Monday, 14 January 2013

Margaret on a Bench

This is Margaret on a bench.

Margaret is a lovely lady from the Isle of Wight. When she learned that Shore Women writers were working on a project about benches, she volunteered this photograph of herself on a bench, taken by her husband Derek. This inspired Marion Carmichael, one of the Shore Women writers, to write a poem for the Benchmarks project.

Marion's poem is called, not surprisingly, Margaret on a Bench. This may seem an uninspiring subject for a poem but look what she makes of it!

Margaret on a Bench

Julia Margaret played with light,
turned urchins into angels, conjured 
stories from shadows. Here sun light slides
round the shade of short days, night-dark shadows
paddle your blue feet; winter sun dazzles,
shuts your eyes. Sepia grasses squeeze
memories of summer; fickle as frogs
they leap, dance in the wind, shift in the light.
Impatient in your warm earth-coloured coat
your hand ready to slice walnut cake, pour
strong flasked tea to steam in the cold air. 
Beside you the photographer’s bag gapes
waits, like a cradle while the camera
taking your picture plays tricks with the light. 

by Marion Carmichael

 We all know days like this, outings on sunny winter afternoons where it's just a bit too cold and darkness moves in fast. The plain bench and the self-conscious sitting-on-a-bench-having-your-picture taken are familiar to us all while the patterns of light in the photograph make a strong backdrop to the ordinariness of the setting. With a poet's eye for detail, Marion picks up on Margaret's blue shoes, her earth-coloured coat, the flask beside her on the bench. Was it walnut cake in the bag? Well, yes, why not.

In the first line of the poem Marion echoes Margaret's name with a a clever reference to Julia Margaret Cameron, one of the Isle of Wight's most famous residents. Julia Margaret was one of the many prominent Victorians who settled in Freshwater on the west of the island. Her home was Dimbola Lodge, a stately house overlooking Freshwater Bay. She lived here from 1860 until 1874. 

Julia Margaret Cameron was a pioneer of British photography, who, at the age of 48, began taking pictures of the people around her - servants, friends, neighbours - anyone who would sit through the laborious process of photography at that time.

The poet laureate, Lord Tennyson, was Julia Margaret Cameron's neighbour. This is a photograph she took of him in 1869

image courtesy of

Julia Cameron took many portrait photographs of real people but as Marion's poem suggests, she also played tricks with the light and conjured stories from shadows. Her housemaid, Mary Hillier, was one of her favourite models. Here is Mary dressed up as St. Agnes, a photograph taken in 1864.

image courtesy of

One of Julia's good friends was the painter George Frederick Watts. In The Whisper of the Muse (1865) he posed with two young sisters, Kate and Elizabeth Keown in a classical style. As part of her storytelling, Julia chose to portray him as a musician rather than a painter.

image courtesy of

Marion's poem reminds us that one of Julia Margaret Cameron's favourite subjects was angels; she turned urchins into angels in her many angel photographs.

This is The Nestling Angel, photographed in 1870. Her great niece, Rachel Gurney, posed for the picture, probably repaid in sweets or coins. Whatever its intention, the photograph suggests the fragile existence of Victorian children.

image courtesy of

This angel photograph is called I Wait. It was taken by Julia in 1872, not long before she left the Isle of Wight. 

image courtesy of

What did Julia herself look like? Surprisingly, the first painting of Julia Margaret Cameron was a bench picture painted in about 1818 by a French painter. It showed Julia with her father, her three sisters and her mother seated on a bench.

This is Julia Margaret Cameron as painted by Watts in the early 1850s. The painting is now in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

This photograph of Julia was taken in 1870 by her son, Henry Herschel Hay Cameron. Julia was 59 years old at the time.

image courtesy of

We've come a long way from Margaret on a Bench so just to bring things together - Margaret, Julia, angels, benches - here is an angel on a bench. 

We'll call her Margaret.

image from Mary Ellen Fey at Vintage Vogue Treasures

If you find yourself in Freshwater, stop in at Dimbola Lodge and see the museum where Julia's strange and compelling photographs will delight you. There is a lovely tearoom in what used to be Dimbola's sitting room.

Or, if you bring a flask and some walnut cake, you can wander down to Freshwater Bay and sit on one of the many benches where, if you're lucky, you'll be dazzled by winter sun.


Many thanks to Margaret for permission to tell this story and post her picture. Margaret died in 2014 and she is remembered fondly by those of us who knew her. 

Thanks also to Marion Carmichael for her poem.

Julia Margaret Cameron's photographs are from the Dimbola website at and from the Victoria and Albert Museum collection at   Julia Margaret Cameron's photographs are used with the kind permission of the Julia Margaret Cameron Trust at the Dimbola Museum and Gallery. 

For a full range of JMC's photographs, a biography, and lots of other information about Julia Margaret Cameron, see the brilliant Artsy website at

Photographs of the Dimbola building and the tea room were taken by me. 

Little Margaret is a terrarium fairy angel and she's only three inches high. She's by Mary Ellen Fey at Vintage Vogue. Mary Ellen has lots of lovely tiny stuff in her shop at  Thanks to her for this image. 

There are loads of poetic benches for National Poetry Day 2014 at

The poem and the picture Margaret on a Bench became a favourite when presented in Shore Women performances of Benchmarks. More poems by Marion Carmichael can be seen in Benchmarks by Shore Women Writers, 2011.

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