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Julia Margaret Cameron
[Study of a Dead Child]
Albumen silver print
21.5 x 34.5 cm (8 7/16 x 13 9/16 ins)
J. Paul Getty Museum
Gift of Michael Wilson, Object number: 85.XM.457
This child was Adeline Clogstoun and her death at Dimbola Lodge is described in Victoria C. Olsen, 2003, From Life: Julia Margaret Cameron and Victorian Photography, (Palgrave Macmillan) and in Colin Ford, 2003, Julia Margaret Cameron: A Critical Biography , (Getty Publications), p. 61 footnote
Victoria C. Olsen, 2003, From Life: Julia Margaret Cameron and Victorian Photography, (Palgrave Macmillan), pp. 187-188
[The following is introduced after Olsen has been talking about how Julia took portraits that "bear an uncanny resemblance to the genre of postmortem photography", referring to some of the Mary Hillier images where she leans over a sleeping child. She also did a posed, false post-mortem "The Shunamite Woman and Her dead Son", talking about how Julia's religious and very Victorian attitude toward death played out in her imagery...]
The height of theatricality was therefor the death of a child, who [Nina] Auerbach suggests embodied the changing, mobile self more effectively than adults. The theater's endless transformations had to be visible to audiences, so the emphasis was placed on deathbed "conversion" scenes in more senses than one: these climaxes presented the spectacle of the changeable child becoming a fixed and stable icon, usually a visible illustration of a moral lesson. In 1872 it was a death of a child, her great-niece Adeline Clogstoun, who inspired Cameron's only known postmortem portraits. Adeline and her sisters Blanche and Mary were the granddaughters of Cameron's eldest sister Adeline Mackenzie. They were orphaned around 1870 and the girls were distributed around the extended family: Blanch became the adopted daughter of Watts and lived in the Prinsep household, and Mary and Adeline seem to have spent time with various families, including Cameron's.
Source for the Annie Thackeray"letter is "Unpublished letter from JMC to Anne Thackeray Ritchie, June 17, 1872, Eton College archive",
In June 1872 Cameron recounted to Annie Thackeray the bizarre accident of Adeline's death: when their governess was sick, two of the sisters and a cousin were left unsupervised and in climbing and jumping on each other Adeline so injured her back that she died a few days afterwards. In the letter Cameron wrung her hands over her warnings to them and decided against an autopsy to determine the cause of death, out of pity for the feelings of the other girls. But her "reading" of the tragedy was entirely religious: it proved, she wrote, that Adeline had only been lent to her as a "bright example of her angel-like patience and endearing love." [cites the Thackeray letter] She stressed the beauty of the dying girl and took four images of her after her death. She inscribed them: "From death." [a play on her usual "From life"] As Julian Cox has noted, in representing death as both beautiful and sentimental the photographs bear a striking resemblance to the most famous deathbed scene in Victorian literature: the death of Little Nell in Dickens' "The Old Curiosity Shop."
In an anecdote that may or may not be about Adeline's death, the American essayist Thomas Wentworth Higginson described observing a deathbed scene on a visit to Cameron and Tennyson at Freshwater. He recounted the usual eccentricities -- Charles Hay [Cameron, Julia's husband] "picturesque" in a blue dressing gown "with black velvet buttons and a heavy gold chain" -- and then noted that the housemaids were all upstairs attending at a sick bed. Higginson
was ushered into the chamber, where a beautiful child lay unconscious upon the bed, with weeping girls all around; and I shall never forget the scene when Tennyson bent over the pillow, with his sombre Italian look, and laid his hand on the unconscious forehead; it was like a picture by Ribera or Zamacois. The child, as I afterwards heard, never recovered consciousness, and died within a few days.
Alan Griffiths note (23 November 2015): I'm indebted to Tim Lindholm for bringing this to my attention and for transcribing the passage from the book by Victoria C. Olsen.