Category Archives: Art

In the Sky With Diamonds

The 60th anniversary of the Winter Antiques Show at New York’s Park Avenue Armory: the Diamond Jubilee. So it features special showings of diamonds, of course. And a lot of people are dripping with their own, too. One pouf-haired dowager in black stretch pants nearly blinds us with her sizable diamond pendant while scoping out the Tiffany Studio micromosaic table at the Associated Artists stall. In 1891, Tiffany designed things besides jewelry and lamps.


There are thousands upon thousands of match-head sized wood chips embedded in this decorative band that resembles cross-stitch, or snakeskin. Imagine the work that went into its intricacy. The table is the only one of its kind ever made, and with two matching chairs is priced today at 1.4 million dollars.

Going, going, gone, to the lady in the diamond dazzler.

There are a lot of things I love at the show. A small but powerful watercolor of a snarling but somehow jolly wolf circa 1800 gives me a welcome jolt of Savage Girl.

snarling wolf

There are girls here too, including one hand-sewn, winsome doll with brown velvet hair.


One baby Amazon in glossy marble.

baby amazon

I see a trio of ventriloquist dummies dating back to 1875. Oscar and Louise Shaffer, along with their musical troupe, toured the east coast throughout post-Civil War America. Oscar was the ventrioloquist. His three “friends” were Jerry Doyle, D Day and Sassafras Jones.


Louise Shaffer was billed as “the most versatile lady artist in America.” She was renowned for her cornet solos and banjo stylings.

Louise probably could have managed this enormous blue guitar, hand-crafted and reminiscent of Picasso’s famous Blue Period painting, The Old Guitarist..

blue guitar

I really like this chair, too. One of my favorites in the show.

worn chair

Now that’s what you call antique. The leather has received its share of buffing and burnishing by uncountable weary behinds.

At the Winter Antiques Show you can buy a quartet of really important geodes, if you have a couple large in your pocket.


We stand at a counter admiring diamond rings set with emeralds and rubies, next to a gentleman in tweeds examining a set of cufflinks displaying horses, a bargain at $1,400. I don’t ask the price of the rings. I have just been chastised by a guard for attempting to snap a picture of Queen Victoria’s tiara from 1840, ablaze with sapphires along with diamonds and prominently on display. There’s a shot on the show’s website, however.

Queen Victoria's tiara

Tiaras have always intrigued me. We think of them as belonging exclusively to princesses. There was a time, however, in the late nineteenth century, when the only thing that kept a woman from wearing one is if she couldn’t afford it. You didn’t have to be royal. According to one expert, “By 1894 nearly 100 tiaras could be counted among the possessions of New York’s social leaders.” That’s a lot of tiaras. If you were really well off you might have two or three to choose from when you went out to the ball. Tiffany could barely keep enough in the pipeline, churning out beauties like this 1894 piece assembled of gold, platinum and diamonds.


If you wore one, like Consuela Vanderbilt in 1902, you could imagine yourself to be royalty. She had an Alice in Wonderland neck and a trompe l’oeil waist.


Maybe that’s how that multi-faceted woman in the pouf-hair and leggings sees herself.


Filed under Art, Culture, Fashion, Fiction, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Savage Girl

Sweetly Wild

Animal Planet produced a popular program Raised Wild that profiles people who have been nurtured by monkeys, by a pack of dogs, by a flock of chickens. In researching Savage Girl I came across parental bears and goats and even a girl raised by rats. The mythology goes back to Romulus and Remus, boys suckled by the same she-wolf. The two man-cubs eventually went on to rule Rome. Nothing that takes place in my novel should shock anybody who has viewed Raised Wild. But it might surprise the Savage Girl herself to come across a box of Valentine’s-packaged Wild Child candy hearts.

wild child hearts


Filed under Art, Cooking, Culture, Fiction, History, Jean Zimmerman, Nature, Publishing, Savage Girl, Writing

A Fresh and Juicy Book

The dog woke up. It was mid-afternoon.

sleepy oliver

He barked. I looked out the window. A UPS truck. More important, snow.

snow cabin

I didn’t want to go outside to get a package. I wasn’t expecting anything. I’d stay in my socks.

