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“A tender ardour”

Julia Margaret Cameron

by Linda Falcone

Calcutta-born British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) was about my age when she received her first camera at 48 – as a gift from her daughter and son-and-law. It was suitable present, they thought, for a woman who needed quite a lot to keep her occupied. She had raised five of her relatives’ children and had five of her own – in addition to adopting a young Irish girl, whom she found begging on Putney Heath. The gift was “to amuse you, Mother, to try and photograph during your solitude.”

Portrait of Julia Margaret Cameron , Henry Herschel Hay Cameron, 1870, MET Museum, New York

In her own words, Julia handled the camera with “tender ardour” from the time she shot what she referred to as her “first success” in 1864 – the photo of a girl called Annie Philpot, which she purposely blurred to suggest the child’s movement, rather than seeking the usual stoic pose Victorians imposed upon photographed children.

Julia would transform her estate’s henhouse into her first darkroom, which she called the ‘glass house’ and used it to produce dreamy pictures that photographers hated and artists loved. Cameron’s only natural daughter – also named Julia – was right about the gift being an antidote to solitude. The whole world – or at least the whole Isle of Wight – was coaxed or commanded in front of her camera. House workers or hapless tourists admiring the beach were somehow lured back to her ‘lair’ to pose for a tableau scene, transformed into characters born in the mind of Milton. They would become the Greek poet Sappho or King Lear’s sad daughters. The neighbour’s hired help was dolled up and made to carry the Madonna’s Annunciation lily. Strapped-on swan wings were a common feature in her photographs. And in the buzz and glory of it all, she treated genius scientists and humble seamstresses exactly the same.

King Lear allotting his kingdom to his three daughters, Julia Cameron, 1872, MET Museum, New York

Lucky for us, the Isle of Wight was brimming with the vacationing elite, which secured for posterity some of the most important portraits of nineteenth-century British writers, scientists and poets ever taken. Poet Alfred Tennyson asked Julia to photograph a series to accompany his poem cycle Idylls of the King and this literary association pleased her and gave added credence to her quest, namely, to bring photography out of the technical realm, by elevating it to the level of the other arts.

Tennyson did not escape her lens, of course – she made him pose too, once as himself, and other times – as whomever she saw fit. A description of Tennyson’s sittings features in Freshwater, the comic sketch Virginia Woolf wrote for a private performance at Bloomsbury. Woolf’s mother, Julia Jackson, was Cameron’s niece and posed for many pictures as well. Woolf’s character ‘Julia’ snaps at ‘Tennyson’ which characteristic intensity, “That’s the very attitude I want! Sit still, Alfred!”

On imagining the scene, I cannot resist throwing ‘word count’ to the wind, and sharing Tennyson’s own description of the experience: “The studio, I remember, was very untidy and very uncomfortable. Mrs Cameron put a crown on my head and posed me as the heroic queen. … The exposure began. A minute went over and I felt as if I must scream, another minute and the sensation was as if my eyes were coming out of my head; a third, and the back of my neck appeared to be afflicted with palsy; a fourth, and the crown, which was too large, began to slip down my forehead; a fifth—but here I utterly broke down, for Mr Cameron, who was very aged, and had unconquerable fits of hilarity which always came in the wrong places, began to laugh audibly, and this was too much for my self-possession, and I was obliged to join the dear old gentleman.”

Julia had met Charles Hay Cameron in South Africa, and married him in India, in 1838. Fifteen years his wife’s senior, he was man enough to play Merlin in the artist’s scenes, and any woman whose husband is smart enough to make her want to run through the house with fresh photographs in tow, so that he could receive them with guaranteed ‘delight’ is a woman I want to meet in the elevator. “It is my daily habit to run to him with every glass upon which a fresh glory is newly stamped,’ she wrote “and to listen to his enthusiastic applause. This habit of running into the dining-room with my wet pictures has stained such an immense quantity of table linen with nitrate of silver, indelible stains, that I should have been banished from any less indulgent household.”

Angel of the Nativity (Sitter Laura Gurney), Julia Margaret Cameron, 1872, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Cameron’s first show was held in 1865 at the South Kensington Museum – now the Victoria and Albert Museum – which, surprisingly, was also home to her photography studio in 1868. Apparently, the well-connected woman knew how to get a gig. In fact, although she did not photograph on commission and never established a professional studio, she did market, print and sell her images through Colnaghi, and the V&A now owns 80 of her pictures, purchased in the early days of her 12-year career.

In 1875, the Camerons moved to Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, to tend to a fungus affecting their coffee plantations. Julia Cameron died there, four years later, with thousands of photos to her credit. Photographic materials were scare in Ceylon, and her later production diminished, but her inborn mission – discovered late, and lived with all the fire of her temperament, would never leave her. “Beauty, you are under arrest, I have a camera and am not afraid to use it,” has remained as one of her most frequently quoted phrases, hence, it is fitting that “Beauty” was her dying word.

With images of Julia, ‘Merlin’ and crowned Mr Tennyson, still fresh in our minds, I’d like to share a final quote, for I would be remiss if amidst the humour, I neglected to emphasise the seriousness of Julia’s photographic endeavours. Victorian critics had ever-harsh words for her. Photographers derided her ‘soft-focus’ images as amateurish and her medievalist scenes as reason for ridicule, yet she approached her work with religious dedication. Carlyle, Dickens, Darwin, Herschel, Browning, Watts and more have Julia Margaret Cameron to thank, for how they are remembered in the collective consciousness, and here’s why: “When I have had such men before my camera,” the photographer writers, “my whole soul has endeavoured to do its duty towards them in recording faithfully the greatness of the inner as well as the features of the outer man. The photograph thus taken has been almost the embodiment of a prayer.”

Amen, dear Julia Margaret Cameron. Amen.


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