21 February 2024 | Silke Lohmann

Dimbola House is home to Julia Margaret Cameron's permanent exhibition on the Isle of Wight

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) lived at Dimbola House on the Isle of Wight for 15 years between 1860 and 1875. The Camerons had moved to Freshwater Bay from London in 1860 and lived there for 15 years before returning to Sri Lanka.

The view from photographer Julia Margaret Cameron's house, Dimbola Lodge

They bought two adjacent dwellings and built a central tower to form their new home. As Julia recorded in her memoirs, she turned an old 'glazed fowl house' into a studio, and set about photographing everyone from famous visitors to her own maids, locals and children.

Julia Margaret Cameron had been showing a keen interest in photography for many years, but she only took her first photograph at the age of 48 when her daughter gave her a camera as a present once she had moved to the island. She took around 900 photographs while she lived at Dimbola and then only a few more once she moved to Sri Lanka. She created unique, allegorical images, but was often criticised at the time for producing unrefined images and her soft focus, considered to be amateurish. Her portraits of highly respected men like Charles Darwin, Sir John Herschel and Henry Taylor, however, were praised then and now. Today, they are often described as 'extraordinarily powerful' and she has been credited with producing the first close-ups in the history of the medium and was the first photographer in residence in what is now known as the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Cameron had been at the centre of what we now call the Freshwater Circle, a kind of literary salon which took over the mantle of the Little Holland House soirees run by her sister in Kensington. London friends like Tennyson, GF Watts, Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, John Millais, Sir Arthur Sullivan et al could dine at Farringford and Dimbola with the likes of Charles Darwin, the Greek scholar Benjamin Jowett, and the astronomer Pritchard, in a wonderful ferment of artistic and scientific debate.

Dimbola House (left), and Alfred Lord Tennyson (right). Courtesy of Dimbola House

Julia took many mad photographic portraits of this odd group, released from high seriousness in the environs, on her new wet collodion camera. Most were taken at Dimbola where Julia had turned a hen house into a glazed studio directing light and shade by the use of old carpets laid on the roof.

The house is now open to the public and the Chairman of the Julia Margaret Cameron Trust, Dr Brian Hinton MBE, recalls how he got involved with saving Dimbola House. He had taken a job on the Isle of Wight as a branch librarian and as part of his duties he chaired the Isle of Wight Council of the Arts. One day, the phone rang with a concerned Islander saying that permission had been granted to demolish Dimbola. He called an emergency meeting of the Tennyson Society. Although his bosses didn't agree with his actions, he managed to get enough money from The Foundation of Sports and the Arts to buy the Cameron House side of Dimbola and subsequently the other half with a mortgage.

Dimbola House, bedroom. Courtesy of Dimbola House

The Trust created a museum and arts centre, celebrating its 30th anniversary this June. The house has hosted exhibitions of contemporary photographs by Patti Smith, David Bailey, Annie Leibovitz, Lord Snowdon, Billie Childish, John Otway and Melanie.

Dimbola Museum & Galleries. Courtesy of Dimbola House

The latest exhibition is of Charles Dickens portraits recreated in technicolour - it had been on view at the Dickens Museum in Clerkenwell before coming to Dimbola this February, officially opened by the novelist's great grandson Ian. Although it is not known if Dickens and Mrs Cameron ever met, photographs by Julia showing many of his closest friends, like Thomas Carlyle and Tennyson, are shown alongside.

© Photographic Restoration & Colourising: Oliver Clyde

When the trust saved Dimbola they unearthed original Willliam Morris wallpaper, Philip Webb tiles, ornate fireplaces, and carved wooden features which showed Julia's exciting pairing of her own Indian heritage in Calcutta, and the Arts and Crafts movement. It was officially opened by Koo Stark in June 1994.

Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell are known to have stayed at Dimbola after Cameron's death on several occasions with their father Sir Leslie Stephen. Julia Margaret Cameron's sister had been the girls' grandmother, but it was through Anne Thackeray Ritchie, the step-aunt of the girls that they seemed to have been invited. Julia had taken several photographs of her niece Julia Stephen and she had invited Anne and her sister Minnie (Leslie Stephen's first wife) to stay after their father William Makepeace Thackeray passed away in 1963. Virginia later wrote a sarcastic play Freshwater about the mad goings on, and more seriously the first proper book about her great aunt in 1926, published by the Hogarth Press.

Virginia and Vanessa were key members of the Bloomsbury Group of course and indirectly the group influenced the idea how to save Dimbola as Brian Hinton met Julian Bell at Oxford and subsequently stayed with Julian and his family in East Sussex, where he met Julian's father Quentin and other survivors of Bloomsbury like Duncan Grant and Frances Partridge. When Julian's family were instrumental in saving Charleston Farmhouse from being whitewashed and put back as if Vanessa Bell had never been, he took mental notes when literally ten years later he had to invent a similar template - half museum half contemporary arts centre - there was a plan in place.

Dimbola exterior. Courtesy of Dimbola House

Apart from organising regularly changing exhibitions of works by photographers and contemporary artists, Brian also managed to find enough books related to Julia Margaret Cameron to fill a research library that is being used by scholars from around the world. Dimbola is also home to the amazing archive of the Isle of Wight Pop Festivals.

From the 29th March to 1st November the house is open every day from 10 am to 4 pm, before then, times vary slightly, visit www.dimbola.co.uk for further information.

The current exhibition Technicolour Dickens: The Living Image of Charles Dickens will be running until the 19th May.

Courtesy of Dimbola House

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