Do the trees feel cold? On this day they would have.


The UPS guy whistled a tune as he headed from the Cabin back to the truck, winding his way through the snow banks.

Have you ever handled The First Book, fresh from the package? No?

When Gil came home he told me something had come for me, out on the porch. He slit open the plastic.

A hardcover of Savage Girl fell out, fresh and juicy as a ripe apple and cold as though it had been plucked from a tree in fall. The jacket, of course, was no surprise, as my publisher had involved me in the design process. But so many little details seemed different, the exact shade of blue on the back cover, the smidgen of lace along the edge. The spine, with my book’s title and my name and “A NOVEL” all perfectly proportioned.

jean book

There are a number of peak moments when you write books. The day you jot down a note and think about all it might be. The first page you write. Getting halfway done. Turning it in. Turning it in again after you revise it. Seeing the typeface. Paging through a galley.

No matter how many milestones you’ve passed, nothing can prepare you for the heft of the hardcover, holding this object in your hand, the ephemeral idea you had so long ago transformed into a tactile reality.


Filed under Art, Fiction, Jean Zimmerman, Nature, Publishing, Savage Girl, Writers, Writing

Wild Peter

What is it that fascinates people about feral children? As far back as the 1700s men and women went crazy over the idea of an individual who was raised in the wild and then drops in to civilization only later in life.

A mute, naked adolescent was discovered by a party of hunters in the German forest in 1726 – near Hamelin, of Pied Piper legend —  and Wild Peter soon became the talk of Europe. His background was unknown. King George I brought him from Hanover to his court in London, where the child liked to play with acorns and grew excited over hearing a clock strike. King George himself hailed from Germany and spoke little English; perhaps that explains his sense of kinship with the boy.

NPG D3895; Peter the Wild Boy by John Simon, after  William Kent

Anthropology had lately come in vogue, with people bringing back accounts from foreign lands about monsters, Hottentots, unfamiliar animals. Was Peter truly human or was he more along the lines of an orangutang? He walked on all fours, after all. The press went wild, commenting on his primitive demeanor, wondering at his forest upbringing, marveling that he had become a kind of court pet.

This mysterious creature inspired satiric commentary by Swift and a pamphlet by Daniel Defoe, who proclaimed him the only truly sensible person alive. The painter William Kent included Peter in a mural of the royal court that even today hangs beside a staircase at Kensington Palace, with the wild child modeling a civilized green coat, grasping a bunch of oak leaves and acorns. His likeness also graced a celebrated wax museum. Wild Peter never spoke, but he became an expert pick-pocket.


Filed under Art, Culture, History, Jean Zimmerman, Nature, Savage Girl

“First to Read” at Penguin

Please note that the art people at Viking have helped me with a facelift for the site, posting a new Savage Girl banner with a matching background pattern of gleaming orangey rust. Publishing a book is anything but a one-person job. I so appreciate all the help I’ve gotten bringing this novel to the state it’s at today.

The state it’s at… well, you’re going to have to wait to find Savage Girl at your corner bookstore for another six weeks, so here’s some good news. The folks at Penguin (Viking’s parent company) have a special program through which you can request a digital version of the book. If you love paper pages and a luscious new jacket, wait. If you want, though, you can jump in now, through Penguin’s “First to Read” program, and get the novel on your e-reader. Then please leave a comment and let me know your reactions.


