Artistic Lives in Victorian Ceylon

There is an interesting description of life in mid-19th century Ceylon, published in the New York Times in 1878, entitled Ceylon’s Spicy Breezes, filed by their special correspondent from Kandy, the cultural capital at the heart of the island. It sets out the state of the coffee industry in the country – giving a background to this story of how the photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879), met the painter, Marianne North (1830-1860) in Ceylon.

The special correspondent writes, ‘Kandy is the centre of the coffee culture of Ceylon; coffee grows at an elevation of 1,800 feet and more, and the centre of the island has been found well adapted to it.  There are now about 1,200 plantations – estates they call them here – of an average extent of 250 acres each.  Most of the coffee-planters are young Englishmen with money or moneyed friends, who come or are apt to come to Ceylon to make a fortune’. The writer’s observations also ring true for the Cameron family’s experiences in Ceylon. They participated in the last great coffee rush between 1868 and 1878, hoping that their dwindling finances in England could be boosted by the plantation economy of Ceylon. In November 1877, of the 290,000 acres under cultivation in Ceylon, 272,243 acres were planted with coffee. Tea was still very much in its infancy.

The Camerons had been living in London after their return from India in the 1840s, becoming part of the artistic and cultural society. They then moved to the Isle of Wight in 1860, where they lived next door to Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

Julia Margaret Cameron – the photographer

Julia would finally move to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), after very much persuasion, from England to be with her husband and sons, who had left years earlier. However, she was leaving her life as one of England’s best portrait photographers. Her extraordinary rise as a photographer came by chance. The gift of the camera in December 1863 from her daughter came at the age of 48 – at a moment when her husband Charles and sons were already in Ceylon.

Malcolm Daniel, from The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Photography Department quotes Julia’s own words in his essay on her work, ‘I began with no knowledge of the art. I did not know where to place my dark box, how to focus my sitter, and my first picture I effaced to my consternation by rubbing my hand over the filmy side of the glass’. She viewed her work as a professional – vigorously copyrighting, exhibiting, publishing, and marketing her photographs. Within 18 months she had sold 80 prints to the Victoria & Albert Museum, established a studio in two of its rooms, and made arrangements with Colnaghi’s to publish and sell her photographs.

Julia Margaret Cameron early life

Julia was born in Calcutta (although educated in France – her mother was a French aristocrat) and came from a distinguished family with East India Company connections. While convalescing from an illness in South Africa with her parents, she met two Englishmen who would have a lasting impact on her life: the astronomer and photographer, Sir John Herschel, who became a lifelong friend and who first introduce her to the art of photography, and Charles Hay Cameron (1795-1880), a jurist and member of the Law Commission serving in India, whom she married in Calcutta in 1838. Their son, Hardinge Hay Cameron, became the private secretary to Sir William Gregory, Governor of Ceylon, from 1872 to 1877. It is perhaps this connection that influenced Charles to first invest in coffee states in Ceylon.

The move to Ceylon

Finally, in 1875, Julia moved to Ceylon to join her husband and four of their sons, where they were managing their substantial holdings. The Camerons had probably first moved to Ceylon due to financial hardships with their sons taking over the running of the estates rather than having them run by agents. Despite these financial difficulties, Charles continued to invest in ever more land in Ceylon and insisted on holding onto it through good years and bad. ‘His reigning passion for his Ceylon properties,’ Julia wrote to an old friend in 1860, whilst still in England, ‘has held him in sway and weakened his love for England for the last 20 years’. Charles was deeply attached to the wild landscape of the interior highlands that were ideal for coffee growing. Eventually, Julia had no recourse but to join him.

However, life was tough up-country, where the bulk of the development of the estates were to be found. It could take Charles eight hours by pony to go from his estate at Rathoongodde to the largest town, Kandy. The was no real network of roads and the railway lines to the estates to transport tea and coffee were yet to be fully established. Until the railroad reached Kandy in 1867, coffee had to be hauled by bullock carts. It was probably for these reasons that the Camerons mainly lived in their home on the coast at Kalutara, south of Colombo, with their son Hardinge.

Marianne North – the painter

The painter in this story is Marianne North, who was brought up in Hastings, England, where her father was a local member of parliament. After her parents’ death, she sold the family home and, as a wealthy heiress, began her travels – with the aim of painting the flora of different countries. Between 1871 and 1885, Marianne visited America, Canada, Jamaica, Brazil, Tenerife, Japan, Singapore, Sarawak, Java, Sri Lanka, India, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Seychelles and Chile.

