This little book was written for the National Portrait Gallery, as part of a series called “Character Sketches”, and I was very honoured to be asked, even though the book has subsequently never, ever sold. Not a single copy, I don’t think. Writers of other titles in the series – on the Bloomsbury set, and the Poets of the Great War, for example – evidently fund quite good annual holidays from the proceeds of their little NPG books, but mine has just sat there for a few years, and will soon, I fear, disappear for good. I was recently offered copies at a knock-down rate, which is a sure sign it’s soon going to be off to the pulpers. You just can’t get people to care about Tennyson, it seems. I sometimes wish we had focused it on Julia Margaret Cameron instead. I also wish the cover picture hadn’t been picked at random at the last moment (evidently it was too expensive to photograph the G.F. Watts portrait of Tennyson I had chosen). I also sometimes quite loudly bemoan the fact – when I’m in the NPG shop – that the lozenge on the front cover is of such very dark green that it’s impossible to make out the title of the book, let alone the identity of the author.
However, it seemed to me, when I undertook it, to be a perfect NPG project, and I’m still very glad I made the time. Both G.F. Watts and Mrs Cameron were enormously significant in the history of portraiture, but in different ways. There is still a Watts room in the Victorian gallery, featuring some of his great, sepia-coloured “Hall of Fame” portraits (William Morris, John Ruskin); meanwhile the purchase of Mrs Cameron’s “Herschel Album” in the 1970s by the gallery was what finally conferred respectability on her work. Watts’s 1864 portrait of Ellen Terry, entitled “Choosing”, is one of the pictorial hits of the collection, and is reproduced on postcards, notepaper and tea towels. But there was another reason for considering a book on portraiture to be a great way of writing about Tennyson and his group. Because of the recent invention of photography, they were the first artistic people to be truly aware of public image. One of my favourite images in the book is a cartoon by Max Beerbohm, from 1917, depicting Thomas Woolner at Farringford in 1857, modelling a bust of Tennyson, and being asked by Mrs Tennyson, “You know, Mr Woolner, I’m the most unmeddlesome of women, but – when (I am only asking), when do you begin modelling his halo?”
For me, the greatest pleasure in writing Tennyson and his Circle was that I had to go back to the true lives of the people I’d fictionalised. This gave me a lot more to say about Tennyson, but a lot less to say about Lewis Carroll (whose life was, of course, famously dull). I enjoyed telling the story of Mrs Cameron’s household, and the way she used her Freshwater Bay maids and neighbours in her tableaux. I also had a fabulous time devising the flat-plan for the book, and working out where to put the pictures, so that it would end up as 64 pages, and use exactly the number of NPG pictures (plus two from other collections) that I was allowed. It was all an absolute delight.