Apart from its size, perhaps, there’s nothing much about the house to distinguish it from its neighbours — one of the countless, vaguely Gothic, Victorian seaside villas that fringe the coast of the Isle of Wight. Even its name, Dimbola Lodge, seems like that of a respectable boarding house, which, indeed, was what it became in the 1920s after its days of glory passed. But, like the house itself, the name has an exotic background, for it was the title of the Cameron family’s estate in Ceylon. And in the 1860s and 1870s Dimbola Lodge was home to as brilliant a circle — social, literary, scientific — as any in that immensely confident period.
Julia Margaret Cameron was the youngest of five Pattle sisters, the only one without the blessing of beauty and elegance. She was rather squat, with a swarthy, heavy face; she dressed in strong colours and smelt slightly of the chemicals that brought her fame as a photographer. But her overwhelming personality — exasperating, loveable, generous, imperious, impetuous — made up for the lack of conventional good looks.
In 1860 she and her husband Charles Cameron set up home in the village of Freshwater to be near her hero Tennyson. Julia Margaret Cameron, ‘the greatest portrait photographer of the 19th century’, stumbled accidentally into her art. In 1863 her daughter gave her a camera to fill the time while her husband was absent in Ceylon. Her distinguished guests became her prey — under protest. Years later she admitted to Tennyson, ‘I bullied you — but worshipped you.’
But it was not only the great who experienced the torture of sitting, cramped, for minutes on end before her lens. Children were drawn in, too. One of her child victims recalled in later life her technique for capturing subjects: ‘Mrs Cameron was neither mysterious nor awe-inspiring, but just a kind, exacting tyrant. Children loved her — but fled from her as she lay in wait some fine morning at her garden gate for the young ones passing along the road. An arm would intercept the passage of some luckless mite and, bribed by jars of preserves or other toothsome dainties, the victim was led away to spend the sunny hours posing in the studio.’
Her fame declined after her death. A local recalls that, in the 1920s, some of her now priceless glass plates were used as garden cloches and even as skylights for the house itself. Between the wars some of her prints turned up in jumble sales for a few pence each. But post-war, her reputation began to benefit from the nostalgia industry, and in the 1980s her work reappeared on the national and international stages with exhibitions at Stanford University and the Getty Museum, and also — the ultimate modern accolade — there was a television programme about her.
But this cut little ice with the local planning authorities. In 1991, permission was given for the demolition of the house in favour of a modern development. When it was suggested that Dimbola should become a museum, a local councillor made the immortal remark that Julia Cameron (died 1879) failed to take into account the advent of the motorcar and the need to provide parking places.
The survival of Dimbola is due entirely to a group of enthusiastic volunteers. A Trust was formed, grants obtained, patrons drawn in, among them Charlton and Lydia Heston, and Olympus Cameras. Prisoners from the local jail and local craftsmen began the renovation of the house, bit by bit, as funds became available,
Restoration has been meticulous. On one of the walls, under layers of paint, a fragment of William Morris wallpaper provides a clue as to the décor and has been left in situ. The restoration of Julia’s own bedroom has just been completed, and is faithful to her fondness for bold colouring, with the walls entirely covered with a handmade copy of the William Morris wallpaper. Scattered throughout the house are architectural elements which appeared in her photographs, establishing a poignant continuity.
Housed under controlled conditions in the museum are 28 of Julia’s original albumen prints, while on permanent display are 40 prints of her work, made by the Royal Photographic Society. They include the narrative pictures that were so popular at the time, but modern taste responds perhaps more to the superb portrait heads: Carlyle in craggy profile, Herschel looking astonishingly like Einstein with his halo of wild, white hair, Darwin brooding, disconsolate.
Olympus Cameras has established a high-tech display in the museum which traces the development of photography from its beginnings. David Bailey and Lords Snowdon and Lichfield are among those who have supported Dimbola by having exhibitions of their work there.