Let me take you back to an eve before the turn of the century. No, not the last one – not the one most of us witnessed. It’s to the one before that – the night the nineteenth century became the hundred years the same number of us were born into. It’s to London we’re going, to Hammersmith to be exact – although some of the tale is set around Picadilly Circus, about eleven clicks from the small terraced house in Musboro Road West. It’s a cosy two up and two down with latrine/laundry out back in the tiny yard. That night, on the other side of the globe, gas lights cast an eerie pall. Light snow is flurrying around together with the smuts of factory detritus. If we peer into the front room of the tiny abode we are able to discern a figure haloed by firelight, seated in an ancient, faded lounge chair, covered in blankets. He has a woolly cap pulled down low and a bristling; grey-stained moustache can be discerned. This overhangs a mouth clenching a briar-pipe, exuding a thin spiral of tobacco smoke upwards. The face is deeply lined; his hands, clutching at the blankets, indicate they have rarely been idle with their callouses and grimy nails. Beside him there is a bottle containing a dark liquid – more than likely porter. This old fellow is obviously a man of working class tastes, although the room is far from gimcrack. There are items that look as though they may even be of some value today, especially a few works on the wall that could be from artists of fair repute. Beside the porter bottle is a small framed photograph in sepia. It’s of a much younger man, handsome and virile in appearance. The old fellow in the glow looks warm enough and seems to be dozing. He doesn’t know it yet, but this man will live on till the second year of the Great War, will soon see the death of his old queen and see out her son, the new king, as well. Finally he’ll witness the cream of his nation’s manhood march off to the killing fields of Flanders.
Look and see – his eyes are indeed closed, but he will stir and take another puff, or a sip of the ale from time to time. He will also routinely check his fob, pulling it out by its chain from under his coverings and squinting at it in the dim light of table-side lamp. He wants to see in the new century – he vowed he would; he’s determined to. He nods at the watch – still a while to go so he returns to his reverie in the gloom. First he turns to the small sepia image and yes, we can note a sigh and slight smile for it is a reflection of his own manhood from a long time ago – a time when he was considered the go-to person for all the artists in the area if they wanted a sturdy soul to pose for their works. Some went on to be recognised as amongst the Victorian era’s greats.
If we could now penetrate into the workings of Angelo Colarossi’s mind, we could read the nature of his thoughts as they worked their way back through the recent and not so recent past. They would inform us of the day he’s just experienced – one he regards as singularly memorable. On a daily basis he does keep himself busy. He is still called on to stretch canvas and help out odd jobbing in artists’ studios, with occasionally there being the need for an older man to pose – but these days he has largely lost his knack for stillness. Around the Hammersmith markets he can be seen still lending a hand to various stall-holders and it all adds up to keeping him going. His surviving offspring chip in too – but today was a period of freedom from his labours with it being the last hurrah of the old century. His son, also Angelo, came calling, with a young lass in tow to introduce. Four years on Angelo Junior would marry his belle and provide Mary Anne and he with more little ones to add to the ever increasing brood. When he thinks of how many there’d have been if all his own had survived a frown clouds his face. Still, six did and he’s mighty glad of it. His Mary Anne was sturdy of hip, but this sweet slip of a girl has the waist of a wasp so he can’t believe, when the time comes, how she will ever manage. His own Angelo is also so slight he marvels how he and his beloved wife ever came to produce him. But his father did give him one of his own great talents – his own knack of stillness.
That very day the foursome had travelled by omnibus and on foot to view the result of this talent – to look at it once more – at his son, Angelo Junior, high in the sky over Picadilly Circus. He’s atop the memorial to Lord Shaftesbury. His slim, undersized son is up there, perched on tip-toe, one leg extended back, with bow in hand. None that day would know that later generations would name his likeness Eros. Few models could have posed so agonisingly for the length of time required as young Angelo, not even, the elder one suspects, his father back in the day. But he managed to do so as the sculptor, Mr Gilbert, hacked away at the stone that would provide the moulding for the aluminium-cast final work. The artist intended it to signify mythical Anteros, the god of requited love, but the populace were soon to be convinced it was of his more lustful brother.
