At the age of 48, Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) received a camera from her daughter and son in-law as a birthday gift. Little did she and her family suspect that it would mark the beginning of a celebrated artistic career. Quick to gain mastery of the nascent art of photography, Cameron developed into one of its most noteworthy pioneers and innovators. With her hallmark soft-focus lens and dramatic lighting effects, she remains known for her unique portraits of famous men and her romantic, allegorical images of women.
Cameron was born on June 11, 1815 in Calcutta, India. She was the second of seven daughters born to affluent parents who raised their children in India. Her father, James Pattle, was an Englishman who held posts with the financial and judicial departments of the Bengal Civil Service. Her mother, Adeline Pattle (nee de l'Etang), who was of French descent. Cameron was distinguished among her sisters by her boundless generosity, her ardent enthusiasms, and later, by her artistic talents.
High-Society Grand Dame
Before she possessed a camera, Cameron channeled her passions into the rich family life and social responsibilities that she shared with her sisters, and subsequently into those that she shared with Charles Hay Cameron, the man who became her husband in 1838. A jurist who held a place as the fourth Member of Council at Calcutta, and a philosopher who had written a treatise on the sublime and the beautiful, Charles was a prominent figure in British-colonized India. For ten years the Camerons lived and raised a family in Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka), where Charles took on the task of codifying the Indian legal system. A man of considerable means, he also purchased several coffee plantations. Among Europeans living in India, the couple occupied a position near the very top of the social hierarchy, and Cameron gracefully grew into her role as a high-society grand dame. She was known for her love of bestowing lavish gifts upon her friends, as well as for her ardent, prolific letter-writing.
Cameron was by no means idle during the 48 years that preceded her foray into photography. Before marrying, she had traveled to France to be educated. While her education was not of the formal kind that was available to men of her day, it left her well acquainted with the world of arts and letters. Her first love was literature. In addition to translating works from German, she wrote some poetry and fiction of her own. She gave birth to six children, five sons and one daughter, expanding what was already a large extended family. In 1848, her husband retired and the family relocated to England. They took up residence first in London and later on the Isle of Wight. Among their friends were the poet Alfred Tennyson and the painter G. F. Watts. In later years, the writer Virginia Woolf would claim Cameron as her great-aunt.
"Gifted" with a Camera
Before the fateful birthday on which her daughter and son-in-law presented her with a camera, Cameron had been keeping abreast of the new art of photography through her friend, Sir John Herschel. An astronomer by training, who also pursued an interest in photography, Herschel had begun to send Cameron examples of early Talbotype images by 1841. Yet it was without first-hand experience that she tried her hand at photography in 1863. "I began with no knowledge of the art," she reminisced in Annals of My Glass House, a brief memoir that she wrote in 1874. "I did not know where to place my dark box, how to focus my sitter, and my first picture I effaced to my consternation by rubbing my hand over the filmy side of the glass." Nevertheless, she took to the new art zealously, rounding up family, friends, gardeners, maids, and even passersby to sit perfectly still before her lens. By the time a year had passed, Cameron had compiled albums for the enjoyment of loved ones and had become an elected member of the Photographic Society in London.
In 1860, the Camerons had purchased property with two adjacent cottages near Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight, not far from the residence of Tennyson and his wife. A central tower was built to link together the two cottages, and the Camerons dubbed the structure Dimboula Lodge after their family estates in Sri Lanka. It was on this property that Cameron did some of her most important work as a photographer. Converting the coal shed into a darkroom and the hen house into a studio, Cameron pursued her art with obsessive energy. The Isle was a favorite destination for the artists and thinkers of Victorian England. The presence of Tennyson, who was then England's poet laureate, was magnetic. Many eminent people of the day, including author and photographer Lewis Carroll and pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman Hunt, visited him at his Farringford House estate. Those who frequented the area became part of what was known as the Freshwater Circle, a group of artists, writers, and intellectuals, with Tennyson at its center.
Cameron is often credited for her instrumental role in gathering together the members of this illustrious group. All of them received invitations to visit Dimboula, where they were coaxed into Cameron's glass-walled studio to have their portraits taken. It is for these unique, historically relevant photographs that Cameron is perhaps most well known. The poets Henry W. Longfellow and Robert Browning, the essayist Thomas Carlyle, and the naturalist Charles Darwin were among her most distinguished sitters. To these photographs, Cameron brought all of her characteristic techniques. She used daylight to great effect, bathing her subjects in a glow that intensified during a long exposure time. She preferred a soft-focus lens because it allowed her to achieve a painterly result.
