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  • Love in the Flesh:Virginia Woolf, Julia Margaret Cameron, and Other Amorous Victorians
  • Andrea Zemgulys (bio)

In January 1923, Virginia Woolf invited Vita Sackville-West, a.k.a. Mrs. Harold Nicolson, over to her house in Richmond with a particular idea in mind:

Dear Mrs Nicolson, … I hope you'll come and look at my great aunt's photographs of Tennyson and other people some time. My sister has many of them at her house. Yours very sincerely[,] Virginia Woolf.1

Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell were in possession of many of their great aunt Julia Margaret Cameron's photographs. When the two first moved into their house in Gordon Square in 1904, Bell decorated the hallway with five Cameron portraits of famous men and five of the sisters' mother.2 The allure of the portraits was real. Even in 1923, tarnished by a few decades of sophistication and disillusionment in the "world's experience," many of the figures photographed by Cameron would have been yet appreciated for their hefty achievement and dusty celebrity.3 Ellen Terry, on the cusp of her theatrical career; G. F. Watts, Charles Darwin, Thomas Carlyle, and Robert Browning, resting on decades of intellectual and artistic achievement; and of course, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the late Poet Laureate, well out of fashion but still the latest (and perhaps last) "national poet," about whom two lengthy studies were published in that year, including one by Mr. Harold Nicolson, Sackville-West's husband. Mr. and Mrs. Nicolson together paid a relatively unremarkable visit to Richmond in the following month.4 [End Page 447]

The Tennyson portrait Woolf had in mind to show Sackville-West was in all likelihood one in particular, the portrait that Woolf featured in her published collection of Cameron photographs, Victorian Photographs of Famous Men and Fair Women by Julia Margaret Cameron (1926), and that Tennyson declared his second favorite and is said to have displayed in his own home alongside thirty other Cameron photographs.5 Known as "The Dirty Monk," the portrait presents Tennyson holding a book and exhibiting his famously large hands, signaling the creative work he accomplished as a writer (fig. 1). He is draped in a cloak, reflecting Cameron's effort to hide period-specific dress. His head hair and beard are long, textured, and unkempt. The title "The Dirty Monk," coined by Tennyson himself, is taken as a self-mocking joke on his irregular hygiene, just as it must be a Cameron-directed joke on the effect of the rough cloak, signaling not timelessness but the adopted poverty of a religious.6 "The Dirty Monk" is typical of Cameron's "great men" portraiture for its allegory of genius—marvelous hands, timeless cloak, hefty book, and a centering of attention on the head all signal what Cameron felt to be Tennyson's essential spirit and exceptional gift.7 Less obviously to twenty-first century eyes, "The Dirty Monk" is also typical of Cameron's portraiture because it features Tennyson's flesh: the portrait accentuates his creased skin and eye socket, and more notably, features a darkness in his skin at which many of his acquaintances marveled and which is surely referenced in the title "dirty," but at which contemporaries worried over as positive proof of an ethnic "dark blood" in the Poet Laureate, often thought Romany.8 Theodore Watts, writing in The Magazine of Art in 1893, concludes a review of all portraits of the poet—including a grudging assessment of "The Dirty Monk" as "very like" in expression and "neck"—with a meditation on Tennyson's dark skin, averring it is in fact "not really a dark complexion at all," but rather of a kind that "take a tan so deep that they become at length quite dark": "Tennyson's complexion was without a nuance of the Romany brown."9 One reviewer found the "guise" of his person in "The Dirty Monk" objectionable in ways that bespeak racial anxiety, arguing that the portrait renders him a criminal and "vagabond," the latter word nearly synonymous at the time for gypsy.10 Cameron herself thought the portrait a "fit representation of Isaiah or Jeremiah," suggesting "foreign" or "Semitic" ethnicity, as many...


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pp. 447-474
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