Julia’s subjects

Alfred Lord Tennyson (The Dirty Monk)

Apart from Mary, the only person I saw her treat tenderly in the studio was Darwin. Equally unusual was her treatment of his family, whom she welcomed to the Glass House, taking plate after plate of them posing in groups about him, without use of props or costumes, causing everyone to wonder if she was having a change of heart. She was not. Both the costumes and the imperious treatment of her sitters reappeared soon after the Darwins returned to Kent. Even Charles was confused by the visit. But I could see that she loved him because he was troubled, because he was trying to make sense of the world. For her he seemed a kindred spirit, someone else searching for beauty, pattern and form in the world, searching for the truth and trying to reconcile it all. And she also loved him just because he was troubled and because his family cared that he was. She was drawn to Emily and I in much the same way; for that I was grateful.

My publisher was slightly shocked by her portrait of me, the one they called the dirty monk, and, at first, refused to use it. ‘There’s a difference,’ he said, ‘between brooding and murderous.’ But the hollow way she made me look, as though I was sinking into myself, seemed to me to capture my soul; and I never used another portrait again.

George Frederic Watts (The Whisper of the Muse)

Only now she’s gone can I realise that Julia, with her violent disregard for convention, was my true muse. Her portrait of me was enchanting, shot through with the light and energy of the creative muse, something I would have been proud to paint. Adding the violin was a stroke of genius; bringing music and life to my pose as I held it above her young nieces, as though I had just played a wonderful tune and one could almost see the sparks fly from my fingers. It’s how I felt when I painted and Julia knew that, because she listened. Listening was what Julia did best.

We spent hours talking about painting—she was so convinced that there was a trick, a foolproof technique, something I could teach her. But there is not. One can paint, or not paint, teaching is worthless. When she finally found her art, her passion, there was just no talking to her. We were happy for her, happy that she had what she wanted. But, in many ways, the change was unsettling. She had lost something, a softness and gentleness that were her beauty, her uniqueness. That’s what I thought, privately, that she lost her real beauty when she found art.

Christina Fraser-Tyler (The Rosebud Garden of Girls)

It was Mummy who wanted our photograph taken, all four sisters together. She’d bought us new capes, trimmed with fur, and I think she’d imagined that we were all to sit in a row, looking pretty and respectable, so she could give the prints to the family, or even use them to find suitors—knowing Mummy that wouldn’t have surprised me.

We hadn’t expected to be asked to change our clothes and we worried about what Mummy might say, especially when we saw the dresses Mrs Cameron had chosen. Simple, flowing robes with no structure underneath, just loose and embroidered with leaves and medieval knotwork. They were lovely, but they made us feel as though we wore nothing at all. Mrs Cameron took off her own dress and worked in her petticoats, to put us at ease, which made Mary giggle so much we thought she might not stop. She brushed our hair loose and read us some lines from a poem, by Tennyson I think, about a rosebud garden of girls. We were all, she said, Queen Lily and Rose in one; and we felt beautiful after that, even Ethel.

May Prinsep (Elaine)

We sat often for Aunt Julia and so nothing in the Glass House surprised me much. People who weren’t used to her found it difficult sometimes, sitting in that weird smell for so long, in all the clutter and mess. But all her nieces and nephews were used to it. We were pulled in there on every visit and quickly learned that, if we did exactly as she asked, we’d be allowed out sooner. By the time I sat as Elaine, I already had children of my own, and Aunt Julia said I was learning patience, though I’m not sure that was true. Elaine, she explained, was the soul of patience, alone in a tower, weaving the image of Camelot in a mirror because she was banned from looking down on the city.

What I found difficult to believe about Elaine was that in the story she did not even know if it was true, if she really would be cursed if she looked at Camelot. She had only heard, or thought she heard, someone say it. And it seemed strange to me that someone would live their whole life like that, in thrall to some chance overheard conversation.

Mary Ryan (Portrait)

Julia liked to picture me as the Madonna. She never rightly said I was supposed to be the mother of Christ, but that was always how it looked in the end, all wistful and confused, cradling one or other of the poor village weans she had me fetch up to Dimbola. It was a fascination for her, the perfect mother figure, something she wanted to be. We all used to let on that she was a wonderful mother, not just to her own weans but to all of us; and no one’s good at everything are they? She was always too busy for the routines most children need. But she had this ideal, this image of what motherhood should look like, and in her own mind she fell short.

All she wanted was a daughter who was her very best friend; she had a deadly way of loving and she expected to be loved in return; she couldn’t stand it when others refused to show the same emotions. When it was family the treachery was worse.

Annie Philpot (The First Success)

A huge wooden box stood in the middle of the room. I’d never seen a camera before, not many of us had, and it frightened me a little. It was enormous, perhaps the size of a kitchen table and I honestly thought she was going to ask me to get inside it. Aunt Julia must have realised I was scared because she gave me a doll to hold, a lumpy one with sharp feathers sewed to its shoulders and a head that was quite flat on one side, which made it look awfully sad. She looked at it for a long time before she handed it to me, as though she didn’t really want me to have it.

Strange things hung from the scullery ceiling on one of those pulley contraptions that usually store pots and pans—a mothy fox tippet with horrible yellow eyes, a little wooden bucket, one of her old rainhats, and a pair of goose wings, spread flat like shoulder blades. I wondered if Aunt Julia was practising magic, whether I would just disappear if she asked me to get into the box. I got spooked then, fancying that she looked a little like a witch. She looked, not at me, but almost through me, as though I wasn’t a person at all but a wooden bucket or a pair of wings; and then she marched across and snatched the slides out of my hair, rubbing at it hard until tufts stuck out. I knew I’d be scolded for such messy hair, but I didn’t dare to tell her Mummy wouldn’t like it.