On her return to England, she approached Kew Gardens to show her work and paid for a gallery to be built to house the collection. It is part of the attractions at Kew Gardens, London, today. Sir Joseph Hooker, then Director of Kew, oversaw the building of the gallery and was also instrumental in publishing her memoirs with MacMillan. Marianne had kept diaries of her travels and her autobiography, Recollections of a Happy Life, in two volumes, was published in 1894.

Marianne’s arrival in Ceylon

Marianne arrived in Galle, Ceylon, in 1877, first staying at the Oriental Hotel before going to Colombo to meet with the governor, Sir William Gregory. He facilitated her trip up-country and an invitation to visit the newly created botanical gardens in Kandy, to say with its director. During her stay, when she was sketching in the ‘old palace’, she met with inspiration for one of her paintings, ‘The next morning at six I was at work on my sketch of the outside of the temple, and breakfasted in the old palace, when a party of Indian pedlars came and spread out their gorgeous shawls and other goods on the verandah. They made a fine foreground to the flowers and palm-trees beyond. When I got home I found at last a ripe Jack-fruit to finish my painting from. Denis, the butler, had been constantly looking up at the tree and promising me one “the day after to-morrow”, ever since I came, and that one always disappeared and another was looked at with the same answer’.

Marianne went on to stay with the Camerons for the final part of her stay on the island. She says of Julia’s work that she ‘had long known her glorious photographs, but had never met her. She had sent me many warm invitations to come when she heard I was in Ceylon’. Marianne goes on to describe Julia’s house, ‘Their house stood on a small hill jutting out into the great river which ran in to the sea a quarter of a mile below the house. It was surrounded by cocoa-nuts, casuarinas, mangoes, and breadfruit trees’. Charles, Julia’s husband, even entertained her and read aloud to her when she was painting on the verandah.

Life with the Cameron’s

Marianne also intriguingly goes on to describe the interior of the house, ‘The walls of the rooms were covered with magnificent photographs; others were tumbling about the tables, chairs, and floors.’ It is a great shame that she did not mention in her memoirs the subject matter, or the creator, of the photographs she describes, but one can only conclude that many must have been Julia’s own work.

Although less productive than in England, Julia Margaret Cameron continued to take photographs. When Marianne came to stay, it must have been stimulating to have a new subject to photograph. Marianne says of Julia, ‘She made up her mind at once she would photograph me, and for three days she kept herself in a fever of excitement about it, but the results have not been approved of at home since. She dressed me up in flowing draperies of cashmere wool, let down my hair, and made me stand with spiky cocoa-nut branches running into my head, the noonday sun’s rays dodging my eyes between the leaves as the slight breeze moved them, and told me to look perfectly natural (with a thermometer standing at 96°)! Then she tried me with a background of breadfruit leaves and fruit, nailed flat against a window shutter, and told them ‘to look natural, but both failed; and though she wasted twelve plates, and an enormous amount of trouble, it was all in vain, she could only get a perfectly uninteresting and commonplace person on her glasses, which refused to flatter’.

Julia Margaret Cameron’s Ceylon photographs

Julia also undertook, as any good enquiring Victorian would, photographs of the local people around her. These now, in modern eyes, may look ‘ethnographic’ or without personality, but some photographs do portray a genuine interest in the subject. Most portraits from this period would probably have been of the Cameron’s household staff. Sadly, only a small number of photographs survive from Julia’s time in Ceylon, perhaps about 30, scattered in museums, mainly in the UK and the US.

The Camerons frequently travelled to their up-country estates from the base in Kalutara. They had accompanied their son Hardinge to stay at Henry’s (another son) bungalow Glencairn, in the mountains near Nuwara Eliya, which has a much cooler climate, to help Hardinge recover from an illness. However, Julia Margaret Cameron fell ill with a bronchial complaint and died on 26 January 1979. It is said at her funeral that two white bullocks pulled the body in a cart along mountain roads as far as they could and then it was carried by workers from the Rathoongodde estate to the burial grounds at St Mary’s church in Bogawantalawa, where her gravestone still exits. Her husband survived her for another year and is buried next to her in St Mary’s.

The Marianne North Gallery, Kew Gardens, London