1 Comment

Filed under Art, Culture, Fiction, Jean Zimmerman, Publishing, Savage Girl, Writers, Writing

The Body Parts of Vesalius

In Savage Girl, the Harvard student and aspiring anatomist Hugo Delegate spends untold hours over his drawing table, making pictures of whatever body parts he is lucky enough to get ahold of: human bones, hearts, hands, the cerebellum of a child killed tragically in a streetcar accident. The body is a mystery to him, one he wants earnestly to plumb. Aiding him in his self education is the work of a sixteenth-century anatomist named Andreas Vesalius, a Flemish physician based in Brussels who published a book called De Humani Corporis Fabrica in which the human body was for the first time demystified.

vesalius portrait

The fruit of untold hours of dissection and learning, the Fabrica went against the scholarly approach heretofore used to teach medical students. It exposed the body to the light with an exactitude that shocked and dismayed the day’s scientists.

vesalius 1

Vesalius performed the dissections but did not execute the illustrations. Those he supervised closely at his own expense in the Venice studio of Titian. In the text, he used metaphor to describe parts of the body, some of which did not yet have names. To talk about muscles, he used such images as a fish, a pyramid, a cleaver. Other parts were described as pumpkin vines and pigeon coops. It might seem odd, this combination of metaphor with so graphic visuals, but he was trying to discover a language that didn’t exist yet. After the work’s publication he took a position in the court of Emperor Charles V, where he had to put up with the jibes of other physicians calling him a barber (in fact, barbers were usually surgeons in those days, termed chirurgeons in English).

vesalius 2

The circumstances of Vesalius’ death have been debated over the years. Scholars once thought he died after performing an autopsy on a nobleman whose heart was still beating and was sentenced to death. Now it is believed that In 1564 Vesalius went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Returning, he died when his ship wrecked on the island of Zakynthos. He was just 50 years old, and so broke that a benefactor came forward to pay for his burial, somewhere on the island of Korfu. Recently Vesalius’ own personal copy of the Fabrica has been discovered, complete with the scientist’s marginal annotations, which prove that he went on exploring long after his great work had been published.


Filed under Art, Culture, History, Jean Zimmerman, Nature, Publishing, Savage Girl, Writers, Writing

Shorpy Higginbotham’s Buckets

A day before getting my cast cut off my foot (aahhhh…) my cabin fever got the best of me and I made for NYC, to navigate midtown perched on my scooter. The train into town went okay – I watched the gap more zealously than I ever had before – and Maud and I got some laughs out of trying to make my cockeyed vehicle go the way it should on Manhattan’s rough and pitted sidewalks, and there was even salad in a white-tablecloth restaurant overlooking Bryant Park. But the day’s high point came at the International Center of Photography, which was exhibiting Lewis Hine’s photographs from the early 20th century. I knew the show was closing in two days and I just had to see it.

I started paying attention to Hine’s work when I became aware of his Shorpy photographs – a piercingly eloquent series of four images that portrays a child worker in an Alabama coal mine circa 1910. Hine wrote this note: “Shorpy Higginbotham, a ‘greaser’ on the tipple at Bessie Mine, Alabama, of the Sloss-Sheffield Steel and Iron Co. Said he was 14 years old, but it is doubtful. Carries two heavy pails of grease, and is often in danger of being run over by the coal cars.”


Shorpy, of course, is the little scrapper in front. He lived a hard life and died young, apparently, brained by a rock, but his proud demeanor is ageless.


A pioneering documentarian whose work portrays factory workers, families in tenements, men building skyscrapers — Americans of all walks of life, as well as some Europeans — Lewis Hine had both tremendous skill and heart. His depictions of child laborers are incredible. This little girl worked in a textile mill.


The exhibit unveiled a different, difficult world so powerfully it gave me a lump in my throat.

ny tenement

I did not see a picture of Shorpy included among the prints, but these were Shorpy’s people.


Seeing Hine’s subjects rendered a foot cast and a wobbly scooter the first world problems they truly are. I made my way to Grand Central Station, past the New York Public Library muscling its way up toward the grey sky above, proud to be a human alongside Lewis Hine.



