Julia Margaret Cameron, “King Lear allotting his kingdom to his three daughters, 1872.” Favorite Phototographs 2013, #3

And speaking of Alice Liddell… I keep finding myself hypnotically drawn to the images of photographic pioneer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879).  Despite her overwrought religious images, which really don’t speak to my tastes or sensibilities, I just love both her skills as a photographer and all the allegory in her pictures.  This was a continuation through the new medium of photography of the metaphorical and mystical pictoralism then dominant in painting.  We may consider, as an example, yesterday’s image by Charles Dodgson “Alice Liddell (1852-1934) as a beggar-maid from the story of Cophetua, 1858″ with “King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, 1884” by Edward Burne-Jones, from the Tate Gallery, in London. How few today can recite the story of Cophetua, and yet to educated Victorians it was well-known.

Today’s image, Cameron’s “King Lear Allotting his Kingdom to his Three Daughters, 1872 ” shows a mature Alice with her sisters in another allegorical pose.  This time the story is from Shakespeare story, a choice that was rare for Cameron.  The three Liddell sisters pose as Lear’s daughters.  Cameron’s husband poses as Lear.  On the left, daughters Regan (Lorina Liddell) and Goneril (Elizabeth Liddell) whisper flatteries in their father’s ear.  Note the brilliant gesture of Lorina’s pointed finger.  While Alice as Cordelia stands with demure resignation on the right enduring her father’s wrath.

I discussed this photograph on December 1 ago in the context of a current exhibition of Cameron’s works at the Metopolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  At the time I commented that to my mind Lear among Shakespeare’s tragedies comes closest to a pure tragedy in the Greek tradition.  Let me explain this in a bit more detail, and at the risk, I am sure, of inflaming Shakespearean  scholars everywhere.  The other tragedies tend to fall into the category of the “tragic flaw.” Macbeth suffers from ambition, and perhaps from paying too much attention to his wife, who has even more ambition than he. Othello is insecure and too prone to jealousy.  Romeo and Juliet are, well I’m sorry, just plain stupid. Hamlet, well, as Lawrence Olivier tells us in the prelude to his 1948 movie version of Hamlet: “This is the story of a man who could not make up his mind.” I think it a bit more complicated than that.  As a Catholic, living when he did, Hamlet was taught that there were no ghosts since people were not resurrected until the time of the Last Judgment.  So if not a ghost, then his father’s “ghost” must be a demon sent from hell to trick him.  Still Hamlet fails to act and avenge his father’s murder.  In the end he winds up killing King Claudius not because Claudius murdered his father but because he murdered his mother.

Lear on the other hand is very different theatre.  Lear himself suffers from a senile dementia.  It is not his fault.  It derives not from a flaw of character but from a twist of nature.  He is dependent and prone to the flattery of his two evil daughters Regan and Goneril.  But Cordelia recognizes that her duties must be split.  She must at the same time be filial to her husband and to her father.  At the end of the play like a true tragic Greek figure she goes knowingly to her death, because it is her duty and destiny to protect her father.  She is the true epitome of daughter-hood.

All of this is in Cameron’s picture.  And recognize also that it was Cameron’s stated goal to depict the nurturing, motherly, and daughterly role of women in society.  Her choice of Lear is not surprising.  Among Shakespeare’s plays it is the one that studies must closely the contrast between the vices and virtues of women.  The image is soft, masterly to the point, and I think brilliant!

This entry was posted in Essays on Photography, Reviews and Critiques.