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Some years ago, my sister, brother-in-law and I drove to the Dimbula area, visiting Anglican churches and graveyards looking for evidence of our ancestors. At the quaint St. Mary’s church at Bogawantalawa, we found the grave my grand uncle, Frank Wyndham Becher Braine, who had died on March 9, 1879, at only 11 months. We may have been the first family members to visit his grave in more than a hundred years.
That graveyard is also the resting place of a husband and wife, Charles Hay, and Julia Margaret Cameron. Julia, during and after her lifetime, has been described as “indefatigable”, “a centripetal force”, “a bully”, “queenly”, “a one-woman empire”, “infernal”, “hot to handle”, “omnipresent”, “a tigress”. She was “impatient and restive”, for whom “a single lifetime wasn’t enough”. Who was this remarkable Victorian? Why is she buried at Bogawantalawa?
Julia was born in Calcutta, in 1815, one of seven daughters of James Pattle of the Indian Civil Service. They belonged to the Anglo-Indian upper class and were all sent to France - their mother Adeline Marie was of the French aristocracy – for their education. The sisters were well accomplished and known for their “charm, wit, and beauty”, and “unconventional behavior and dress”: they conversed among themselves in Hindustani, even in England. They served curry. They all married well, four spouses being fellow Anglo-Indians in the civil service and military.
Julia lived at various times in England, France, back in India, South Africa, in India again, on the Isle of Wight, and finally in Ceylon. Travel to Cape Town in 1835 was for her health, after recovering from serious illnesses. Charles Hay Cameron, a distinguished legal scholar from Calcutta, was also in Cape Town, perhaps after a severe bout of malaria. They met and married back in Calcutta in 1838. Charles was twenty years her senior. Together, they raised eleven children, five of their own and the rest adopted.
Julia’s introduction to London’s artistic and cultural milieu came in 1845, at her sister Sara Prinsep’s residence in Kensington. Sara conducted a salon at home, where poets, artists, writers, and philosophers such as Tennyson, Rossetti, the Brownings, Longfellow, Trollope, Darwin, Thackeray, Henry Taylor, du Maurier and Leighton were regular attendees. Julia’s “hero worship” of these luminaries began at that time.
In 1860, the Camerons moved to the Isle of Wight, to a home named “Dimbola”, obviously after Dimbula in Ceylon, where Charles Cameron had invested in vast coffee and rubber plantations. He had served on the Colebrooke-Cameron Commission (appointed in 1833) to assess the administration of Ceylon and make recommendations for administrative, financial, economic, and judicial reform. The poet Henry Taylor, a close friend of Julia, wrote that Charles had “a passionate love for the island (and) he never ceased to yearn after the island as his place of abode”.
Incidentally, an English planter named Herbert Brett, known to my family, named his British home “Yakvilla”. He had once been the manager of Yakwila Estate, near Pannala in the NWP.
“Dimbola” had been purchased because it was next door to Tennyson’s home, and a private gate connected the two properties. Better known as Alfred, Lord Tennyson, he had become Britain’s Poet Laureate by then. Julia and the poet addressed each other by their first names. When he refused to be vaccinated against smallpox, Julia supposedly went to his home and yelled at him: “You’re a coward, Alfred, a coward!”
Soon, the Cameron and Tennyson families began entertaining well-known visitors to the Poet Laureate with music, poetry readings, and amateur plays, creating an artistic ambience similar to that seen earlier at Sara Princep’s home in Kensington. in keeping with Julia’s personality, the activities could be indefatigable. “Mrs. Cameron seemed to be omnipresent—organizing happy things, summoning one person and another, ordering all day and long into the night, for of an evening came impromptu plays and waltzes in the wooden ballroom, and young partners dancing under the stars”, wrote Anne Thackeray, the novelist’s daughter. Even Julia’s generosity could be overwhelming. Henry Taylor expressed this best: “she keeps showering upon us her ‘barbaric pearls and gold,’—India shawls, turquoise bracelets, inlaid portfolios, ivory elephants”.
A turning point in Julia’s life came in 1863, when she was already forty-eight. Charles was in Ceylon, and Julia was bored. A daughter gifted her a camera to keep her “amused”. A clumsy affair in those early days of photography, it consisted of two wooden boxes, bound in brass, one of which slid inside the other, with a single focus lens. The timber tripod was unwieldy. Images were recorded on a heavy, rectangular glass plate measuring 11 x 9 inches.
