Dimbola. Ghosts of the Isle of Wight, with Margo Williams

Being a ghost is not necessarily a fate worse than death. Some like it that way. How they make it work is an intriguing question.
Photo image of Dimbola Lodge, Freshwater Bay, Isle of Wight.
Dimbola Lodge, Freshwater Bay, Isle of Wight

The Chemical Sister. Julia Margaret Cameron

Dimbola Lodge houses a permanent exhibition of Victorian pioneer portrait photographer Julia Margaret Cameron’s work; and continues to be an inspirational centre for the arts.

Internationally eminent artists and creative thinkers come to present talks and exhibit works; for Dimbola is one of the island’s greatest art venues. However, some of sensitive disposition smell unearthly chemical vapours wafting through the house, and wonder if it is haunted by the ghost of Mrs Cameron.

Most Haunted island

Born in midsummer of 1815 in Calcutta, India, Julia Margaret Cameron was the third of seven daughters of high-ranking, hard-drinking Scottish civil servant James Prattle and his aristocratic French wife, whose family had served in the court of King Louis XVIth.

In 1838 in India she married the aristocratic Charles, twenty years her senior. She was his second wife.

Photo image of photographs of Julia Margaret and Charles Hay Cameron.
Julia Margaret and Charles Hay Cameron.

Portrait of Julia Margaret

Mrs G.F. Watts who met Mrs Cameron in the flesh, so to speak, described her friend.

'...To all who knew her she was a unique figure, baffling all description. She doubled the generosity of the most generous of the sisters, and the impulsiveness of the most impulsive. If they were enthusiastic, she was so twice over; if they were persuasive, she was invincible. If she had little of the beauty of her sisters, she certainly had remarkably fine eyes that flashed like her sayings, or grew soft and tender if she was moved.'

Although photography was popular Mrs Cameron felt that unlike painting, this new art-form revealed nothing of a subject's real personality and in 1863 when Charles and their sons visited Ceylon daughter Julia and husband presented her with a camera, "...The gift from those I loved so tenderly added more and more impulse to my deeply-seated love for the beautiful and from the first moment I handled my lens with a tender ardour..."

Dimbola the Beautiful

The Camerons, Julia Margaret and Charles Hay, moved to Freshwater from London in 1860. Originally two sailors' cottages, these were knocked through to become one building conjoined by this tower. Their new island home was to be named Dimbola Lodge after one of their plantations in Ceylon.

In fact Charles was offered the job as Governor of that island but at the age of seventy his friends thought him too old for such great responsibility. So he purchased these cottages in Freshwater Bay.

Aged 48 Julia launched into her new career. The coalhouse became darkroom, and the glazed fowl-house her studio, the 'glass house' as she called it.

Exploring the haunted Isle of Wight

Image of Freshwater Bay circa 1850. Engraving by Brannon.
Freshwater Bay circa 1850. Engraving by Brannon.

Goodbye to the Camerons

Sadly, Charles' health started to suffer and by 1875 he was a shadow of the great man, bed-ridden and reclusive. But when his wife asked him if returning to Ceylon would make him feel better, old Charles' eyes twinkled again and to everyone's amazement he slipped out of the bed, dressed himself and then wandered a quarter mile to the sea shore for the first time in twelve years.

It is reported the whole of Freshwater turned out to see Charles and Mrs Cameron leave the island that year. On the quay side as their luggage was carried aboard ship, she handed out photographic prints in place of cash to tip the porters. 'Take these instead as a remembrance,' said she before the waters of the Solent carried her away to Ceylon where she died on January 26th 1879 at the age of sixty four. Her last spoken word was '...Beautiful'.

Charles outlived her. He died the following year.

Indomitable Mrs C. in the House

Although Charles may not have enjoyed the arts as much as his wife, nor the situation, those who came to stay here were enchanted. Numerous Victorian letters describe how it was.

Guests remembered the sun-drenched house with smiling bay windows, garlanded to its roof with roses. Mrs Cameron planted primroses to please the passers-by and sweet briar to be picked, and built a tower so that her home might look beautiful to her friends and everyone else as they walked from the beach, in a setting as dramatic as anyone could wish.

Even nature conspired to create an archway in the bay that Mrs Cameron would enjoy in the years ahead.

Image of actress Ellen Terry by Julia Margaret Cameron.
Actress Ellen Terry by Julia Margaret Cameron.

Art is Eternal

Mrs Cameron's photographic portraits are inspiring and beautiful. In fact she was as much the genius of Freshwater as Alfred Tennyson and doubtless he would agree. She invited, enticed and kidnapped his visitors and brought them to Dimbola to pose as characters in his poems, or anything else that took her fancy.

Then subjected to the mysterious smelly magic of photography.

Mrs Cameron's skill, determination and respect in which she was held by her subjects produced her fine work, but it was hard and often heart-breaking work. From two hundred and forty-five exposures only twelve met her high standard for Alfred's epic 'Idylls of the King.'

Each portrait involved carefully coating the large glass plate, balanced between thumb and forefinger while delicately pouring over the Collodion to coat evenly. The plate was then immersed in sensitising bath and then eased into the camera. The plate had to be kept wet for exposure.

With this in place, the subject in position, the lens ready for exposure for anything between three and ten minutes, a portrait began.

So long as Charles did not chuckle. Keeping still for ten minutes was often difficult for the sitter even without Charles' interruption and the splendid results of Mrs Cameron's are as much a consequence of endurance as composition. Hers is a magnificent compilation of an age of stars.

Photo image of Dimbola Lodge, Freshwater Bay.
Dimbola Lodge, Freshwater Bay.

Go visit this jewel of the Isle of Wight, sip tea or coffee in its delightful tearooms. Admire the creative genius of this photographic pioneer. Say "hello" to Dimbola's ghost; for some Freshwater residents believe she somehow returned from Asia and to this day continues her work, unaware of or disinterested in the digital revolution.

Thank you for your company on this short tour of Isle of Wight mysteries and haunting. If you would like to know more about Margo Williams' investigations in Freshwater and other famous and forgotten souls, read this book. Now available from Amazon.

Related links

Dimbola Museum

Julia Margaret Cameron