Cameron enjoyed photographing beautiful women, whom she often had dressed in costumes and portrayed as allegorical or historical figures. The majority of her work consists of such portraits and vignettes using women as subjects. May Hillier, the parlor maid that Cameron was said to have chosen for her beauty, posed as the Greek poet Sappho and as the Madonna with Child (the infant that Hillier held was probably a grandchild of Cameron's). Julia Jackson, the mother of Virginia Woolf and Cameron's niece, and May Prinsep, another relative, posed for the camera time and again; the latter Cameron often portrayed as poetic heroines such as Christabel and Beatrice.
On occasion Cameron would create photographic "illustrations" of contemporary poetry by such figures as Charles Kingsley and her beloved Tennyson. These portraits usually required a cast of characters, and to fill these roles she would enlist family, friends, household servants, and guests. For Tennyson's epic "Idylls of the King," Cameron planned to create a series of vignettes representing dramatic moments in the poem. Costumes were sewn and fitted to sitters, and sets were assembled. Like amateur theater productions, these works were not always successful, especially when Cameron's husband, dressed in a hooded robe with his white beard flowing, could not help laughing during the shoot. Yet the results pleased Tennyson and, when the second volume of "Idylls" was published in 1875, Cameron's photographs accompanied the verses. "It is immortality for me to be bound up with you, Alfred," wrote Cameron in one of her many letters to the poet.
Returned to Ceylon
The coffee plantations that Charles had purchased years ago in Ceylon were floundering. The couple's style of living at Freshwater, where guests were always treated extravagantly, was a constant drain to finances. Thus it was decided that, in their weakened financial state, the Camerons would leave Freshwater and return to Ceylon. Charles had been pining for the warm climate and the Eastern landscape that he so loved, and two of the couple's sons had taken up residence in their former homeland. Announcing to surprised friends that they would be setting off to join their sons, the Camerons arranged to leave by boat from Southampton. Among their transported belongings were two coffins (purchased in the event that they would be hard to find in the East), in which the china and glassware were packed. Clearly, there was an air of finality to the journey.
Once she and Charles had settled in the fishing village of Kalutara, Cameron took to her photography again. "The walls were covered with magnificent pictures which tumbled over the tables and chairs and mixed in picturesque confusion with books and draperies," describes Virginia Woolf in the introduction to a 1926 book of photographs by Cameron. But the height of her career, which was linked so strongly to her sense of place and of community at Freshwater, was coming to an end. Her most enduring photographs would be those taken in the former setting, where she had felt so much at home. Cameron was able to relish a fame that she had left behind in England. Exhibitions of her work appeared in London and Bournemouth. The demand for her photographs was so high that the Autotype Company had reissued 70 of her prints in red, brown, and black editions.
When Cameron died on January 26, 1879, in Kalutara, Ceylon, it was with a sense of deep fulfillment and pride. "It is a sacred blessing which has attended my photography," she wrote to Tennyson's wife in one of her last letters. "It gives a pleasure to millions and a deeper happiness to very many." For several years after her death, those pleasures abated, and Cameron's work nearly fell into obscurity. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz and his followers, known as the "Photo Secessionists," rediscovered and championed her work. This new generation of photographers admired the psychological intensity of her portraits. In her other works they drew parallels to the British pre-Raphaelite painters with whom she had cavorted at Freshwater.
Cameron's work continues to intrigue students of photography and of Victorian England. A traveling exhibition of her work entitled "Julia Margaret Cameron's Women" opened at the Art Institute of Chicago in the fall of 1998, then filled the galleries of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art during the following year. Her words of 1874, printed in the memoir Annals of My Glass House, best explain what motivated Cameron to create this rich artistic legacy: "I longed to arrest all beauty that came before me, and at length the longing has been satisfied."
Further Reading on Julia Margaret Cameron
Victorian Photographs of Famous Men and Fair Women, by Julia Margaret Cameron, edited by Tristam Powell, Hogarth Press, 1973.
Wolf, Sylvia. Julia Margaret Cameron's Women. Yale University Press, 1998.
"Julia Margaret Cameron," from The Julia Margaret Cameron Trust, http://www.iwightc.ac.uk/local/cameron/jmc.htm (October 20, 1999).
"Julia Margaret Cameron: Victorian Photographer," http://www.mfa.org/exhibits/cameron.html (October 20, 1999).
"Masters of Photography: Julia Margaret Cameron," http://masters-of-photography.com/C/cameron/cameron_mountain_nymph.html (October 20, 1999).