The correspondence of Julia Margaret Cameron and Julia Prinsep Stephen at The Berg Collection, New York Public Library
The New York Public Library taken from the northeast corner of 5th Ave. and 42nd Street, 1908, New York City.Gelatin Silver Print.
The famous New York Public Library or 42nd Street Library, NYC, 2016
New York City is my home. I was born here and I will probably be buried here. When it comes to the subject of research, The New York Public Library's Berg Collection houses one of the largest and most comprehensible collections in the United States. The application process just to do research there is one of the most thorough I have ever applied for. Not only must you fill out the application listing your professional details, personal details, you need a professional reference of someone who is familiar with your research project. There is a total number of material you can request comprising, manuscripts, correspondence, maps, photographs, books, etc. After you apply, there is a waiting process then you are notified via email as to whether or not you are approved. Needless to say, I was a worried wreck. My goal for my research project is to glean the most personalized familial understanding of Julia Margaret Cameron and those in her inner circle.
Leslie Stephen by Julia Margaret Cameron, late 1860s
Julia Prinsep Stephen (née Jackson, formerly Mrs Duckworth)
by Julia Margaret Cameron, albumen print, 1867
The Berg Collection houses the Sir Leslie Stephen collection of papers. Sir Leslie Stephen (28 November 1832 – 22 February 1904) was an English literary editor, literary critic, essayist and biographer. He was also the husband of Julia Prinsep Stephen the niece of Julia Margaret Cameron. Together, during their marriage, they had four children: Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf, Thoby Stephen and Adrian Stephen. Within the collection of papers I requested two letters written by Julia Margaret Cameron; one to her sister, Mia Jackson (nee Pattle) mother of Julia Prinsep Stephen and another letter written to Julia Prinsep Duckworth one month before her marriage to Leslie Stephen. Also, I requested three letters Julia Prinsep Stephen wrote to three of her children: Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf and her son from her previous marriage to Herbert Duckworth, George Herbert Duckworth. Lastly, I requested two photos of Julia Prinsep Stephen taken by Julia Margaret Cameron.
Berg Collection, Research Room, New York Public Library
I received the approval within 48 hours via email along with detailed instructions as to what was allowed inside the Berg Collection research room and what was not allowed inside. To anyone doing research, the requests are pretty standard. For instance, my name was added to a list of researchers on a day and time I chose to go. You have the entire day with your requested materials. I didn't think I would be nervous but as usual, I was!
I arrived a half an hour after the library opened. You must bring your photo identification and your library card. I stood outside the door, on the third floor and rang the bell. I looked through the glass window of the door and saw one young man seated at the table to the left and nobody else. After a few minutes, a young man opened the door and I told him I had an appointment to do research today. I had my library card and my identification in my hand! Yes, I was eager! The door closed behind us and the room was so quiet. He checked the list and told me to sit at the desk and fill out two forms which I did. I was then given a small card with my name and details on it good for one year of entrance to the Berg Collection, if I chose to do more research. I couldn't believe it. I wouldn't have to apply again, just email via the website and that's it! Every item you requested is stored in the libraries computer. So, the librarian checks the requested list of materials then brings you to the card catalog- remember those!! You must fill out small, individual forms per research item you requested including the call number, author, title, date found on the card catalogs under person's name you are researching. This takes much time but that's their process. Then, you give the small forms to the librarian who disappears to a room in the back and your materials are brought to your desk. You can have them given to you one at a time or a stack at your desk. I had a stack, let's say. Your belongings are kept in a locker and they only give you writing paper and a pencil for notes. If you want photos taken you must fill out more forms and need more references beforehand to gain approval. I didn't need that in this case.
Here are the two photographs of Julia Prinsep Stephen by Julia Margaret Cameron. These are the only Cameron photographs housed at the New York Public Library at least for the time being. I can tell you that they are both very large in size on thick print paper. They were taken seven years apart 1867 and 1874 during two different phases of Julia Stephen's life. Each photograph was held within white mounted borders and wrapped in a huge paper folder. You could easily take the photo out of the border and hold it in your hands, which I did. The photograph on the right had the 'Colnaghi' name embossed in a circular ring at the bottom of it. Both photographs back in the 1960s were auctioned off and sent to Chicago as it said in an enclosed note kept inside the folder. Good to see them back within the library archives.
One of Julia Margaret Cameron's letters showing her handwriting.
In the Old Palace, Kandy, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) by Marianne North, 1880
Now, the first of Julia Margaret Cameron's letters was written on onion skin paper that was once white and crisp but now yellowed and stained by blackened ink. There was no stationery embossed just thin paper reading atop: Kalutara (Ceylon) Feb. 5, 1878. The letter is addressed, my beloved Julia and Mrs. Cameron is replying to a letter her niece, Julia Prinsep Duckworth has written her. Now, at the time Julia Duckworth (soon to be Stephen) is widowed with children living with Leslie Stephen and his children who is also very recently widowed as well. They are both lonely. Leslie is successful in his career but lonely and not sure how he will care for his young children when Julia is brought in to help his family in any way she can. She is a great comfort to him and he describes her as 'an angel'. Her beauty is not missed by him but he can see her recent sudden loss of her husband a few years before has left such a young woman guarded yet still oddly strong willed. Leslie and Julia have long talks and a friendship develops. He is unsure of her attraction but she is aware of his. She writes for advice to her Aunt Julia (Mrs. Cameron). Julia Margaret Cameron's surviving letter, which is what I read, left me gobsmacked to say the least. There I sat in this third floor research room open mouthed, hand over mouth, reading the religious, spiritual, and intimate thoughts of an aunt to her saddened young niece. It didn't matter that Cameron was a photographer living in what is now Sri Lanka, traveling between Ceylon and Freshwater Bay, Isle of Wight with her family all the while maintaining a close circle of friends with some of the greatest painters and poets of the nineteenth-century.
