it". The truth was that the camera learned how to lie even more eloquently than the painters did, but it took time. In that first flush of the photographic dawn the sheer naivete of the entire performance exposed the sitters more wonderfully than any of them could have suspected. The coming of the photographic portrait technique was a revelation whose significance nobody appears to have realised for many years; when Lewis Carroll came hounding Tennyson with his box of photographic tricks, the great poet treated Carroll with idiotic condescension and clearly considered the whole business to be beneath the dignity of a creative gentleman.' As it happened, Tennyson lived at the very heart of the photographic emergence, and the first thing to strike me as I leaf through the startling pioneer album* of Julia Margaret Cameron is wonder at the extent to which Tennyson and the rest of the Eminent Victorians carried gravity to positively flippant extreme,

Miss Cameron lived close by Tennyson, at Freshwater, a mystical spot on the Isle of Wight overlooking the Solent. To this day you reach it via the rustic rail and ferry services from Lymington and Brickenhurst, impressed by the fact that there remain a few quaint backwaters of rural England which not even the cretinous pursuits of holiday campers have: entirely destroyed. 1 lived myself at Freshwater once for some months and soon came to understand why its ambience should have attracted creative spirits like Tennyson and Miss Cameron. The area had retained the lineaments of 'romanticism' to a surprising extent, and so prevailed upon landlubbers to play at Sailors that one day, in passing J. B. Priestley's house, I noticed that its owner had advertised his taste in furnishings by building a front gate out of a ship's wheel — an exercise which seemed to me then, and still does now, as ne mOre bogus than building a ship's wheel out of a front gate. At any rate, Freshwater was a good spot in which to look for inspiration, and Miss Cameron certainly found it there.

But why did the Victorians feel it incumbent upon themselves to look glum and miserable for the benefit of posterity? Why did they persist in confusing solemnity with seriousness? And why did Miss Cameron choose to arrange her groups in the asinine postures of a Pre-Raphaelite dream? Look at her 'Summer Days,' What visions of light and youth does such a title evoke, especially when we know that the four models arc young ladies ranging in age from six to twenty? But the photograph itself is alarming in its affected despondency. What on earth are they all so

worried about? The same thing apparently as the unintentionally comical 'Divine Love', in which a young mother gazes through an impenetrable fog of suicidal despair at a small child. And what can anyone say of 'Spear or Spare?' an allegorical portrait in which one man stands poised over another, holding a spear to his throat and vacantly considering whether or not to use it. That maniacal glare from the potential victim is so ridiculous that it is a real wonder that Miss Cameron could have countenanced it. Tableaux of this kind, well-intentioned as they obviously are, plumb depths of banality thrusting them quite beyond rational criticism. They are footling and misguided, and that, as Lady Bracknell said, is all there is to be said about that.

But the individual portraits are something quite different. If the tableaux are disastrous, the portraits are terrifying in the degree to which they reveal the spirit of the sitter. Perhaps it is too easy, knowing the achievements of these men and women as we do, to draw the pictorial parallels, but it really is impossible not to be struck by the simian aspect of the remarkable portrait of Darwin, The protruding brow, jutting out like a promontory to shield the eyes, which lie deep in caverns measureless to man and monkey alike, is exactly the brow of a primate; and yet had it not been for Miss Cameron's feat in snatching a glimpse for posterity's benefit, we might never have savoured the ironies of the situation.

The rest of the collection is just as revealing. Holman Hunt, with what appears to be an ossified teacloth wrapped round his head, and a tunic made out of somebody's old curtains, stares very foolishly into space, and looks exactly like the sort of man to go to Palestine looking for the Scapegoat. Longfellow has the kind of intensity we would associate with a sea captain of the period, while Tennyson himself bears a curious resemblance to a Hollywood bit player who once portrayed a villain in a Marx Brothers comedy called Go West. I believe his name was Robert Barrat, and he was surely born to impersonate Tennyson. There is a very young Ellen Terry resting her head against the wall, staring down at an unseen object at her feet, which is probably G. F. Watts, while Mrs Herbert Duckworth, who was destined to give Arnold Bennett such a nasty smack in the eye by giving birth to Virginia Woolf, sports the columnar neck which Tenniel apotheosised in drawing Alice.

Which brings me to the two most amazing photographs in the entire gallery. Alice Liddell as Carroll photographed her was one of the most beautiful children ever to sit before a camera, with a kindly, impish grin and an innocent delight in existence which makes it quite obvious how she came to fascinate a spinsterish don. Later Carroll photographed her in her teens; the bloom was alreading fading fast and there was something beginning to haunt the eyes. In Miss Cameron's study taken in 1872, when Alice was twenty, the face, has hardened into callousness and disillusion. The mouth is petulant, the pose indifferent to the viewer. Clearly an afternoon in the gardens of Wonderland is called for. More fascinating still, and the most revealing portrait of all, is that of Benjamin Jowett, taken in 1865. Here is • the head which wagged disapprovingly at young Swinburne, here the lips which pursed in apprehension at the curious behaviour of young Peter. And if ever a face fitted the morality behind it, Jowett's does. The cherubic little mouth, pucketed into a weak echo of Botticelli, looks as though it has strayed from the head of a stone angel in some overgrown country churchyard. A wizened angel with chubby cheeks, defending the kingdom of heaven, or at least Oxford, from the goths and the vandals. If only Miss Cameron's camera had taken in a little more of the space above that chaste head, surely the negative would have revealed a halo?