Julia Margaret Cameron has been described as “resolutely her own woman”. One of Britain’s most remarkable photographers, Cameron is best known for her portraits of celebrities of the mid 1800s, her ghostly, allegorical scenes and romantic imagery. Her sitters not only include notable figures such as Charles Darwin, Alfred Lord Tennyson and Ellen Terry, but also close relatives and family friends.
What is immediately arresting about her photographs is the subject matter, which often depicts angels or biblical scenes. It is this word “arresting” that defined Cameron’s descriptions of her own artistic ambition:
I longed to arrest all the beauty that came before me and at length the longing has been satisfied.
Born in Calcutta, India (now Kolkata, Bengal), Cameron (nee Pattle) was educated in France, where her grandparents had lived as aristocrats during the 1700s. In 1838 she married Charles Hay Cameron, who was a Jurist twenty years her senior. Charles and Julia went on to have five children together, but raised another five young relations as well as an adopted girl called Mary Ryan, who was often the chosen model for many of Cameron’s pictorial allegories and portraits.
After Charles’ retirement in 1848, the family moved to London, where Cameron’s sister hosted a salon in Kensington that was frequented by famous artists. This allowed Cameron to meet countless contemporaries who would later become sitters in her photographic work, such as Robert Browning and Edward Burne-Jones.
In 1863, Cameron’s daughter gifted her with her first camera. This became a pivotal moment for Cameron’s artistic career, and by 1864 she had joined the Photographic Societies of London and Scotland. Cameron would continue to create works for just over a decade, producing over 12,000 images, and credited her mentor and fellow photographer, David Wilkie Wynfield for her success. Wynfield, like Cameron, was interested in creating shallow-focus portraits, and photographs with a painterly composition.
For Cameron, the “divine art of photography” was not simply a method in which to record her surroundings, but became a way in which to illustrate heroic tales, and create mythical scenes. This was largely due to the techniques she used during the wet collodian process, which produced blurred images and sometimes scratch or smudge marks, allowing the work to take on a dream-like quality.
Though this became Cameron’s trademark style, it was heavily criticised by her contemporaries, who believed such additions to the photographic plate to be the result of poor photographic skills. However, the aesthetic created by Cameron was not only deliberate and testaments to her understanding of photography as a science, but also lent her work a romantic demeanour that would prove popular amongst the Pre-Raphaelites.
Cameron’s photographs emulate a painterly style. She called her pictorial allegories her ‘fancy subjects’ and the characters of which were described by Emily Tennyson as ‘endless Madonnas and May Queens and Foolish Virgins and Wise Virgins.’ Academics have argued that by representing Arthurian Legend, scenes from the Bible and interpreted imagery from famous poems, Cameron became part of a sustained effort to celebrate British heritage and cultural identity. This was a difficult position for a female artist to take in the 1800s, and her efforts to engage with politics would be brushed off as symptoms of her eccentric nature, rather than serious contributions to a broader political discourse.
In 1860, after a visit to the home of Alfred Lord Tennyson on the Isle of Wight, Cameron fell in love with the landscape and purchased a property in the nearby village of Freshwater. As neighbors and friends, Tennyson would often bring his guests to observe Cameron’s artistic practice, and his two young sons modelled for Cameron on various occasions. Virginia Woolf, famous writer and the daughter of Julia Margaret Cameron’s Niece, wrote her first and only play about the artistic gatherings fostered by the Cameron’s at their new home, a comedy titled ‘Freshwater’.
The Cameron’s stayed in Freshwater until 1875, before moving to Ceylon, where Julia passed away in 1879 from complications with hypothermia. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that the photographer began to receive wider recognition for her contribution to art history, quickened by the 1948 publication of Julia Margaret Cameron; her life and photographic work, by Helmut Gernsheim. In 1974, an exhibition titled Mrs. Cameron’s Photographs from life was held at the Stanford University Museum of Art, and since then there have been several acclaimed exhibitions dedicated to Cameron at Internationally recognised institutions, including the National Portrait Gallery, London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.