The camera may never lie but it can be economical with the truth. By its nature the visual arts are designed to deceive and what you see on the surface is rarely the whole truth.
Take Iago, the moving force behind Othello’s soul searching. I saw him once, not in real life of course but at the Old Vic when I was young and impressionable. He was concealed inside the form of actor Paul Rogers so that is how he will always look – to me.
The Iago who occupies me at the moment however is on a poster. Larger than life a brooding head in browns and blacks he is the result of the new-fangled photography grappled with by Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.
Julia Margaret was a lady with unquenchable energy, time and money. By choice she found herself in the rural backwater at Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight. She seems to have been the driving force in their marriage and the affable Charles, a tea planter, concurred. The reason for moving there was that one of her heroes, Alfred Tennyson had taken up residence and in his wake there came a galaxy of nineteenth century stars. In conversation with the astrologer John Herschal she developed an interest in the new science of photography and, being presented with a camera by her daughter Julia, she set to work to master the techniques.
Master them she did. Calling on everyone within reach she herded them into various combinations to recreate scenes from classical literature. Grumpy men were goaded into posing, small children were terrified into keeping still for the age it took to complete the exposure time. The arrival of somebody famous at Tennyson’s Farringford home had her racing to cajole them into sitting for a portrait. Thus, Darwin, Browning, Longfellow and a host of others fell victim to her lens.
This brings me back to Iago. He wasn’t famous, he wasn’t local to Freshwater Bay, so where did he come from? I imagined that perhaps Julia had made a Grand Tour and found herself in the back streets of Naples where a hungry figure emerged from the shadows, demanding the price of a meal. Julia wouldn’t be in the business of being intimidated but she might have seen a photographic opportunity and for the price of a spaghetti Bolognese demanded that he pose for her. This is in fact tosh – although it makes a distracting thought.
As it turns out, for the one and only time it seems, Julia used a professional model. His name was Angelo Colorossi* born in 1838 in the tiny Italian village of Picinisco and he came recommended having been called upon to model for artists as varied as Lord Leighton, John Everett Millais, Jon Singer Sargent and John William Waterhouse. The secret to his success was his fine physique. Lord Leighton, not averse to a muscular torso, portrayed him as an Athlete Wrestling with a Python. With his son Angelo he emerged from the deep in “And the Sea Gives up the Dead Which Were in it.” Millais found him to be a convincing seaman in The Boyhood of Raleigh while Sargent cast him in the role of Moses. For Waterhouse he became a slave The Favourite of the Emperor Honorius. It is likely that he was present in many more of those scenes were heroic slaves and sailors acted out life’s dramas.
Arriving in England, Angelo settled in the Hammersmith area, fortuitously near the homes of the Holland Park set where Julia Cameron’s sister Sara Prinsep held court to more great and artistic Victorians. In 1867 Angelo married Mary Anne Gorman some months after the birth of their eldest son Fiori. There seem to have been at least seven more children. The young Angelo was also immortalised in Alfred Gilbert’s monument to Lord Shaftesbury, known to most of us as Eros.
Julia photographed Angelo in the year of his marriage. She was not distracted by the beauty of his body but the marvel of his face. Unshaven, brooding, lost in some personal torment, it is impossible for one’s senses not to be heightened by this moment in time. He died in 1916 leaving behind an array of images of his physical presence.
* It is suggested that this is actually Angelo’s brother Alessandro but whoever he might be, we should be grateful that he was captured for posterity.
There is currently a campaign to get Julia Margaret Cameron nominated as the next Briton to feature on the £20 banknote.