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Victorian Poetry 40.4 (2002) 445-462

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"Shadowing Sense at war with Soul":
Julia Margaret Cameron's Photographic Illustrations of Tennyson's Idylls of the King

Marylu Hill


ONE CHRISTMAS, WHEN I WAS ABOUT TWELVE YEARS OLD, I RECEIVED A PICtorial history of the Arthurian legend. As I paged through it, I was startled to find, amidst splendidly illuminated illustrations from the middle ages, a black and white photograph of King Arthur, looking as chiseled as a statue, yet clearly a real person. Because I was a fanciful and melodramatic twelve-year old, for a moment I half believed it was King Arthur. Then, of course, common sense reared its dull head to remind me that Arthur predated photography by at least a thousand years and in no way could this be Arthur. But my fascination with the photograph remained; it was as real and seemingly trustworthy as the photographs with which I had grown up, even while it paradoxically depicted a verifiable present re-creating an unknowable and unverifiable past.

It was not until some years later that I discovered the photograph described above was the work of Julia Margaret Cameron, now famed as a leading pioneer in nineteenth-century photography, and it was one of a set of photographs illustrating Tennyson's Idylls of the King. The two-volume work was created at Tennyson's request and completed in 1875. The collection was neither a financial nor a critical success when it first appeared, however; it cost an exorbitant six guineas, and critics held it to be an awkward mixture of realism and ideality. As Helmut Gernsheim records, Cameron's contemporary critics found that "her compositions persist in producing a realistic effect which can only be termed as incongruous." 1 Even today, despite Cameron's reclamation as a photographer of astounding portraits, the illustrations to the Idylls remain largely unappreciated, notwithstanding the best efforts of some recent feminist Arthurian and Victorian scholars. 2

In this essay, I will offer a re-examination of these photographs because they offer an extraordinary visual counterpart to the tensions inherent in [End Page 445] the Idylls themselves: the tension between past and present, false and true, permanent and transitory. Instead of merely illustrating the narrative, the photographs succeed in illuminating Tennyson's vision of the shadowy ground between what is tangibly present and what is irrecoverably lost. Indeed, the photograph as a medium embodies just such a transitional zone of reality, which Roland Barthes refers to as a reality of "having been there." 3 And this sense of doubled pastness in Cameron's photographs—the past world of legend and the past world of legendary Victorians—has only increased for the modern viewer, witness my own startled reaction at age twelve. 4

Because I am a scholar of literature rather than an art or photography expert, I want to spend some time looking at Tennyson and the Idylls themselves to solve what was, for me, a fundamental problem concerning Cameron's illustrations. That problem, or question, is why would anyone choose to illustrate a work of fantasy and myth with photographs? The two seem at first completely antithetical; even more incredible, initially, is the fact that Tennyson approached Cameron with the suggestion rather than the other way around. Indeed, the idea seems so preposterous that one Tennyson biographer, Robert Bernard Martin, makes a hypothetical excuse for Tennyson's behavior: "[It] suggests an act of deliberate kindness since he hated illustrations of his poem, even when he supervised them." 5 Yet by all accounts, Tennyson was not a particularly kind man when it came to preserving and promoting his poetry. In addition, he took an active interest in the choice of appropriate models for the Arthurian characters, going so far as to debate with Cameron in a public space over a young and visibly embarrassed bishop as to whether or not he would be a good Lancelot. Tennyson won with a veto by saying Lancelot needed a face more "scarred by human...


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