‘Portrait of Angelo Colarossi’ by Julia Margaret Cameron

Julia Margaret Cameron’s 1867 portrait of Angelo Colarossi

What a piece of work Julia Margaret Cameron was! Eccentric, name-dropping and pushy; 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 a reminiscence from her niece, Laura Gurney: “Aunt Julia appeared as a terrifying elderly woman, short and squat, with none of the Pattle 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 12 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 above all meant the careful following of recipes. Even today, her 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 and 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 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 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 she 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 with the great writer 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 with a character rather than merely to a professional mien.

Still. 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, now in the Media Museum in Bradford.

This is part of a series on building a dream photography collection appearing in the FT and FT Weekend. www.ft.com/hodgson

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