College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences

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

A University of Southern Maine (USM) graduate student has made a surprising discovery at the historic home of a well-known Maine author, identifying an old photograph hanging on a library wall as a valuable portrait by one of England’s most famous Victorian photographic artists.

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."

Historic New England officials said in an email statement that they are “delighted that a photograph in its collection is being authenticated as the work of Julia Margaret Cameron and extends thanks to Robin Acker for all her hard work.” HNE’s collections staff is in the process of discussing how to fully inspect and photograph the piece and to present this information in its members and the public, they stated.

Calling the photograph “invaluable,” Acker said Cameron currently is considered the most acclaimed female photographic artist of her time. She took numerous pictures of Victorian celebrities, including writers such as Maine poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, artists, musicians and scientists. She also did photographic illustrations, including for Tennyson’s famous epic poems about King Arthur, “Idylls of the King.”

Cameron’s work is considered rare and sought-after, with photographs valued in the thousands of dollars; at a 2011 auction at Christie’s, one of her portraits sold for almost $90,000.

Acker, who is pursuing her master’s degree at USM specializing in 19th-century New England “salon culture,” said she was visiting the Jewett House in Berwick last year -- “on a tour, just like anyone else” -- when she saw the large portrait hanging on the library wall near a fireplace.

“I knew right away it was a portrait of Tennyson by Julia Margaret Cameron, but what I didn’t know was whether it was authentic,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘If that’s what I think it is, this is fantastic.’”

Acker went home and did more research on the object, convinced that it was an original fine carbon photographic portrait by Cameron. She suspected that Jewett might have acquired the picture in the year of one of the first of the author’s several trips to England, where she actually visited Tennyson at his Isle of Wight home.

The USM grad student shared all her research with Historic New England staff, and on June 10, they and Acker examined the unframed portrait at their Haverhill, Mass., office.

Using a microscope, they discovered an impression stamp on the back of the portrait that confirmed it was an authentic 1867 Cameron photograph of Tennyson, one of more than a dozen she took of the poet. They also discovered that the photograph, framed by Doll and Richards Gallery and Framing in Boston, was backed by a newspaper dated August 1882, the same summer of after Jewett’s first trip to England.

HNE staff said the photograph came to the organization when Theodore Jewett Eastman bequeathed the house to Historic New England in 1931.

Acker is still doing research on how Jewett might have obtained the portrait and is writing a seminar paper on it while continuing to work on her master’s thesis. She said she would love some day soon to curate an historic photo exhibit showing the interrelationship of Cameron, Jewett and other British and American Victorian artists and writers.

Meanwhile, another historic mystery in the Jewett House needs to be solved, she said.

“I believe there may be another Cameron portrait in the house,” Acker said, “But that remains to be confirmed.”

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