Culture Magazine

A Mother of a Mystery...

By Kirsty Stonell Walker @boccabaciata
As many of you will know, I am currently writing a biography of Julia Margaret Cameron and her maid Mary Hillier, due out in September (more on that another time) but whilst gathering lots of lovely illustrations, I came across this image...

A Mother of a Mystery...

Portrait of Adeline Pattle-de l'Etang, the mother of the Photographer (1874) Julia Margaret Cameron

What a smashing photo of Julia Margaret Cameron's mum!  Such elegance and grace, and having been born around 1793, she isn't looking bad for 81.  Mind you, she had the benefit of being dead for the previous 29 years, which would account for how well-preserved she looked...

A Mother of a Mystery...

Adeline in happier, more alive times...

So, here's the thing - this can't really be her, unless the big twist in my new book is that JMC's mom was a zombie or a vampire (sorry, she wasn't), so who on earth is this then? Adeline Pattle (nee de L'Etang) died on the journey back from Calcutta with the body of her husband.  Both she and her husband James Pattle were buried in St Giles' Church, Camberwell, in 1845.  However, Julia Margaret Cameron had a sister called Adeline - aha!  so it must be her!  An understandable mistake, the sister of the photographer, rather than the mother etc etc.  Problem is that Adeline Maria Pattle, daughter of Adeline de L'Etang Pattle, born 1812, died in 1836.  Rats, so it's not her either.  As every other person in the Pattle family was called Adeline, Virginia or Maria, I had a shufty through all of them and was damned if I could find anyone else who was even vaguely likely, called Adeline.  Okay, so how did we end up in this pickle?
A Mother of a Mystery...

Written below the photograph, in Cameron's own hand, is this little message which is the root of the confusion.  It reads 'My gift to her beloved mother'.  Obviously, the people who owned this before the Rijks Museum (who now own the image) assumed that it was a portrait of Adeline Pattle, by JMC, that her daughter, Julia, had given to her as a gift.  However, that doesn't quite scan, because surely in that case she would have written 'My gift to my beloved mother'.  Whose mother is it then? Who is this woman?

A Mother of a Mystery...

Julia Margaret Cameron (1870) Henry Herschel Hay Cameron

 So, my first thought was 'Is it actually JMC herself?  Is this a self portrait?'  It is definitely a photo by Julia Margaret Cameron, and looking at the woman, I feel she is a Pattle, there is a bit of a resemblance, but could it possibly be Julia?  We have a few photos of Julia, most famously this snap by HHH Cameron, her son, which is only four years before the 'mother' picture.  I also wondered if JMC was dressed to look like her mother, as all the draped lace is rather old fashioned and unlike what you would expect from what JMC normally wore - she was more silks and velvets.  Actually, it looked more like this image of Anne Thackeray...

A Mother of a Mystery...

Anne Thackeray (1870) Julia Margaret Cameron

But, on the whole, JMC did not tend to take photographs of older women.  Famously, she was supposed to have made some disparaging remark about any woman over the age of twenty or something, and yet continued to take images of beardy old chaps.  Well, it is true that her aesthetic muse seemed to spark on young women of her staff or family, whereas her portraits of the great and good tended to be older men, mainly because that's what great and good looked like in mid Victorian Britain.  Don't blame me because the patriarchy got all the good photos.  Anyway, there is the odd older woman in JMC piccies, who sneak in because they are family, for example...

A Mother of a Mystery...

Maria 'Mia' Jackson (1872-5) Julia Margaret Cameron

Okay, so Pattle sister Mia has to be a suspect, as she has the same lace-y headdress thing (I want to say 'mantilla' but I think that's something else) and she is in possession of the Pattle looks, so it could well be her, but a bit like JMC, her hair looks rather straight in this picture, whereas the woman in the 'mother' image has a crimp-y touch, but it all depends on the day, the hairstyle etc I suppose.  There are stories of how Julia liked to wash the hair of her beardy old chaps to make it all fluffy, like this one...

A Mother of a Mystery...

Sir John Herschel (1875) Julia Margaret Cameron

So very fluffy. But I digress, and this remains a mystery because Mrs Cameron did not leave us any clue apart from the face.  All we can speculate upon is that this is either a photograph of a woman intended to be given to the mother, who is much beloved - 'My gift (of this lovely photograph of your daughter) to her beloved mother' or it is a gift for someone who Julia owes a lot to, so she repays that by taking a photograph of the friends mother - 'My gift (which I can never repay to this female friend so have chosen to bestow this upon her nearest and dearest) to her beloved mother'.  So this is my most outlandish suggestion...

A Mother of a Mystery...

Mary Hillier (1868) Julia Margaret Cameron

Highly unlikely, but I wondered if it was Mary Hillier's mom.  Mrs Cameron was not above dressing people up, so the clothes the older woman is wearing might well be out of the Cameron dressing-up box.  As Mary and her sister Sophia both modelled for Mrs Cameron's photographs, and Mary was an special model and muse for her, I wouldn't put it past Julia to drag in another member of the family.  Julia also had slightly lax guidelines on the age of local people in her photographs, with the occasional older woman creeping in, but I think Julia's prejudice against older women has been somewhat over-played anyway.  I also wondered about the possible double meaning of the word 'mother'.  Mary Hillier had been playing 'mother' in Julia's photographs for over a decade by this point, despite being a teenager when she started.  She is, in the photographs of Julia Margaret Cameron, the 'beloved mother', so I wondered if that photograph had been taken as a gift to Mary, 'the beloved Mother' of Mary's mother.  
It's only a theory and I have nothing to back it up.  More than likely, unless someone recognises her, this particular lady will remain a mystery. Or a zombie! Probably just a mystery.

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog

Magazine