Dimbola Lodge, former home of Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, has always held a special place in my heart ever since it became my first home on the Island in 1996. Back then it was still in the midst of a long restoration, having been saved from the bulldozer by a small group of people with sufficient vision to recognize its historical value, and dedication to work against all odds.
Just back from India with little money, I swapped labour for rent & popped up around the house in a Fawlty Towers stylee – one minute on reception, next serving tea, washing up, cleaning rooms, or painting walls and ceilings!
With a degree in photography, I also set up a small darkroom in an old kitchen & began teaching old photographic processes.
Now I have an excuse to regularly take various friends & family members over to Freshwater Bay, where we can drink coffee & eat delicious cakes in the Cameron Tea Rooms, meander through the galleries, and stare dreamily out at the Bay from the upstairs rooms.
If dressing up’s your thing there’s a room filled with Victorian–style costumes, a huge mirror & a fabulous painted backdrop. You can take pictures using the digital camera provided by sponsors Olympus.
Julia played hostess to such Victorian luminaries as Darwin, Carlyle, George Watts, Lewis Carroll, and, of course, Tennyson, Poet Laureate, who lived just up the road at Farringford, all of whom feature in her striking images.
If you have time, look for the secret gate Tennyson used when visiting Julia, to avoid his fans!
In the 1990’s Lynne Truss wrote a farcical novel, “Tennysons Gift”, about the shenanigans that might have gone on Julia’s household, and in the spirit of Julia, I was still painting the gallery upstairs, in which the book was due to be launched, as Lynne and her guests arrived downstairs.
Today modern rock legends, like Patti Smith, Brian May, Ronnie Wood, have all exhibited here, fitting in neatly with the permanent Isle of Wight Pop Festival exhibition of memorabilia from the original festivals of 1968-1970. Even Jimi Hendrix makes an appearance outside, in the shape of a life-size bronze, its unusually subdued pose reflecting the fact that he died a couple of weeks after playing at the nearby festival site on Afton Down.
Festivals & Victorian photography, an odd match, perhaps some of you are thinking? But this is thing I love most about Dimbola, the way it has never quite managed to shake off Julia’s eccentricity. She never cared for tradition, & totally broke with the stiff Victoria portraits of her time, eschewing neck-braces & full length poses, preferring instead to photograph large, blurry heads (all the better for capturing the spirit of her sitter) and not bothering to retouch the dust & dirt on her finished images. Julia thought nothing of locking a maid in a cupboard to produce a suitable expression of despair (obv. not recommended!), or strapping a heavy pair of swans wings onto a small child and making her pose as an angel.
She would have loved the visiting rock stars, tourists, artists, photographers and locals alike and would have no doubt coerced them all to sit for her, after a jolly good sing song or debate and lashings of tea!