A few years ago I went to the village of Freshwater on the Isle of Wight, to scout out a location in my second novel of the Durant Family Saga trilogy: Castles in the Air.
Freshwater is a step back in time. It appears nothing has changed in this small coastal village since one of the characters in my novel, Ella Durant visited it over one hundred years ago to meet the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson. Given its history I would be surprised if it wasn't a haven for artists and writers. The beauty of the cliffs and rolling hills is astounding.
After finding Tennyson's home, Farringford, which is not open to the public, I went to the Dimbola Museum, once home of the famous photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron. I found a reference in a letter from Thomas C. Durant to his daughter Ella Durant dated April 1874 in which he stated he would allow Ella to stay with Mrs. Cameron in Freshwater. I speculate that the photo below may have actually been done by Cameron, although I don't know for sure. But in it Ella poses with her brother William and other friends at Isle of Wight, and it is dated 1874. Anne Thackeray Ritchie, an author and a family friend of Julia Cameron, stands tall in the back, facing right.
Cameron lived alone on the Isle of Wight from 1860-1875 while her husband tended to the family coffee plantations in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Her daughter gave her a camera to occupy her time while living in Freshwater and she became famous for her photographic style, particularly her portraits which mimicked works of art.
Her images of Alice Liddell, the muse for Alice in Wonderland are haunting. The museum holds a small collection of her photos and a collection of cameras that would interest any photography enthusiast. I however, am always looking for the folklore wherever I visit, those tidbits that tell you a lot about how people lived and their special relationships. Cameron had a large circle of friends - intellectuals and artists - staying in or near Freshwater and she was known for her impromptu parties and recitals. Indeed, there is a family tree of sorts hanging in one of the rooms showing her connection to people such as Robert Browning, Ellen Terry (actress), Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and Charles Darwin - all the people that visited her regularly in Freshwater.
My imagination went into overdrive when I saw the special backdoor entrance at Dimbola, a gate just for Tennyson. The two collaborated on a photographic representation of his work, Idylls of the Kings, in 1874. Literature from the museum stated they were dear friends. Cameron would walk the path along the rolling downs to Farringford at all hours, lighting her way at night using small torches. Their collaborative project bringing the Arthurian legend in Tennyson's Idylls of the Kings alive with photography was a profoundly satisfying experience for them both.
In 1875 Julia had to leave Freshwater to return with her husband to their coffee plantations in Ceylon. She took a coffin with her, never intending to return to her beloved Dimbola. It must have been heart-wrenching for Tennyson to see his good friend leave. She died four years later in Ceylon. Tennyson lived until 1892.
One would never know that creative genius walked the paths along Freshwater's cliffs over 100 years ago. It is sleepy little village without airs. I can't wait to go back and once again feel the pull creative energy that I poured into writing the Durant Family Saga.
Sheila Myers is an award winning author and Professor at a small college in Upstate NY. She enjoys writing, swimming in lakes, and walking in nature. Not always in that order.
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