PORTLAND, Maine — Soon after moving to the Portland area last summer to pursue a graduate degree, Robin Whitham Acker took a tour of the historic Sarah Orne Jewett House in South Berwick.
When she made it to the library in the 19th century author’s homestead, now a museum, something significant caught her eye.
“At first, I thought, ‘Well, if that’s what I think it is, this is very important,’” Acker recalled.
A year later and after a series of tests, Acker has determined with near certainty it is what she thought it was: An “invaluable” rare Carbon print portrait of famous British poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, by influential Victorian photographic artist Julia Margaret Cameron.
According to the University of Southern Maine, Cameron’s work, which includes many images of 19th century celebrities, is considered “rare and sought-after.” One of her portraits sold for nearly $90,000 at a 2011 auction at Christie’s, the school reported in a Monday announcement.
Acker, a graduate student in University of Southern Maine’s American and New England Studies program, said the find was not only a “delightful surprise” but a key puzzle piece in the long evolution of social media and modern storytelling.
She said the portrait harkens back to some of the earliest pop culture trends that have since evolved into websites like Facebook and Twitter. The photographic portrait of Tennyson, taken by fellow Briton Cameron, likely made its way into the hands of Jewett through her friendship with Boston author Annie Fields and her husband, publisher James Fields — although Acker acknowledged she’s still researching to figure out “who gave the portrait to whom and who decided to have it framed.”
“The Cameron photographic portrait teaches us about the ‘friending’ and ‘trending’ activities of the Victorians. It teaches us that — just like on Facebook — they were sharing images of themselves and others, exchanging letters with each other and keeping journals with updates from their daily lives,” Acker said. “This is something we still do today, only we do it in a technologically advanced medium, which at times, lacks a contemplative and reflective experience. Facebook is filled with some of the same activities the Victorians loved.”
And few Victorians have as much lasting influence as Tennyson, the man in the portrait, she said. The writer helped popularize medieval legends of kings and knights in a style that has bled through similar works ever since, Acker said.
“If you have kids, like I do, they’ve probably gotten you hooked on [fantasy novel and HBO television drama] ‘Game of Thrones,’” Acker told the Bangor Daily News in a Tuesday interview. “All the elements we see in that program come from the work of someone like Tennyson, so it’s very relevant to our time. We as a culture are still enamored with those themes and those stories, and we find elements of them everywhere.”
Acker, who has been studying the works of Cameron and Jewett since 2004, immediately recognized the handiwork of the photographic artist and her famous subject when she saw the portrait hanging near the library fireplace. The only question she had was whether it was a reproduction or an authentic Carbon print.
She reached out to the Jewett House manager and its ownership group, Historic New England, to alert them about the artifact they likely had on their hands and to eventually arrange a time this June to inspect the piece more closely.
In that setting, she was able to determine that the photograph was framed by Doll and Richards Gallery Framing of Boston, backed with a newspaper dated in August 1882, the summer after Jewett’s first trip to England. Acker then used a microscope to find an autotype company impression stamp on the back of the portrait indicating the image is an 1867 Cameron photograph of the poet.
Historic New England told the university that the organization received the photograph along with the rest of the house when Jewett’s nephew, Theodore Jewett Eastman, bequeathed the property to the group in 1931.
The organization announced in a statement, released through USM, that it is “delighted that a photograph in [the] collection is being authenticated as the work of Julia Margaret Cameron and extends thanks to Robin Acker for all her hard work.”
“Robin has made a terrific discovery here,” said Kent Ryden, director of USM’s American and New England Studies program, in a statement. “Her work not only indicates the high quality of student research that is done at USM but also shows how that research can illuminate important, little-known aspects of Maine and New England culture and history.”
The American and New England Studies program is scheduled to be eliminated under a slate of budget cuts planned by USM administrators in response to what they’ve described as a $14 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year that began Tuesday.
“My hope is that this story will shine a light on the value of arts and humanities education and regional studies programs in particular,” said Acker, who hopes to work in museums or write a book based on her research.
The Tennyson portrait may not be the only rare Cameron work at the Jewett House, either, Acker said. She said she couldn’t divulge many details until Historic New England verifies her theory, but another photograph at the museum home caught her eye as well.
“I believe there may be another Cameron portrait in the house,” Acker said, “But that remains to be confirmed.”