Julia took to photography with her usual energy and enthusiasm, converting a chicken coop to a studio. If the camera was clumsy, the process of photo development was even more complicated and challenging, with the use of chemicals – collodion, silver nitrate, potassium cyanide, gold chloride (even egg white was used) – and the need to work quickly. Julia’s hands and clothes are said to have become black and brown with the chemicals. The process was riven with trial and error.
Julia managed to coerce illustrious visitors to Tennyson’s home to pose for her. They included Longfellow, Trollope, Darwin, John Herschel, Robert Browning, the painter George Watts, Thackeray, Carlyle, and Lewis Carrol, and Tennyson, of course. Her photograph of Tennyson is shown in this article. The men were photographed in pensive moods, intended to capture their “genius”. She also photographed women for their beauty, and children as “innocent, kind, and noble”, a prevailing Victorian notion.
Posing for a portrait was no easy task: the subject had to be within eight feet of the camera and had to remain still for around 10 minutes. Julia chose not to use head supports. Here is a vivid description of a photographic session with Julia: “The studio, I remember, was very untidy and very uncomfortable. Mrs. Cameron put a crown on my head and posed me as the heroic queen. … The exposure began. A minute went over, and I felt as if I must scream, another minute and the sensation was as if my eyes were coming out of my head … a fifth—but here I utterly broke down …” No wonder Tennyson called Julia’s sitters “victims”.
Showing sound business acumen, Julia copyrighted, published, exhibited, and marketed her work. Harper’s Weekly, writing on a London exhibition in 1870, noted that “many art critics go into raptures over [Julia’s] work as something beyond the range of ordinary photographic achievement”.
For the sake of brevity, I have focused on her portraits. She also photographed individuals and groups of people depicting allegories, religion, and literature; illustrations for Tennyson’s Idylls of the King being especially noteworthy. In Ceylon, her subjects were mainly ordinary people and plantation workers. Her career was not long – only 12 years – and despite criticism of her work for technical imperfections and the numerous challenges she faced, Julia produced about nine hundred photographs. An incredible feat.
From the early 1840s, Charles had bought up sprawling extents of land in Ceylon at bargain prices and was thought to be the biggest landowner in Ceylon. The 1850s and 60s were the best years for coffee. But, in addition to being absentee landlords, the Camerons faced other problems: extremes of weather, a shortage of labor, transporting the coffee to Colombo on poor roads, incompetent managers, and, finally, the devastating coffee blight.
Charles was in poor health - “receiving visitors in his bedroom or walking about the garden reciting Homer and Virgil” - and had not worked since 1848, and the expenses of supporting a large family and their lifestyle at “Dimbola” had forced the Camerons to borrow heavily. In 1864, Charles admitted to being virtually “penniless”.
Charles was keen to move to Ceylon, but Julia was not. Attempting to change her mind, he wrote her a moving, lyrical description of his “Swiss cottage” bungalow and the surrounding plantations in Ceylon. In Ceylon, the cost of living would be cheaper, and he was confident that his health would improve. Later, Julia wrote that Charles’ passion for his Ceylon properties had “weakened his love for England”. Lord Overstone, their main creditor, was pressuring them to sell Rathoongodde (Rahathungoda), their plantation in the Deltota area managed by son Ewen.
Finally, Julia gave in, partly because four of their sons were already in Ceylon. Charles’ health is said to have magically improved. In 1875, when she was 60 years old and Charles was eighty, they left “Dimbola” for Ceylon, taking a maid, a cow, Julia’s photographic equipment, and two coffins, packed with china and glass. Henry Taylor noted that they had departed for Ceylon “to live and die” there, and that Charles had “never ceased to yearn after the island as his place of abode”.
Their son, Hardinge, the Governor’s private secretary, owned a bungalow on the river at Kalutara, on the western coast. Julia and Charles divided their time in Ceylon between Kalutara and their plantations in the hill country. Julia soon fell under Ceylon’s spell, writing that “the glorious beauty of the scenery — the primitive simplicity of the inhabitants & the charms of the climate all make me love Ceylon more and more”.
When the botanical painter Marianne North visited the Camerons at Kalutara, Julia went into a “fever of excitement” at having found a European subject. She dressed North up “in flowing draperies of cashmere wool” (despite the intense heat), with “spiky coconut branches running into [her] head” to be photographed. A remarkable photo taken by Julia shows North standing at her easel on the spacious verandah of the Kalutara house, with a bare-bodied “native” holding a clay pot over his shoulder.
Julia must have been busy during this period, because North noted that “the walls of the room were covered with magnificent photographs; others were tumbling about the tables, chairs, and floors”. In contrast to the distinguished personalities she photographed in England, her subjects in Ceylon were ordinary “natives” and plantation workers. But, only about thirty photographs from Julia’s Ceylon period have survived. The architect Ismeth Raheem, who has conducted extensive research on Julia, has stated that some photographs given to the Colombo Museum appear to be lost.