Filed under Art, Culture, History, Jean Zimmerman, Photography

R.H. Macy’s Tattoo

We’ve arrived at Macy’s Herald Square to test out the mattresses. Outside in the rain, some typical New Yorkers loiter, including a beautiful bald woman in a gold lame miniskirt with scarification marks across her cheek. The aisles are thronged; New Yorkers love bargains and today is a big January sale day. Elevator up to the ninth floor, hike all the way down the way to the proper department, and beneath our feet the floor changes to deep, wide, richly varnished old boards. We have the space to ourselves, it seems, and the space around us here under the roof is high-ceilinged and grand.

The bed salesman deftly sells us on a Sealy at the same time as he clues us in to some Macy’s history. The founder, he tells us, Rowland H. Macy, was run out of Boston after a series of failed stores, then set up shop in 1858 in Manhattan in a brownstone on 14th Street and 6th Avenue with a dry goods store selling stockings, shoes and gloves, necessities of the time in New York City.

macy's shoes

No gold lame skirts at that point. First-day sales totaled $11.06. The eventual retail giant grew, in 1902 opening up at 34th Street and spreading to the full block it still occupies. The polished wood I hiked along was thronged with the ghosts of that time, when the flagship was so far uptown that it had to import downtown ladies and gentlemen via steam wagonette to get there. (Customers also rode the wooden escalators, vestigial early technology that appears unaccountably elegant to me today.) This picture dates to 1907.

Macy's 1907

That red star you see in all the store’s merchandising? That’s been in use from the beginning, a replica of R.H. Macy’s tattoo, a souvenir between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand from when he worked on a Nantucket whaling ship at the age of 15. A faded Harlem wall sign more than a hundred years old shows it still.


We came away from 34th Street with a little history and a decent bed for a young woman who is about to move into her first New York City apartment.


Filed under Art, Culture, Fashion, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Photography

Doppelgänger Photos

“The digital process becomes a tool, almost like a time machine as I’m embarking on the journey to where I once belonged and at the same time becoming a tourist in my own history.” So says Tokyo-born, London-based photographer Chino Otsuka. She created an evocative series of images called Imagine Finding Me in which she digitally inserted the grown-up version of herself into scenes of her childhood. I find the work eerie, dreamlike, and immensely affecting. I can only imagine creating some form of this with my own image. It might be like they say about a doppelganger – your meet yours and you both explode. More of Otsuka’s photos can be seen here; what follows are just a few.


1982 and 2005, Paris, France.

Beach 2

1976 and 2005, Kamakura, Japan.


1975 and 2005, Spain.

Japan snowman

1980 and 2009, Nagayama, Japan.

Leave a comment

Filed under Art, Culture, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Photography

Edward Lear in Flight

The nonsense poet and artist Edward Lear has always been one of my favorites. I remember when I was growing up being fascinated and mystified by The Pobble Who Has No Toes:

The Pobble who has no toes

    Had once as many as we;

When they said, ‘Some day you may lose them all;’—

    He replied, — ‘Fish fiddle de-dee!’

And his Aunt Jobiska made him drink,

Lavender water tinged with pink,

For she said, ‘The World in general knows

There’s nothing so good for a Pobble’s toes!’

And its zesty illustration:


Now I come across 10 rare sketches from 1860 in which Lear portrays himself getting blown about on a gusty day, from the Frederick R. Koch Collection at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in Yale University. The drawings are so charming. Here are 5 of the 10; click the link to see the whole portfolio.

Lear 1

December 26, 1860.

Lear 2

B.H.H. remonstrates with E.L.on his determination to get out of doors on a windy day.

Lear 3

L. goes out, but finds the wind inconveniently high.

Lear 4

L. is carried off his legs into the hair [sic] all among the birds.

Lear 5

L. continues to fly straight forward.


Filed under Art, Culture, Jean Zimmerman, Poetry

Long Winter’s Nap

I’ve taken the polar express right upstairs to my bedroom, since my downstairs office is a good 15 degrees colder. Computer, books, coffee, check. The only thing I lack here is a canopy bed such as the kind they built during the middle ages.

medieval block print

Long curtains to pull around the sides kept you cozy.