This photograph was taken on the veranda of Julia Margaret Cameron's home in Kalutara in 1877 by Julia Margaret Cameron.
The woman painting is Marianne North who was visiting her at the time.
Bombay Pedlars on Mrs Cameron’s Verandah by Marianne North, c.1878.
Back to the letter. Mrs. Cameron advises her niece to follow her instincts and feelings for Leslie Stephen. Cameron believes with her entire heart and soul that Leslie Stephen is the perfect one for her niece. Cameron uses strong talk of believing in a higher power, in god to guide her as to know what to do next in her life. Cameron tells her that she has always known how Leslie Stephen's would be a kind and good man that would not only take care of her but would be the absolute man to balance her niece's independent will. They have been brought together by sad circumstances of death and loss of their spouses but together their union would be the union of twin souls who spiritually could heal their wounded hearts and bring them peace of mind and true happiness. Mrs. Cameron describes being able to spiritually see such depth of inner sadness and turmoil going on inside her niece Julia Prinsep Duckworth. Mrs. Cameron does not use the word grief to mean to say that grief has brought them together. She is adamant on this. Instead, she makes clear that a sacred marriage and union between Leslie and Julia is what God wants and what Aunt Julia impresses upon younger Julia. Cameron provides examples of both their lives to support her strong belief of the two of them coming together as man and wife and making a life for them both. Mrs. Cameron says that her life with Leslie Stephen waits for her and will be there not out of a pity or sense of grief but because the angels and higher powers are willing it to be so. Cameron wants her niece to have a good life not one filled with anymore tragedy. For Mrs. Cameron knew almost on an intuitive level that you would find in a clairvoyant. It was an amazing letter and opened up such an understanding and a much broader sense of who Julia Margaret Cameron was day-to-day as wife, mother and aunt. Well, it appeared that six weeks after this letter on March 26, 1878 Leslie Stephen married Julia Prinsep (nee Duckworth). They had a happy and fulfilling life together and it appeared that good old Aunt Julia's instincts were right! Good thing her niece listened.
Julia Margaret Cameron. 1867, NPG
Now the second letter that Mrs. Cameron wrote was the next day on February 6, 1878, to her sister, Mia Jackson. She was at Kalutara (Ceylon) This was a four page letter on that same onion skin plain paper. In this letter Julia basically catches her sister up on the business going on between her family at the time including her sons and her husband, Charles Hay Cameron whom she always calls, 'Charles'. She mentions a memory of Leslie Stephen standing in the hall at her home in Freshwater and how later on her friend, Alfred Tennyson had a talk with Leslie about faith and religion. You should have seen me holding the thin stained paper staring at Julia Margaret Cameron's handwritten Alfred Tennyson. The letter didn't really contain much family detail it was more of a letter where one sister tries to reassure another sister that their niece is making a good choice and it will work out.
Lastly, the letters written by niece, Julia Prinsep Stephen were a joy to read. It was like pulling away the veil on a woman shrouded in secrecy and a life of which not very much has been detailed in her own words. Her correspondence survives but as far as I know she didn't leave diaries looking back on her life, so we must look to others to provide a portrait of Julia Prinsep Stephen. Her penmanship is small in size and neatly written across the page. Her letters were written on powder blue embossed stationery with only her home address atop the right side of the page. It's strange but I never dreamt I would be able to read the letters of Julia Prinsep Stephen. Her daughter Virginia Woolf is one of my most favorite writers. I understand losing a mother very young in life, so Virginia's strong yet weakened facade coupled by mental instability fascinates and saddens me.
I am not going to go in to full details of the context of the letters it was pretty basic mother to child notes. Things like remember to do this, take care of yourself when traveling, eat healthy, get outside and don't stay indoors too often it is not good for your soul. Things like this.
The first letter was to her daughter, Vanessa Bell written on that blue stationery from 22 Hyde Park Gate, S.W. but undated. Her greeting is, "Dearest vessa" and she signed it, "ma". There was only one letter.
Julia Stephen with Vanessa, 1879
Next letter was written to her daughter, Virginia Woolf on that same blue paper from 22 Hyde Park Gate, S.W. again undated and only one letter. Her greeting is, "my darling ginia" and she signs off, "your loving old ma".
Julia Stephen with baby Virginia (Virginia Woolf)
by H.H. Cameron, 1884
Interestingly enough, four letters by Julia Stephen written to her son George Herbert Duckworth remain. This was her son by her former marriage to Herbert Duckworth. There are various letters written very lovingly in tone throughout his life, childhood, college years and later on. By reading them it was plain to see that she was over protective of him but understandingly enough. She worried he would die suddenly as his father did. She needn't have worried. He lived a long life 1868 to 1934. He was a public servant who later became a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London. He married and had children as well. Sadly, he would be known for the sexual abuse of his half-sister, Virginia Woolf.
In her letters the greeting was always the same, "my darling georgie" and she signed off, "your loving old ma".
Julia Duckworth with son George Herbert Duckworth, 1868
I know this is a very long post but I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did researching and preparing it. I wanted to make sure to share everything with you.