“Everybody is either a genius, or a poet, or a painter or peculiar in some way”, wrote Anne Thackeray Ritchie on a visit to Freshwater in 1865. Her friend wondered, “Is there nobody commonplace?”. As the residence of the Poet Laureate, Freshwater was a Mecca for intellectuals and artists keen to explore philosophical, political and moral issues with him. The village was compared to a French salon or even Athens in the age of Pericles! Not all visitors to Farringford were welcome, however. While Tennyson was a splendid host to friends who liked to walk, learn nature’s secrets, gaze at the stars and listen to his poetry, tourists who invaded his privacy – or ‘Cockneys’, as he called them – were given short shrift.
The poet’s closest friends on the Isle of Wight were his neighbour Julia Margaret Cameron, the pioneering photographer, and the MP Sir John Simeon. It was in Simeon’s garden at Swainston Manor, Calbourne, that Tennyson wrote much of his famous poem Maud in 1853-4. Among other early visitors to Farringford was Prince Albert, who called unexpectedly when the family had bought the house in 1856 and were in the middle of replacing the previous owner’s furniture with theirs. Emily Tennyson recalled with amused horror how “the chairs and tables were dancing, sofas and chairs stuffed with brown paper and all untidiness, the floor strewed with toys and…I know not what besides”, as she sought to distract the Prince with the pleasant view from the drawing room window.
Literary figures flocked to Farringford in abundance. Guests included the renowned children’s authors Charles Dodgson – aka ‘Lewis Carroll’, Edward Lear, Charles Kingsley and Margaret Gatty. Dodgson photographed the family, while Lear became close friends with Emily Tennyson and set some of Alfred’s poems to music. Lear stated of the house, “I like it better than any other place I know”. Coventry Patmore was a fond acquaintance during the Tennysons’ early days on the island, though this relationship eventually soured. The poets Edward FitzGerald and Aubrey de Vere, on the other hand, became Tennyson’s lifelong friends and spent many Christmases at Farringford. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, acclaimed American writer of The Song of Hiawatha, came to tea in 1868; the occasion was held on the lawn with forty guests in attendance! Other luminaries who dropped by were the controversial Decadent poet Algernon Charles Swinburne and the dialect poet William Barnes, both of whom Tennyson praised.
As for artists, the Punch illustrator Richard ‘Dickie’ Doyle and the Pre-Raphaelites William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais visited Farringford. Millais’ famous painting Autumn Leaves is said to have been inspired by his helping Tennyson to sweep up and burn leaves in the garden in 1854. Another Pre-Raphaelite, the sculptor Thomas Woolner, stayed at Farringford on many occasions, often when executing the numerous busts and profiles of Tennyson that helped to make Woolner’s name. The Irish poet William Allingham and later his watercolourist wife Helen were regular guests; in his diary William recorded long walks with Tennyson on the Down and playing football with his sons on Farringford lawn. Helen Allingham produced a series of pictures of the house, estate and Tennyson himself in the latter part of his life. The celebrated painter George Frederic Watts was a close friend who completed several portraits of the poet; he even moved to Freshwater with his patrons, Sara and Henry Thoby Prinsep, in 1874 at Tennyson’s urging. Watts’ muse and first wife, the actress Ellen Terry, was familiar with Farringford from childhood, and modelled for Julia Margaret Cameron at Dimbola Lodge. Interestingly, in 1868 Watts’ second wife, Mary Fraser Tytler, also posed for Cameron; she would go on to design a sundial inscribed to the Tennysons that still stands on Farringford’s lawn today. Musical visitors included the opera singer Jenny Lind and Sir Charles Hubert Parry, who composed the famous setting of William Blake’s poem ‘Jerusalem’. Remembering his overnight stay, Parry wrote: “It is the most old-fashioned house I ever saw, with dim candle lamps…hundreds of Mrs Cameron’s photographs, ugly wallpapers and early Victorian furniture. But I slept well all the same!”
The Tennysons frequently hosted eminent intellectuals such as Benjamin Jowett, the reforming Master of Balliol College, Oxford. Jowett loved playing with the young Hallam and Lionel, so much so that when another guest referred to Jowett’s “pupils” the eight year-old Lionel interjected, “They are not his pupils at all. Mr Jowett is a young lad. They are all just the same, just entering life together”. The physicist John Tyndall made a trip to Farringford in 1858, and in the mid-1860s the much-admired naturalist Richard Owen twice came to look for fossils with Tennyson along the island’s Jurassic coastline. Theologian George Bradley, eventually the Dean of Westminster (1881-1902), regularly visited. His wife, Marian, became very close friends with Emily, and said of her in 1860: “The more intimately I know her…the more I incline to making her my ideal of all feminine loveliness of mind and manners, as well as of the highest standard of intellect and goodness”. Another Establishment guest was the Liberal politician and writer George Campbell, 8th Duke of Argyll, who was a godfather to Tennyson’s son Hallam.
Several foreign visitors of note also made their way to Farringford. The most illustrious was the military leader Giuseppe Garibaldi, whose campaigns led to the unification of Italy. He arrived to much fanfare in April 1864 and planted a Wellingtonia tree in front of the house, a part of which remains today. The Abolitionist politician Charles Sumner, who played an important role in the start of the American Civil War, also dined at the house. Queen Emma of the Sandwich Islands (now known as the Hawaiian Islands) had a special chair carved for her at Farringford in 1865. Young Prince Alamayou of Abyssinia (now northern Ethiopia) came in 1868, in the charge of famed explorer Captain Speedy.