Sleeping might not have been so comfortable today as it involved straw-stuffed, weevil-engorged mattresses. But it was better, I think, than earlier, when the Romans laid themselves out on planks.

Roman Beds

Especially for the wealthier sort in the Middle Ages, drapery offered privacy. Nice when servants and even livestock slept in the same great hall as you did.

med bed and bedroom

I’ve always liked the Dutch version of the canopy, which often appears in Golden Age art with a cradle right near by.

Woman cradle de Hooch

And often a dog. Here there’s also an idea I’d like to bring back tonight, a warming pan into which you place hot coals, then swish it fast between your sheets before you slide between them.

I’ve frequently been tempted  to crawl right in to a bedstead in Colonial museum or historic house. Especially nice is the idea of a blazing fire right nearby.

colonial williamsburg canopy bed

I could hide. Pull the brocade, stay quiet and nobody would find me.

1800 New England bed w curtains and valance

Though they might hear me swiffing the warming pan around.

Van Cortlandt House bed

Wait until spring comes, yank back the curtains, roll out. A survivor of the cold snap of 2014.


Filed under Art, Culture, Dogs, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Nature, Writers, Writing

The Hearth of the Matter

Oh, why am I out, seeking sushi sustenance, on the coldest day of the year?

Because I have a touch of cabin fever, and because Maud all but forcibly pulled me out, plunked me on my scooter, and got me to a hot bowl of miso soup at Okinawa nearby.


Living in the Cabin, even with central heating, we spend a lot of time in front of a fire stoked with very good hardwood. I can’t help but imagine the hearths of the past when New York was Dutch, when New Amsterdam was 15 streets and 2,000 residents. When a fire was the only heat source in a long, bitter winter.

1  1655 Manhattan View

Not much remains of that era’s built environment. But one impressive hearth specimen remains from the 1680s, twenty miles up the Hudson from Manhattan in Yonkers, New York. Now known as Philipse Manor Hall, it was then the house  Margaret Hardenbroeck built. I wrote about her, her female descendants and her home, constructed of coursed rubblestone masonry in the then-wilderness, for my history The Women of the House. Hardenbroeck and her husband Frederick Philipse had negotiated for tens of thousands of acres with the local Lenape Indians.

17  PMH South Facade

In her new home’s first-flour room — seen here to the left — with its corner view of the river and the majestic Palisades, she installed a fireplace of bricks held together by plaster fortified with horsehair. It was huge, designed in the style of fireplaces of the day, so big a person could duck inside and see the clear cobalt heavens through the brick-framed top. A tongue of flagstone extended into the room, providing a generous space to prepare meals. A slightly more genteel version of her hearth can be seen at New York’s Van Cortlandt House– the oldest house in the Bronx — built some years later, in 1748.

van cortlandt house, nyc

Despite the heat that must have escaped up the chimney, the occupants of Hardenbroeck’s house, out in the woods, all by themselves, with no neighbors, no local tavern, no welcoming church, would surely stay warm.

How do you think the Dutch in America survived the cold winters? I asked Maud as we tucked into hot coffee.

Maud sips

They wore plenty of furs, she said.

Right. It didn’t hurt that Hardenbroeck made her living as a fur trader – one of the most successful of the age. This could be a likeness of her engaging in her business, beaver hat set squarely on her head.


She traveled from the island of Manhattan up the Hudson to Albany to acquire beaver pelts from Native American trappers and returned south to ship the furs off to Holland, sometimes traveling on board to keep an eye on her merchandise. She made a fortune, more than enough to build her solid Yonkers pied a terre and to clothe herself in furs as well. She was a crack businesswoman and I always liked to see her signature at the bottom of contracts.11 Margarets SignatureShe could definitely drape herself in all the furs she wanted to, like this well-cloaked London fashionista from the era, portrayed by Wenceslas Hollar. The mask is to keep her complexion fresh.


