Inspired by Sappho

The iconic portrait of Sappho by Julia Margaret Cameron eerily reflects the famous portrait by George Frederick Watts of Tennyson, a copy of which hangs in Farringford’s Ante-Room

Tennyson, Virginia Woolf and Julia Margaret Cameron’s Portrait of Sappho

I spotted at once, on my first visit, the iconic portrait of Sappho by Julia Margaret Cameron, even though it is somewhat ignominiously placed on the Bathroom Wall. The portrait is in profile, dramatic and yet also softened by the camera lens, it shows a poet both of power and feeling, something Julia Margaret Cameron would not have been a stranger to in her relationship with Tennyson.

The portrait shows a poet so spirited that she has become iconic, and the portrayal of Sappho by Cameron, for me, eerily reflects the famous portrait by George Frederick Watts of Tennyson, a copy of which hangs in Farringford’s Ante-Room. A nineteenth century plaque of Sappho also hangs in the Blue Room at Farringford, complimenting the plaque of Tennyson hanging near the door, and, as the two poets visually echo each other, so Sappho’s work is similarly reflected in Tennyson’s poetry. Tennyson’s friend Arthur Hallam compared Tennyson’s poem Mariana in the South to “the fragments of Sappho, in which I see much congeniality to Alfred’s peculiar power”.

Julia Margaret Cameron, who took the portrait of Sappho, was regarded by Virginia Woolf as an aunt, (her mother was Julia’s niece) and, having recently seen ‘Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition Inspired by Her Writings’ at Tate St Ives, Woolf was on my mind when I visited Farringford. I knew before visiting that Virginia Woolf had written a comic play about Tennyson and Cameron on the Isle of Wight, Freshwater. Yet after visiting Farringford I grew to believe that Virginia Woolf took more from her Farringford connections than simply a satiric drawing-room drama.

The presence of the portrait of Sappho underlines the connection between Woolf, Cameron and Tennyson, and interestingly, despite Hallam’s suggestion that Tennyson’s poetry echoes Sappho’s verse, for me, these poetic fragments, in their flowing descriptions and latent eroticism, are more reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s revolutionary writing style than Tennyson’s. Although perhaps Sappho, from her unique place in Farringford’s bathroom, inspired both writers equally.

This year I was lucky to attend Trinity College Cambridge’s ‘Clark Lectures’, the speaker for which was the American poet Anne Carson. She spoke about her own modern translations of the fragments of Sappho, If Not, Winter, and her words too seemed to me to link Julia Margaret Cameron’s depiction of Sappho with Virginia Woolf’s own literary career.

Fragment 56

not one girl I think  
who looks on the light of the sun  
will ever  
have wisdom  
like this

Find out more information about Anne Carson’s work

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