A tin of tea and photography’s history

25 August 2015

SIG: Historical

Romesh de Silva, the Society’s Sri Lankan Chapter Organiser, visited Fenton House recently and amongst a number of wonderful teas he left for staff to enjoy was one labelled ‘Dimbula’, made on a plantation in Sri Lanka.

‘Tennyson (Dirty Monk)’, May 1865.

The connection between a metal tin of tea and one of British photography’s greatest photographers and a former Society member may not be immediately apparent. There are probably only a handful of photographic historians who would have looked at the tin and immediately made the connection to Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879). Perhaps too much time, over many years, spent in exhibitions and reading history books allows one to make such random connections.

Cameron named her house in Freshwater Bay, Isle of Wight, ‘Dimbola’ after the Dimbula tea and coffee plantation which her family owned, where she lived and her family grew tea and coffee.  Cameron, of course, found greater fame as a portrait photographer with her distinctive artistic style using the wet-collodion process. She visited the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson on the Isle of Wight in 1860 and was taken by the location that the Camerons purchased their own property there, Dimbola Lodge, soon after, naming it after their Ceylon estate.  

Julia Margaret Cameron She took up photography in 1863 and was elected a member of the Photographic Society on 7 June 1864, remaining a member until her death. Partly through her own efforts by cultivating influential friendships her work was widely appreciated as artistic and her photographs were amongst the first added to the collection of the South Kensington Museum, later the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington, London.

'A Group of Kalutara Peasants...', 1878.In 1875 Cameron moved back to Ceylon and continued to practice her photography despite the problems of securing chemicals and materials and a limited market for her work. She died in Kalutara, Ceylon, in 1879.

2015 sees the bicentenary of Cameron’s birth and the V&A and National Media Museum will both be holding major exhibitions celebrating her work – the latter including images made by her and held in The Royal Photographic Society Collection. The V&A show opens on 28 November and the NMeM show opens at Media Space, London, on 24 September 2015.

Dr Michael Pritchard FRPS
e: michael@rps.org

Images (top to bottom): 
Michael Pritchard, A tin of Sri Lanka's Dimbula tea, 2015.
Julia Margaret Cameron, Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
Henry Herschel Hay Cameron, Julia Margaret Cameron. 
Julia Margaret Cameron, A Group of Kalutara Peasants, 1878.

All, except the first, from The Royal Photographic Society Collection / National Media Museum, Bradford.