Thursday 16 December 2010

'Artisans at Dimbola' : Connections with the Past…

It was touch and go whether we would get to Dimbola for the Artisans Sale, but when Saturday morning arrived the snow had completely disappeared. We set up our tables in the Dining Room, a spacious bright room with tall windows, looking out to Freshwater Bay, Compton and beyond. I knew I had to have the place next to the mantelpiece - in this now bare room, empty of almost all it's original features - the mantelpiece offered a real connection with the past.

Julia Margaret Cameron may not have actually dusted the mantelpiece (she had plenty of servants to take care of such things) but surely she would have placed small treasures here? Ornaments, gifts bought back from foreign travels by her family, possibly a miniature likeness of them or even one of her own photographic prints. She may have arranged these curios in much the same way as I arranged my felt work on this same mantle piece.

I'm mindful of connecting with a past line of women, all going about their work, both domestic and creative, within the walls of a particular building. Their efforts and energy leave a strong presence behind, permeating the fixtures and fittings of rooms, worn down by their dusting and arranging.

Julia's presence is very much in evidence at Dimbola. You can imagine her skirts rustling as she rushed down the wooden staircase to greet her guests in the hall. In this Dining Room, in the 1860s, she would have entertained the celebrities of her time. Tennyson, Thackeray, Darwin, Ruskin and Edward Lear would have all sat around her table.

She was a strong, purposeful woman and her strength of character exerted great force over everyone she encountered, especially if she wanted to photograph them. The famous faces didn't escape, nor did her long-suffering servants. However I have a copy of Gernsheim's book, published in 1948, which tells a different story. It has this inscription written inside : 

If Miss Westlake hadn't been quite so shy she would have been immortalised amongst all those great faces of the day.

As we all packed away, after a wonderful weekend at Dimbola, and left the room bare again, I could imagine and almost hear Julia's chattering guests around her dining table, and the sound of music and dancing in the hall. Dimbola really is an amazing house, full of atmosphere, which brings the past alive.  Many thanks to Shirley and all the volunteers and staff whose enthusiasm and hard work help keep the spirit of the house very much as it must have been. And a very special thanks to everyone who braved the cold to come and see us there.

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