American and New England Studies

USM Grad Student Discovers Rare Photograph at Maine Author’s Home

USM University of Southern Maine American and New England Studies Robin Whitham Acker

Robin Whitham Acker of the Portland area, a graduate student in USM’s American and New England Studies (ANES) program, has identified a photographic portrait of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, hanging in the Sarah Orne Jewett House in South Berwick, as a valuable artifact created by Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879).

Acker and officials with Historic New England, the historic preservation organization that owns and runs the Jewett House as a museum, confirmed earlier this month that the portrait of the solemn-faced, 19th-century British poet laureate was in fact a Cameron portrait. Born and raised in South Berwick, Jewett (1849-1909) is regarded as one of America’s premier regional writers, particularly known for her Maine-based book, “The Country of the Pointed Firs.”

Calling Cameron “the Annie Leibovitz of her day,” Acker said the photographic portrait indicates the close social network that existed between 19th-century British and American Victorian literati.

“The Cameron photographic portrait teaches us about the ‘friending’ and ‘trending’ activities of the Victorians,” said Acker, who has been researching Cameron since 2004. “It teaches us that just like on Facebook, they were sharing images of themselves and others, exchanging letters with each other and keeping journals with updates from their daily lives. This is something we still do today, only we do it in a technologically advanced medium, which at times, lacks a contemplative and reflective experience. Facebook is filled with the some of the same activities the Victorians loved.”

"Robin has made a terrific discovery here,” said Kent Ryden, ANES director and USM professor of American and New England Studies. “Her work not only indicates the high quality of student research that is done at USM, but also shows how that research can illuminate important, little-known aspects of Maine and New England culture and history."

As a result of her discovery, Robin was interviewed by the Associated Press, Bangor Daily News, Portland Press Herald and Foster's Daily Democrat. The AP story has gone national.

Here are links to the other stories:

Foster's daily democrat:

Portland Press Herald:

 Bangor Daily News:

She also is being interviewed by Smith College, her alma mater.