MAY PRINSEP TENNYSON: Forever Beatrice and Elaine (1853-July 20, 1931)

 ‘No mere models in the ordinary acceptation of the word, but men and women of peculiar types, combining with fine physique high mental culture as well, and abundantly imbued with the poetic spirit of the themes they co-operate in illustrating.” A reviewer of the Morning Post, 11, January 1875, issue.

Charles Robert Prinsep March 28, 1789- Louisa Prinsep (née White)(1818–1855), daughter of an East India Company officer. (Parents of May Prinsep). 

Mary Emily (May) (Prinsep) was the daughter of Charles Robert Prinsep, Advocate-General of Calcutta and Louisa White, daughter of an East India Company officer. They had several children:  Charles John Prinsep (Charlie); Henry Charles Prinsep;  Annie Mary Prinsep; Louisa Sophia Prinsep; and James Charles Prinsep. Orphaned by the time she was eleven years old (her father died in 1864 and her mother had presumably died earlier), May was adopted by Thoby and Sarah (christened Sarah, but later known as Sara) Prinsep and lived with them at Little Holland House, their home in London.  Over the next ten years, May spent several holidays at the Cameron estate in Freshwater, on the Isle of Wight. Julia Margaret Cameron apparently considered May’s classical beauty well suited to the portrayal of “Italian” characters, as in Beatrice photographed in 1866. Prinsep also posed for the painter George Frederic Watts, who lived at Little Holland House from 1851 to 1875. Her cousin Valentine Prinsep was a painter in the Pre-Raphaelite circle as well.
The young Prinseps circa 1862 at their father's home in Cheltenham. From left to right: Annie (1848–1932), May (1853–1936), Henry (1844–1922), James Charles (1855–1942) and Louisa (1850–1922). Missing is the eldest brother, Charlie (1843–1898), who was in India with the 19th Hussars.
In 1874 May Prinsep married Andrew Kinsman Hichens, a London stockbroker. The couple moved to Monkshatch near Guildford, in Surrey. In 1890 Hichens built a second house in the area and rented it to Watts and his wife Mary, who also posed for Cameron.  May Prinsep married Hallam Tennyson, first born son of the Poet Laureate Alfred Tennyson, on July 27, 1918. They lived at Farringford, the Tennyson estate on the Isle of Wight. May died on July 20, 1931. 

Portraying Gareth and Lynette' posed together are husband and wife (Andrew Kinsman Hichens; May Prinsep),by Julia Margaret Cameron, albumen print, 1874: I've seen the above photograph dozens of times never knowing May was posing with her then husband, until I began reading up on May Prinsep. Although, not much is written about her life, this lasting image seems to capture a moment in time. Before May's life turns once again to sadness and loss. 

Everyone knows the face of May Prinsep. If you've seen any photographic images of Julia Margaret Cameron, one face is instantly recognizable worldwide and forever captured for her beauty. It is May Prinsep portraying Beatrice and Elaine, the lily maid of Astolat. 

When it comes to the portrayal of Elaine, aside from the painting by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, these images are forever in my mind. Hauntingly beautiful in its reverence. Photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron,Illustrations to Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, Vol. 1, Dec. 1874-Jan. 1875.

At the time, Cameron’s greatest success were her portraits of Elaine posed by May Prinsep, Cameron’s niece, who sat for the innocent girl on the brink of womanhood; who died from unrequited love.  Cameron wanted the viewer to look through the appearance of May Prinsep, a lovely, innocent, nubile young woman and comprehend the symbolic traits of the soul of Elaine. A good model was expected to be transparent, neither too expressive nor too individualized either. Perhaps, Pre-Raphaelite painter, Sir Edward Burne-Jones described it best saying, “A little more expression and they would be neither queens nor mysteries nor symbols.”  He was comparing Cameron’s Elaine to his painting, The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon. Having been criticized himself he was warning against overly explicit characterization of mythic subjects. 

Something else that struck me as rather odd was coming across the name of painter Whistler when gathering information about May Prinsep. Again, fascinating comparisons abound...James Abbott McNeill Whistler's Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl 1864 and Julia Margaret Cameron's photograph of May Prinsep, 1870.

Julia Margaret Cameron did not share the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s devotion to meticulous detail, preferring broad effects instead. Occasionally, she borrowed an idea from a painting as you can see in the comparison above.  Listening to her cousin, Val Prinsep, who suggested the similar pose in the photograph of May Prinsep on the right bears a close resemblance to the pose of Milly Jones in Whistler’s ‘Symphony in White No. 3’ painted three years earlier.  This was done all the time, especially with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his muse Jane Morris. They were forever emulating poses between photographs and paintings and vice versa. 

In later years, after the death of her first husband, May married Alfred Tennyson's son Hallam at the age of 65 on 27 July 1918 in South Stoneham, Hampshire. They lived out their days together at Farringford, Freshwater, Isle of Wight. Mrs. Hallam Tennyson, outlived her husband by three years.

 May Prinsep at a window in Limnerlease the home of
then friend and painter, G.F. Watts, Watts Archives

I leave you now with paintings of May Prinsep done by family friends George Frederic Watts, Val Prinsep, and even Lord Leighton! 

 May Prinsep by G.F. Watts, Little Holland House, 1867, Watts Gallery

May Prinsep by G.F. Watts at Watts Gallery

May Prinsep by Valentine Cameron Prinsep. Inscription reads, 1 sitting 1868/29 July, Bonhams, London

May Prinsep by Lord Leighton

May Prinsep and her cat by Val Prinsep, Watts Gallery

From Life Julia Margaret Cameron and Victorian Photography by Victoria C. Olson, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003

Feel free to leave comments,


Hermes said…
That was just so interesting. Personally knew little of this but so worth knowing. Great post again.
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Hermes, I loved learning a bit more about this woman we all recognize but know nothing about! Thanks so much for commenting.
WoofWoof said…
Wonderfully interesting post! Thank you. I didn't know that Hallam, Tennyson's son had remarried after the death of his first wife. I suppose they must have known each other from childhood as Cameron lived next door to Tennyson.
Kimberly Eve said…
Yes, it is possible they knew each other as far back as childhood or definitely young adulthood! Mrs. Cameron was forever putting on plays sometimes at her home Dimbola Lodge and sometimes in some of the outer cottages on the property and all the neighbor children participated. So, who knows maybe she was one of them. I know Hallam and Lionel Tennyson were and they hated it!
Anonymous said…
I was at school with a Mary Emily…., born 1948, who said she was named after Mary Emily Prinsep. She may have been a great niece through Henry Charles Prinsep, her brother, who settled in Western Australia and died in Busselton where I grew up.The likeness of 'my' Mary Emily to M.E.P. is astonishing! Unfortunately I have not been in touch with her since we left university.
Kimberly Eve said…
Thanks so much, Evie!
David said…
Thank you so much for this! What a fascinating life she lived!

I have just purchased a small Cameron photograph of May as "The Neapolitan".

Just Beautiful!

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