Julia Margaret Cameron
Victoria & Albert Museum, London
This image focuses on Cameron's house-maid, Mary Ryan, surrounded by others. It comes from Victorian Visions, an exhibition of photography mounted in 2007 at the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight, Wirral
V&A Images/Courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum
The photograph shows the old tradition of crowning a May Queen on the first day of that month. But despite the happy occasion, the flowers and the costumes, this is a solemn tableau. It is, in one respect, just the sort of posed ensemble that the Victorians enjoyed putting on as a spectacle for an audience, endowing the occasion with a sense of solemn ritual. There is also, however, a touch of pathos, as a moment stilled in the swift passage of time. This captures well the atmosphere of Tennyson's well-known poem "The May Queen" (1832), with its plaintive undertones and sense of doom. In the first part of poem, the girl who is to be crowned May Queen tells her mother the night before, "I sleep so sound all night, mother, that I shall never wake, / If you do not call me loud when the day begins to break" (127). The next part of the poem, entitled "New-Year's Eve," and its conclusion, added later, confirm that although she is indeed crowned on the following day, it is the last May Day in which she ever participates. She is bound for that place where "the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are at rest" (139).
According to the V&A website, "Cameron’s maid Mary Ryan plays the title character of Tennyson’s poem ‘The May Queen.’" Around her are (left to right): a local child, Kate Keown; her parlour-maid Mary Hillier; another local child, Freddy Gould; and another, unidentified, child model (see Cox and Ford 450). Cameron would take up the theme again later when illustrating Tennyson’s poems. — Jacqueline Banerjee
Cox, Julian, and Colin Ford, eds. Julia Margaret Cameron: the Complete Photographs. With contributions by Joanne Lukitsh and Philippa Wright. Los Angeles: Getty Publications / London: Christopher Hudson, 2003.
"May Day." V&A. Web. 1 May 2016.
Tennyson, Alfred. Poems. London: E. Moxon, 1848. Internet Archive. Contributed by Robarts Library, University of Toronto. Web. 1 May 2016. See pp. 127-139
Last modified 1 May 2016