Alfred Tennyson by Julia Margaret Cameron, albumen print, 1866.
Original at Dimbola Lodge, Freshwater Bay, Isle of Wight.
Copy National Media Museum.
My first day in Lincolnshire found me staying in Bag Enderby and had already included a complete tour of Somersby Rectory. Now, it was time to visit its capital city of Lincoln. We had an appointment with Grace, Collections Access Officer, at Tennyson Research Centre. I couldn’t believe that once again, I was finally going to walk through a door into a room filled with Alfred Tennyson original material i.e., albumen prints, letters, poetry volumes, complete works, photographic images of his sons Hallam and Lionel Tennyson. Even housed under glass was a small daguerreotype of Elizabeth Fytche Tennyson (18 May, 1780-1865), Alfred’s mother along with his pipe, Lionel’s hair and many other mementos.
Before I could sit down, Grace was making sure I had everything in front of me that I had previously requested. She was amazing. She put in front of me two boxes filled with photographs of Hallam and Lionel. Every surviving photograph housed there. I didn’t know where to begin, so opening the first box I saw Lionel’s youngish grown bearded face before me. My friends were there too looking at their own material, some taking photos, but I promise you my heart was pounding inside my chest and everything around me went silent. Even the city sounds from below seemed to disappear and all I could focus my attention on were the photos before me. Suddenly, Grace appeared placing a letter wrapped in plastic saying to me, ‘Kimberly, you might want to read this too.’ My eyes looked at the small, shakingly black inked script handwriting of Alfred Tennyson. I gasped audibly and I couldn’t believe what I was looking at and reading. I did not request this letter but for some reason Grace thought to show it to me. You see, one of the very first of Tennyson’s letters that I found and read was from ‘Memoirs’ and it was Alfred’s letter to a young Hallam and Lionel telling them to listen to mama and be ‘good biscuit boys’ (also possibly good biscuity boys) depending upon how you read his handwriting. Alfred’s letter shaped who the man was, who he was as father figure, and ‘papa’ to his beloved sons. Now, I was holding in my own hands Alfred’s words to his sons; his own words echoing on after him throughout decades. I smiled as I read this letter and explained to Grace how it was one of the first of his letters I actually read and thanked her so much for showing it to me. It was a full-circle moment reminding me that I was now on a very important journey bringing my three plus years of researching Tennyson’s life to fruition. If you want to read my article referencing the above letter, The Tennysons Make One Music
Next, I moved on to looking through Lady Tennyson’s belongings including a copy of her address book, her three diaries (only two were published) along with a separate journal book that housed letters she wrote to Hallam Tennyson looking back on her years married to Alfred. This would become some of the documentation Hallam added in Volume I of Memoirs. Emily Tennyson was such a strong willed, woman albeit it physically fragile most times her astute assistance of her husband’s poetry and music proved invaluable to generations of admirers the world over. We are so very lucky and blessed to have surviving letters from Lord and Lady Tennyson. Without them, we would not be able to capture a humanistic perspective on either of them.
Lastly, Grace, very graciously showed me the bulk of the original Julia Margaret Cameron photographs housed there including Alfred Tennyson, Julia Jackson Stephen, Annie Thackeray, May Prinsep, Mary Hillier, Robert Browning, etc. Most of all were the Idylls of the King set. I saw two at the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit but it does not compare to holding the originals in your own hand.
We left soon afterwards with a goodbye and many hugs to Grace, I signed the visitors book and off we went for lunch around the corner at Angel Café. We found a lovely outside table with lattes and sandwiches. We would need sustenance for our walk to Usher Gallery The Collection. Lincoln is a beautiful city, a university town found within this capital city where narrow and steep hills make it difficult to drive through so walking and cycling are the best ways to get around. Once we arrived at The Collection in Usher Gallery, my first stop was to see the portrait painting of Emily Tennyson by George Frederic Watts. I was told it was currently part of an exhibition. The main attraction seemed to be a copy of the Magna Carta. It was a small and well produced exhibit with artifacts and paintings hung chronologically by event and or historical person. Continuing on in the exhibition, I walked straight in and towards the back of the room where hanging on the left side of the wall was Samuel Laurence’s portrait of a very young Alfred Tennyson (on loan from National Portrait Gallery). (To read about the exhibit, Lincolnshire's Great Exhibition
Tennyson Reading by Candlelight by George Howard (later 9th Earl of Carlisle, 1871, private collection.
Underneath the portrait painting by Laurence was this drawing by George Howard (later 9th Earl of Carlisle). I had never seen this drawing before; not in any research books or manuscripts not even museum archives. I stood before it for at least ten minutes or so. I fell in love with it, truly; a simple drawing of a man sitting profile reading a book by candlelight. Two variations of Tennyson, one wearing his spectacles and one possibly without them. The drawing was done by family friend, George Howard at Naworth Castle while Tennyson was visiting. It was made in 1871, Alfred sat there reading by candlelight while George sketched. From a side glance, I could see Lady Tennyson in full color profile, thickly gold framed and captured with such accuracy as only ‘Signor’ could! Again, there is such a difference when you are able to look at a painting in person as opposed to in a book or sitting before your computer screen or even iphone. Nobody at Usher Gallery rushes you but they do watch you to make sure you don’t take any photos or touch the wall hangings.
By this time it was late afternoon and the next stop was Lincoln Cathedral to find that Tennyson statue. My friends and I toured the inside of the cathedral which is very Gothic in tone and just beautiful. It was very crowded and there was some filming going on inside preparing for a performance that night of Jesus Christ Superstar, so there were booms and lights and cameras all over the place. A quick stop through the gift shop and then a tea break. By this time it had started to rain but it was a very short distance from the rear church exit by the tea shop down a short hill to the statue of Alfred Tennyson. You cannot miss it just follow the crowds. By the time I reached the base of the statue, rain pouring down on a balmy day, the crowds oddly dispersed. Iphone at the ready, I took photos of all sides of the statue and walked around the church grounds taking photographs. I sat on the bench in front of the statue, again, not believing where I was. I had that all-too-familiar feeling of awe and gratefulness of remembering how blessed I am to be able to be here surrounded by friends. I won’t go into a huge history of the statue. Needless to say, it was made by close friend, G.F. Watts and actually it was while I was visiting Watts Gallery on a different day that I went in to see the Tennyson plaster sculpture that served as model for the bronze statue now at Lincoln Cathedral. The plaster model is equally astonishing in size and depth. I had the room to myself, so for several minutes Alfred and I were alone in the sculpture gallery at Watts Gallery. Then a guard came walking through and started speaking with me about the statue. He was so kind. He told me that Watts placed Tennyson’s dog, Karenina, to the right of him, in that very spot to keep Tennyson from tipping over. It seemed the sculpture Alfred kept falling over when standing alone, so the dog was placed there. Who knows if he was simply ‘taking the mick’ or being serious. Either way, I thought it a fun anecdote.