The man by the coal fire reflects on the stories of various sittings he had told that day, once they had retired to a tea house near the Circus for refreshments. At first the four had talked of the marvels of the age – the noisy horseless carriages that were starting to appear on the byways and the planned extensions to the Underground railway. It had reached Hammersmith some years back, but the son had yet to convince his father that it was safe to travel on. The younger man lovingly chided him for his stubbornness on the matter. The boy related how he had read somewhere that now everything had been invented that possibly could be and the old man nodded in agreement. Little was he to know that, in the second decade of the century about to dawn, his son would be helping to construct heavier that air machines to fight a terrible war.
The father and son regaled the young lady with the tale of how they had posed together for a painting by Mr Leighton of the sea giving up its dead. The son spoke of his times modelling for Mr Waterhouse and the senior family member his own times with Mr Sargent and Mr Millais. He told of the occasion he had to pretend to be wrestling a python for Leighton, how the sculptor had rolled up a mat for him to hold to represent the reptile. He always received a goodly laugh at its telling.
The wee lass had then queried how her beau’s father had became an artist’s model in the first place. Angelo Senior by the fire, checking his timepiece one more time, had responded by returning right back to the start, to his Italian childhood. He came into the world in the town of Picinisco cradled in the picturesque Val di Comino, through which the road from Rome to Naples passed. His family were suffering financial setbacks and one brother had already struck out for London. He established himself as an artist’s model, amongst other things and was soon successfully encouraging Angelo to join him. Between that and working in the markets the pair were soon making ends meet. To further increase his skills, Angelo learnt how to stretch canvasses and he became a fair carpenter as well. He was part way through this tale when he noticed that his wife was beginning to fade and was nodding off – she had heard all this so many times before. Her husband did have the gift of the gab. Checking his fob he realised the afternoon was getting on, so he decided that it was time to say his farewells and get Mary Anne back to Hammersmith.
The son of Italy, in that faded chair we observe in the lamplight, twitches back to reality, pulls out his timepiece and observes there is still an hour and then some to go with his vigil. He upends his bottle of porter and takes a healthy glug, pulls at his pipe several more times and then casts his eyes again towards the little photograph. There was one story he hadn’t told that afternoon – the strangest, most wondrous of all.
For a while he had assumed she was mad this short, squat woman he had been taken to pose for on the Isle of Wight. Tennyson, the old man marvels – it had been the great Lord Tennyson who was responsible for him being there. By that only just flicking flame on the last night of a century the old man shakes his head at the grand times he once was privy to, but none surpassed those few days at a residence called Dimbola Lodge off the southern coast. Tennyson was neighbour to this woman – a very strange woman obsessed with a new art. He reflects on how these days it is so commonplace for folks to go to a studio to have their portraits taken by a professional operator. There are post-card sellers on every corner in his city, plying their pictures of great sights and the latest music hall stars. He knows for a few extra coins, a nudge and a wink most of those vendors could produce, from a secret place, some purely for a gentleman’s pleasure as well. But back then all that was in its infancy.
It was Mr Millais going down to the Isle to stay with his friend, the poet, that was instrumental in it all. One day Tennyson took him across the lawns to meet the woman and she insisted that he sit for a photographic portrait. He remarked to Angelo later what a complicated process it was. He had become bored and unthinkingly adjusted his position for greater comfort, only to have her admonish him most sternly. Eventually a successful image was obtained – but like all the rest he’d observed taken by her, it had a certain fuzziness. He still liked it, mind, but it was not like the precise images he’d seen up in London. Back then Angelo had no knowledge what was involved in making these likenesses – but he was soon to find out. When Millais commented on its lack of clarity to the woman she immediately took umbrage and started blaming him for being so twitchy.’Nobody around here can sit still for more than a minute,’ she bemoaned to the artist. It was here that Mr Millais informed her that he knew a man who certainly could – that she needed a professional sitter. That, of course, set the train in motion. The woman sent her man up to London to make the necessary offer – and before he knew it he was taking the steam packet to the island. He reflected on his first meeting with her – there were no ‘how do you dos’ or offers of tea – she just told him that it would all have to come off. He chortles at the memory. He had posed nude on several occasions and had assumed she was instructing him to dispense with his clothing – but soon it became clear that it was his moustache that would have to be foregone. Apart from it he was clean shaven, but she then pronounced her Iago would have to have stubble – therefore she would require him to stay until an amount she considered sufficient grew. She alerted him to the fact she would pay him handsomely if he followed her instructions to the letter. In the end it wasn’t as handsomely as he would have hoped, given all she expected, but it was sufficient to make his trouble worthwhile.
