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Drawing parallels: Virginia Woolf’s “On Being Ill” and Julia Stephen’s “Notes from Sick Rooms”

By Richard Oram

Quentin Bell’s biography of Virginia Woolf begins with a famous sentence:  “Virginia Woolf was a Miss Stephen.” Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was an eminent critic and editor of the Dictionary of National Biography; his first wife was W. M. Thackeray’s daughter Minny. The second Mrs. Stephen, Woolf’s mother, was Julia Prinsep Duckworth, celebrated as a model for the Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones and the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.

 

Julia Stephen was a practicing nurse and the author of a single slim volume, Notes from Sick Rooms, published by Smith, Elder (her husband’s publisher) in 1885. No doubt it was published in a very small edition, most likely as a favor to the Stephens. The Ransom Center recently acquired a copy of this book, which is remarkable for a couple of reasons.  First, nearly all the surviving copies are found in medical or nursing libraries, not in special collections specializing in modern literature. Secondly, this copy was inscribed in July 1934 by Vanessa Bell, Virginia’s sister, to her lover Duncan Grant and was probably one of a handful of copies kept in family hands.

 

Stephen’s little book is not a nursing manual but rather a collection of practical advice on tending the sick (this task would have been an inescapable part of life for every Victorian).  The text is not without a sly, allusive wit worthy of Woolf:  “The origin of most things has been decided on [a reference to Darwin?], but the origin of crumbs in bed has never excited sufficient attention among the scientific world, though it is a problem which has tormented many a weary sufferer.” Based on the evidence of this book, Julia Stephen seems to have been ideally suited to the profession—a tireless caregiver with a great deal of compassion and consideration for the dignity of invalids.

 

The same compassion is palpable in Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill,” published in her friend T. S. Eliot’s New Criterion in 1926.  In this piece, she drew upon her own extensive personal experience of migraines, pneumonia, and a host of nervous complaints that often confined her to bed. The author wonders why illness is not more frequently written about in essays, since disease confers upon the sufferer a unique perspective on the world: “It is only the recumbent who know what, after all, Nature is at no pains to conceal—that she in the end will conquer.” Despite the seriousness of the subject matter and our knowledge of Virginia’s eventual suicide, the essay abounds with good humor and intellectual playfulness.

 

Woolf would be surprised to find that disease has become the subject of so many memoirs and that critics have identified a modern genre of “pathography.”  Like Woolf, quite a few of these memoirists struggle to find some hidden meaning in their illness— the so-called “gift” of depression, cancer, or what have you. Julia Stephen’s Notes from Sick Rooms, rooted in another era, simply accepts that illness and its “disagreeable circumstances” are part of life.

 

Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.

Seminar exposes students to the Ransom Center’s photography holdings

By Ady Wetegrove

Dr. Sherre L. Paris—lecturer at The University of Texas School of Journalism—teaches her undergraduate class “A Cultural History of Photography” at the Ransom Center. During the three-hour-long-seminar, which meets every Tuesday in a classroom adjacent to the Ransom Center’s Reading Room, undergraduates work with primary source materials from the Center’s photography collections. “Cultural Compass” spoke with Dr. Paris about her experience teaching at the Ransom Center.

Photo Friday

By Edgar Walters

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Joanna Barker, right, views photographs from the Julia Margaret Cameron collection at the Ransom Center. Cameron photographed Joanna Barker’s great-grandmother Mary Ryan many times, and the collection contains photos of her great-grandparents posing as Romeo and Juliet in 1867 shortly before they were married that year. Joanna's husband Nicolas Barker, left, editor of The Book Collector, was here as part of a public forum The Fate of The Book presented by the English Department at The University of Texas at Austin. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Joanna Barker, right, views photographs from the Julia Margaret Cameron collection at the Ransom Center. Cameron photographed Joanna Barker’s great-grandmother Mary Ryan many times, and the collection contains photos of her great-grandparents posing as Romeo and Juliet in 1867 shortly before they were married that year. Joanna's husband Nicolas Barker, left, editor of The Book Collector, was here as part of a public forum The Fate of The Book presented by the English Department at The University of Texas at Austin. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Alex Szerlip, a scholar working in the Norman Bel Geddes collection, gives a talk for docents at the Ransom Center about her research. Photo by Pete Smith.
Alex Szerlip, a scholar working in the Norman Bel Geddes collection, gives a talk for docents at the Ransom Center about her research. Photo by Pete Smith.
 Conservation staff bathe an Eric Gill drawing to remove a poor quality mat. The mat was adhered to the front of the drawing and was discoloring and damaging the paper.
Conservation staff bathe an Eric Gill drawing to remove a poor quality mat. The mat was adhered to the front of the drawing and was discoloring and damaging the paper.

View video of "Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection"

By Christine Lee

The exhibition Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection opens today at the Ransom Center.

Drawn from the peerless collection of Helmut and Alison Gernsheim, the exhibition features masterpieces from photography’s first 150 years, alongside other images that, while lesser known, are integral to the medium’s history. Highlights include the first photograph (on permanent display at the Ransom Center); works by nineteenth-century masters such as Lewis Carroll, Julia Margaret Cameron, and Henry Peach Robinson; and iconic images by modern photographers such as Man Ray, Edward Weston, Robert Capa, and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

The Harry Ransom Center will celebrate the opening of the exhibition with “A Picture Perfect Evening” on Friday, September 10th from 6 to 8 p.m. The event is free for Ransom Center members or $20 for non-members. Tickets can be purchased in advance on the website or at the door. The event will feature exhibition tours, refreshments, a photo booth, and make-and-take photo keepsakes with The Wondercraft.

Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection
Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection

Items from Dress Up: Portrait and Performance in Victorian Photography

By Harry Ransom Center

Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815-1879)<br />The Rising of the New Year, 1872<br />Albumen print
Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815-1879)
The Rising of the New Year, 1872
Albumen print

Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815-1879)
The Rising of the New Year, 1872
Albumen print

Julia Margaret Cameron did not take up photography until she was 48 and the last of her children had left for college. Over the next 14 years she made over 1,200 images. She promoted her photography as fine art through sales and exhibitions, once writing that her passion was “to ennoble photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real and the ideal and sacrificing nothing of Truth by all possible devotion to Poetry and beauty.” Cameron was more artistically ambitious than her predecessors, and the bulk of her work consists of allegorical, mythological, literary, and Biblical illustrations, using as models friends, friends of friends, neighbors, family, and servants.

Cameron’s technique also distinguished her from her peers. By using a lens with a short focal length, she produced images in which only a small region of the sitter’s face would be in focus. Although this technique evolved from her early, awkward attempts at mastering photographic technique, she embraced and exploited this style for maximum expressive effect.

This was a controversial decision, however, as many critics felt she was turning her back on photography’s unique ability to capture detail. H. P. Robinson, her art photographer colleague and competitor, was blistering in his criticism, writing, “It is not the mission of photography to produce smudges. If studies in light and shade only are required, let them be done in pigment or charcoal, with a mop, if necessary, but photography is pre-eminently the art of definition, and when art departs from its function it is lost.”

T. A. RUST (active 1900s) The Game of Life, ca. 1895 Albumen prints
T. A. RUST (active 1900s) The Game of Life, ca. 1895 Albumen prints

T. A. RUST (active 1900s)
The Game of Life, ca. 1895
Albumen prints

The tableau vivant, or “living picture,” was one of the most popular forms of amateur performance and entertainment for the middle and upper classes during the nineteenth century. Tableaux required performers, dressed in suitable costumes, to arrange themselves in imitation of a literary or historical character, scene, or work of art. Tableaux were performed both privately and publicly, in venues ranging from aristocratic drawing-rooms for invited guests to large public theaters in front of a paying audience.

The Victorians’ interest in tableaux vivants carried into the popular imagery of the day. Commercial photographers who predominantly spent their time taking portrait photographs would, on occasion, produce genre-type scenes and other narrative images.

These types of images were most commonly produced as stereographs, which were collected by the thousands by Victorian households. These images were also issued in larger sizes, such as this one by T. A. Rust. It is unlikely that this photograph documents actual tableaux performed for an audience, as other photos in the exhibition with identical backdrops and floors would indicate that these were taken in Rust’s photographic studio.

“The Game of Life” is a moralizing tale of human existence, yet its humor playfully undermines the seriousness of its theme.

Henry Peach Robinson (English, 1830-1901) The Lady of Shalott, 1861 Albumen combination print from three negatives
Henry Peach Robinson (English, 1830-1901) The Lady of Shalott, 1861 Albumen combination print from three negatives

Henry Peach Robinson (English, 1830-1901)
The Lady of Shalott, 1861
Albumen combination print from three negatives

H. P. Robinson was one of the most prolific and vocal proponents of art photography in nineteenth-century Britain. One of his first attempts to link photography with literature was Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shalott.” In the poem, a lady is sequestered in a tower on an island near Camelot. She is forbidden to look directly outside, so she can only see the world through its reflection in a mirror. When Lancelot passes by one day, the temptation is too great and she looks directly out the window. A curse falls upon her, and she climbs into a boat, lies down, and sings to her death. This work was to become the most pivotal of Robinson’s career.

Robinson’s Shalott declared early in the medium’s history that photography could illustrate and interpret poetry, that is the imaginary. Critics felt otherwise, saying that the subject was beyond the appropriate boundaries for photography. After the negative reception to this work, Robinson vowed to stick to themes of “the life of our day,” and the rest of his career is dominated by genre themes, as is represented in his other photographs in this exhibition. Robinson’s photograph was also controversial because of his technique of combining multiple negatives to form the composition. Robinson and his supporters argued that any means should be available to a photographer in making a work of art (it was the final product that mattered, they argued, not the manner in achieving it). The majority of critics, however, argued that photography’s chief asset was its unique capability to accurately depict nature.

For these critics, slight-of-hand techniques such as combination printing were deceitful and inappropriate. Although Victorian England often embraced the blending of fiction with truth, it did not always approve of this approach when applied to photography.

Joseph Cundall (English, 1818-1895) Highlanders, 1856 Albumen print from The Photographic Album for the Year 1857 (London: Photographic Exchange Club, 1857)
Joseph Cundall (English, 1818-1895) Highlanders, 1856 Albumen print from The Photographic Album for the Year 1857 (London: Photographic Exchange Club, 1857)

Joseph Cundall (English, 1818-1895)
Highlanders, 1856
Albumen print from The Photographic Album for the Year 1857 (London: Photographic Exchange Club, 1857)

Printer, publisher, and photographer Joseph Cundall produced some of the most attractive popular illustrated books of the 1850s and ’60s, as well as several important early photographic publications. He was a founding member of the Photographic Society of London and, in 1871, was sent by the British government to Bayeux to organize the first photographic record of the famous tapestry.

The Photographic Exchange Club, which published the album containing this photo, was a club comprised of amateur photography enthusiasts who promoted the technological development of photography by trading prints. Each image in the album is accompanied by detailed information regarding its process and chemistry.

In 1856, on the instructions of Queen Victoria, Cundall took photographs of these soldier heroes, newly returned from the Crimea.

 

 

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