After a visit to England – four weeks of “turmoil, sickness, sorrows, marriages, and deaths” - Julia developed a dangerous chill (pneumonia?) upon her return to Ceylon. She died on 26 January 1879 at Glencairn Estate. Charles and four of her sons were with her. Her coffin was drawn by white bulls and carried by plantation workers to St. Mary’s. Charles died a year later and was also buried at St. Mary’s.
Back to the Braines
My great, great grandfather, Charles Joseph Braine, arrived in Ceylon in 1862, as the manager of Ceylon Company, which I believe is the predecessor of Ceylon Tea Plantations Company that eventually owned and managed vast acres of tea as well as rubber and coconut. By 1880, he is listed as the first owner of Abbotsleigh Estate in Hatton. (In contrast with Charles Cameron and Herbert Brett, who named their homes in England after plantations in Ceylon, Charles Joseph named his plantation in Ceylon after his property, Abbotsleigh, in England.)
The Camerons arrived in Ceylon in 1875. British planters, away from home and often stationed in remote plantations, socialized mainly at two locations: their clubs, and at church. I have no doubt that Charles Joseph Braine and the Camerons had met at the club, perhaps even during Charles’ previous visits to his plantations, and at church, especially when the Camerons stayed at the nearby Glencairn Estate, managed by their son Henry.
St. Mary’s Church, Bogawantalawa, was dedicated in 1877. Although Charles Cameron was not religious and did not attend church, Julia did, traveling perhaps on horseback or bullock cart like the families of fellow planters. The Camerons gifted three stained glass windows to St. Mary’s, and that is obviously where Julia worshipped and both she and Charles wished to be buried.
Charles Joseph Braine’s son, Charles Frederick (my great grandfather) arrived in Ceylon in 1869, at 19 years of age, six years before the Camerons did, and worked at Meddecombra Estate in the Dimbula area. Later, he was the manager of the vast Wanarajah Estate. He, too, may have met Charles and later Julia Cameron. Braine must have worshipped at St. Mary’s, because, as I stated at the beginning of this article, his infant son was buried at St. Mary’s churchyard in March, 1879, only two months after Julia was buried there.
My grandfather, Charles Stanley, was born in Ceylon in 1874, and, as a child, is likely to have met the Camerons, or at least Julia, at church. He has an angelic appearance in an early photograph – “innocent, kind, and noble” – the type of child Julia preferred to photograph, and I like to imagine Julia tousling his hair! Hence, although no records exist, three generations of my ancestors are likely to have been acquainted with the Camerons, and perhaps worshipped alongside her at St. Mary’s.
The legacy of the Camerons
Julia Margaret Cameron is acknowledged now as one of the most important portraitists of the 19th century. Her work has been exhibited in important galleries and museums in the UK, the USA, Japan, and elsewhere. The photographer Stephen White, who calls Julia a “revered figure” in the history of photography, wrote in 2020 that an album of Julia’s photographs was valued at £3 million. Each of her prints are said to be worth about $50,000.
The Cameron home on the Isle of Wight, “Dimbola”, is now owned by the Julia Margaret Cameron Trust, and consists of a popular museum and galleries. It has a growing permanent collection of Julia’s photographs and is dedicated to her life and work.
When I visited St. Mary’s church in 2012, looking for evidence of my ancestors, the churchyard was covered in weeds. Stephen White, who visited St. Mary’s Church in 2017, lamented that the grave of “a woman whose photographs still stirred thousands with their beauty, and whose name was spoken with reverence by lovers of photography around Europe and the States” could be so “forlorn … unattended [and] unadorned”. A photograph of the grave that accompanies his article indeed shows a neglected gravesite, the curb cracked. The more recent photo shown here, from the Thuppahi’s blog, displays a better maintained grave.
Ismeth Raheem wrote that the house on Glencairn Estate where Julia died had been demolished in 2021.
While Julia is the better known of the Camerons, Charles made a lasting impact on Ceylon as a member of the Colebrooke-Cameron Commission, which, among other contributions, provided a uniform code of justice for the island. His on and off association with Ceylon was much longer, about 50 years at the time he died. A romantic at heart, he loved Ceylon with a passion.
Recently, Ismeth Raheem and Dr. Martin Pieris have brought out a short film, “From the Isle of Wight to Ceylon”, based on substantial research on Julia’s life. Finally, in Sri Lanka, Julia Margaret Cameron appears to be receiving the recognition she fully deserves.
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