Something odd struck me about Hardenbroeck’s fireplace when I first saw it. Most Dutch hearths have a decorative surround of Delft tiles.

Delft Tile 15

Staid Dutch burghers usually employed tilework in pure white or sober biblical allegories in safe shades of blue. Hardenbroeck’s, on the other hand, was framed by painted tiles that she might have found especially chic, with exotic pictures in a stylish minor-key tint called manganese that resembled the magenta-blue-brown of a fading bruise. Off shades called “sad” persisted as high fashion in the clothes of this period, denoting not necessarily gray or black but muddier earth tones, whether russet, plummy red, or the golden brown called ‘tawney.’ Even some pewter plates received the descriptor “sad-colored.”

Hardenbroeck chose a theme  with some Delft craftman’s cracked vision of the wilden of the New World: heavy-lidded hermaphrodites frolicking on animal feet, breasts bulging, carrying fruits that resembled ripe melons and accompanied by old-style griffins. These images reflected the era, which paired intensive high-seas exploration and scientific curiosity with tenacious ancient beliefs in monsters.

PMH Fireplace Tile

Artists and writers without firsthand knowledge of lands abroad still portrayed the scenery of America as crowded with Cyclopes and unicorns and other odd beasts, like those of Fortunio Liceti, who was sharing his creations with the world at around the same time.


The fanciful renderings on Hardenbroeck’s hearth tiles offer an ironic counterpoint to the house’s site, centered among the ghosts of ancient native villages whose all-too human inhabitants had perished of fevers, plagues and violence. New Amsterdam, where Hardenbroeck spent most of her time, was relatively cosmopolitan – for America. These were people, not only Dutch but a range of nationalities, who had braved all sorts of dangers to settle here, and now they lived clustered together in relative safety. They even bartered and socialized with the local Indians, when they weren’t making war on them.

But did the fur trader’s hearth fires keep her warm against the seventeenth century equivalent of our polar vortex? We have to assume they did. Folksy colonial historian Alice Morse Earle quoted a poem in one of her many books about the Dutch in Manhattan.

Shut in from all the world about,

We sat at the clean-winged hearth about,

Content to let the north wind roar

In baffled rage at pane and door,

While the red logs before us beat

The frost-line back with tropic heat;

And ever, when a louder blast

Shook beam and rafter as it passed,

The merrier up its roaring draught

The great throat of the chimney laughed,

The house dog on his paws outspread

Laid to the fire his drowsy head…

Hardenbroeck kept her up-river lodgings until her death in 1691, at the age of 54, and the house stayed in the family for a century after that, until the loyalist Philipses were driven off their estate after the Revolution, back to England. Hardenbroeck used the house at Yonkers throughout her career-intensive years as a stopover on her way to and from the fur fair at Albany, storing goods in a dry, paved cellar, no doubt happy to warm her hands by a blazing fire for a couple of days en route.

The sushi has arrived.


Cold fish on a cold day, how nice. We are fond of our fresh fish, here along the Hudson in the winter of 2014. No doubt, the Dutch denizens of New York also appreciated their seafood more than 300 years ago. After all, the harbor at New Amsterdam was stocked with foot-long oysters.


1 Comment

Filed under Art, Cooking, Culture, Dogs, Fashion, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Nature, Writers, Writing

Oddities of Nature Circa 1665

I’ve been thinking about oddities of nature, feral children and other beings that have captured peoples’ imagination over time. I came across some illustrations by an artist who really delved into the what ifs of human and animal existence.


Fortunio Liceti published De Monstris in 1665. He held a doctorate in philosophy and medicine and was widely published. Galileo, a friend, once loaned him money.


His drawings depicted monstrosities in nature, and apparently inspired widespread interest in what ifs: mermaids, pygmies and other marvels of the natural world. What I like is that it seemed in that early time as though anything was possible. People could grow arms out of their necks.


The Public Domain Review offers quite a few of these marvels for your perusal. Here is a taste.



