Visiting Kate Keown and May Prinsep: Sitters to Julia Margaret Cameron: Swann Galleries Auction

Swann Galleries is a small auction gallery on the Upper East Side of New York City. On Tuesday, October 25th, 2016 two photographs by nineteenth-century photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron will be included in this auction, Art & Storytelling: Photographs & Photobooks, an auction featuring examples of the medium from its inception in the early nineteenth century through contemporary works.

I was lucky enough to be able to visit Swann Galleries yesterday on my lunch break at work before the gallery closed. I expected to see  Kate Keown's albumen print by Mrs. Cameron. However, I was happily surprised to see May Prinsep dressed as Cenci staring right back at me. Well, we meet again future, Lady Tennyson! 
        From Art & Storytelling: Photographs & Photobooks catalogue.

Portrait of Kate Keown. Circular albumen print, the image measuring 11 3/8 inches (28.9 cm.) in diameter, the mount 20 3/4x16 7/8 inches (52.7x42.9 cm.), with a gilt rule and an embossed Colnaghi stamp on mount recto. 1866

Estimate $50,000 - 75,000

From the Neikrug Gallery, New York, New York; to Frances and Donald Werner, New York, circa 1975.

A stunning print by Cameron in a scarce circular format. Cameron's circular prints were known as "tondos" (from the Italian rotondo or "round") and reference both Renaissance work and the Pre-Raphaelite paintings of her contemporaries.

This poetic work was the one of the first "life-sized heads" Cameron executed with a new larger-format camera and trimmed to the circular shape. Although Cameron's pictorial style continued to embody an inherent romanticism, this enlarged print size allowed her to render a subject more dramatically and pursue an investigation of the effects of sculptural lighting on her subject's faces. Her reliance on soft focus, intimate perspective, and slight movement imbue these portraits with startling life and spiritual resonance. She wrote in 1866, "I have just been engaged in that which Mr. Watts has always been urging me to do. A Series of Life sized heads--they are not only from the Life, but to the Life, and startle the eye with wonder & delight." (Cox 64-65).

In Julia Margaret Cameron: The Complete Photographs (J. Paul Getty Museum, cat. no. 875), scholar Julian Cox locates a carte-des-visite version of this portrait, a reduced albumen print in the Isle of Wight County Council Miniature Album, a print at the Yale University Beinecke Library, and a large-format print in the Gilman Collection (which is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).
A Study of the Cenci. Albumen print, 
the image measuring 14 1/4x11 5/8 inches (36.2x29.5 cm.), 
flush mounted to the original board. 1870

Estimate $3,000 - 4,500

From the Neikrug Gallery, New York, New York; to Frances and Donald Werner, New York, in 1975.

Interesting to note that the gallery does not include any mention of the sitter by name.
She was May Prinsep a niece, on her father's side, of photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron.

To learn more about the young woman posing as Cenci, you can read my article on, May Prinsep Tennyson

 Guido Reni painting the portrait of Beatrice Cenci at prayer in prison
by Achille Leonardi (Italian, 1800-1870)
Oil on Canvas

Cameron based the pose, drapery, and sad expression of her model on a painting attributed to Guido Reni. The subject is the 16th-century Italian noblewoman Beatrice Cenci who was executed for arranging the murder of her abusive father. One review admired Cameron’s soft rendering of ‘the pensive sweetness of the expression of the original picture’ while another mocked her for claiming to have photographed a historical figure ‘from the life’. (Victoria and Albert Museum)

When in Rome, in 1819, a friend put into our hands the old manuscript account of the story of The Cenci. We visited the Colonna and Doria palaces, where the portraits of Beatrice were to be found; and her beauty cast the reflection of its own grace over her appalling story.
--Mrs. Percy Shelley

Julia Margaret Cameron often directed female models to represent tragic heroines whose sorrow made them beautiful. Cameron composed this image around the sitter's downcast eyes and scrolling hair--which spills out from under a turban. Cameron's niece, May Prinsep, plays the role of Beatrice, the central figure of Percy Bysshe Shelley's play, The Cenci (1819). Prinsep's sorrowful expression conveys the character's resignation to her fate.

Beatrice Cenci, the daughter of a Roman count, lived in Florence during the late 1500s. After Beatrice conspired with her mother and brother to have her father killed, the trial brought to light his cruelty, which included an attempt to rape her. Although the story won public sympathy, the family was nonetheless executed. Cameron was fascinated by this true story and made several photographic studies based on it  (Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California). 

To learn more about the entire auction and photographers, Swann Gallery


gail middleton said…
Fabulous Kimberly, some valuable insight to add to the story of her life and work.
Gaëna da Sylva said…
What an interesting blog. I am so happy I came upon it, because of that passion for Victorian era we share. Thank you and have a lovely day.