Tennyson by JMC
A few days later she declared he looked ‘Arab enough’, as she phrased it, for her purposes. In the meantime, he had come to know how odd her existence was on the island. She seemed to survive on air, so besotted with her image making was she. Her ageing husband simply spent his time wandering around in a greasy dressing gown muttering to himself. Angelo Colarossi took repast of basic victuals alone in his room, but was invited to tea and cake when the poet came calling to meet his friend’s recommended sitter and to inquire how it was all going. The woman seemed as abrupt with him as everyone else and soon wandered off to attend to other matters. He, though, found the Lord a most agreeable conversationalist – they found themselves very easy in each other’s company.
Came the day of the sitting she explained that, for the image of Iago, she required him to don a rough cloak and have his eyes downcast – certainly not staring at the camera. It took some time for her apparatus to be organised to her satisfaction and some time more for her to capture him with a blinding flash – that was the term she used, ‘capture’. She then stalked off to her chemicals to do her ‘developing’. When she graced him again with her presence she actually smiled. ‘That will show my colleagues in the London Photographic Society.’ When he asked what she meant by that comment, she informed him that, when she went up to the capital to attend meetings to critique each other’s product, they looked down their very long noses at her work, advising that, being a woman, she couldn’t hope to be as skilled in the difficult processes required as they were. And worse, they refused to include her in their exhibitions. Then brandishing a small copy of his image she exhorted,’This will show those feeble fools! You have given me something of character and clarity. I dare them to mock your magnificent likeness! Thank you Mr Colarossi.’
Before his departure the next morning Angelo Colarossi received two gifts. Tennyson sent over a slim volume of his poetry inscribed with the wording, ‘To the man who makes an art of stillness.’ And Julia Margaret Cameron herself presented him with an ‘Iago’, complete in gold-leafed frame. Both items he treasures to this day. For he was young back then. And with the small memento he can not only remember, but see the man he once was.
He often wonders what became of her – of Mrs Cameron. He once heard from an artist friend that she had decamped the Isle and headed for the Orient to pass her final days, but he knows no more. And as we take our leave of Angelo Colarossi, in his small abode, we see that indeed the midnight hour has has finally arrived. He stands and stretches, takes the little image in his hand and stares at it for a few seconds. He then replaces it on its chair-side table, bends to dampen down the fire before heading to the stairs and his Mary Anne.
In truth our Angelo still has much to look forward to in the new decade that has now arrived – and beyond, till a war takes its terrible toll. There will be weddings and more grandchildren to celebrate, visits to view the windows of great new stores such as Mr Selfridges’, moving pictures to marvel over and he will see men taking to the skies. Why, in the years to come, there will even be women agitating over the right to vote.
Ellen Terry by JMC
As we move back through the decades to our own time we can only wonder what Angelo would make of the value of that tiny image today, let alone the others she took in the ten short years of her obsession. Nowadays we observe the portraits of the famous Julia Margaret Cameron ‘captured’ – with their lack of focus that we contrarily regard as part of their allure. Think of the names – the poet laureate himself and Robert Browning; artists Sir John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Sir Edward Burne-Jones – and even the remarkable actress Ellen Terry. As well there are her interpretations of historical scenes and romantic imagings from the works of Shakespeare. There are also a rare few from her time in Ceylon where she and her husband journeyed to on self-imposed exile. There she passed away in 1879. All this legacy was taken by her in a few short years from the 1860s on. In our digital age they are so ethereal – so dated by our standards, yet ‘Iago’, methinks, could have been snapped yesterday. Thousands gaze at her work in great galleries – books are devoted to her and the world has access to her portraits at any time of day on-line. Julia Margaret Cameron is now rightly regarded as a pioneer of an art form and for a woman’s place in the world.