Filed under Art, Culture, History, Jean Zimmerman, Nature

Let’s Celebrate

May you have a warm, happy and little bit crazy New Year’s…

1891 alice austen

and a 2014 that is full of good things.

NB: This is an 1891 photo from the fabulous but now somewhat obscure Staten Island photographer Alice Austen, who took 8,000 photographs over 40 years, usually gems of street photography, then went broke with her work unsung, then was rediscovered in time to move her out of the poorhouse for a celebration of her work in the 1950s.

My vow for 2014: to continue finding gems like the life of Alice Austen and reviving them for the present.


Filed under Art, Culture, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Photography

Portraitist Julia Margaret Cameron

The face in the photograph might seem familiar.

Pomona Alice Liddell

It is Alice Liddell, the original inspiration for Alice in Wonderland, whose visage was captured many times by the author of that book, Charles Dodgson (pen name Lewis Carroll) – somewhat provocatively, as he liked to depict many of his young-girl subjects.

Alice Liddell:Dodgson

Here, though, in 1872, Liddell appears through the lens of a very different photographer, one whose somewhat eccentric approach to the medium resulted in some beautifully hazy images that bring out the sensitivity, even the soul, of the subject.


Julia Margaret Cameron was born in Calcutta in 1815, and during her life in Britain became friends with some of the leading lights of the Victorian Age. Out of a family of diplomats and aristocrats, she was one of three sisters—the others celebrated for their beauty while she was know for her talent. She was the mother of six, deeply religious, literary and intellectual as well as privileged. However, it wasn’t until Cameron reached 48 that she was gifted with her first camera by her daughter and son-in-law, in 1863. A hobby transmogrified into a passion. Her career spanned just eleven years, until she returned to India and died, it has come down to us, of a “chill”. (Virginia Woolf, incidentally, was her great niece.) “From the first moment I handled my lens with a tender ardour,” she wrote, “and it has become to me as a living thing, with voice and memory and creative vigour.” It took her only 18 months to sell eighty prints to the Victoria and Albert Museum, set up a studio there, and make arrangements with the a West End printseller to market her photographs.

Reviewers gave Cameron mixed notices. She deliberately avoided the crystalline resolution and tiny detail that her albumen silver prints from glass negatives would have allowed, instead preferring soft light and long exposures that showed her subjects’ slight movements. In other words, things got blurry. Deliberately so. The effect was one of actual life rather than starchily posed pictures you sometimes see from that era. And the work had a strong pre-Raphaelite flavor.

She had three major bodies of interest: great figures of the day, such as Afred, Lord Tennyson, who called her subjects “victims” for the discomfort they experienced in the lengthy posing process.

Alfred Lord Tennyson

Others included Robert Browning, Ellen Terry, Charles Darwin. Leading lights of the age. For some of her subjects she was the only photographer of note, and so her work has an invaluable documentary as well artistic value. Sir John Herschel, for example, whom she captured in 1867, the British scientist whose talents embraced math, astronomy, chemistry and botany.

Sir John Herschel

Then, also, Cameron immortalized family members or friends or household staff, with photograph titles that suggested subjects from history, myth or the bible. This portait of one housemaid she called “The Mountain Nymph Sweet Liberty.”

The Mountain Nymph Sweet Liberty

Another photo she titled “Sappho.” She elevated the subject through the name she bestowed upon her.


She also assembled groupings to illustrate literary and religious themes. Her husband, Charles Hay Cameron, who was twenty years her senior, she posed in 1872 with, again, Alice Liddell, and two other young women — as Lear and his three daughters.

King Lear Alotting His Kingdom to His Three Daughters

“I longed to arrest all the beauty that came before me,” Cameron said, “and at length the longing has been satisfied.” Seeing several dozen of these extraordinary images in person is a highly unusual opportunity – they are rarely shown – so if you can manage it, I urge you to get to the Metropolitan Museum before January 5th.


Filed under Art, Culture, Fiction, History, Jean Zimmerman, Photography, Writers, Writing