Julia Margaret Cameron: collection highlights
This simple portrait of Annie Philpot is important in Julia Margaret Cameron's oeuvre: it is inscribed as 'My very first success in photography, January 1864'. Mrs Cameron had received the gift of a camera from her daughter Julia and son-in-law Charles Norman only one month before it was taken. Having begun her experiments in image making 'with no knowledge of the art', she describes her jubilation at producing the picture in her biographical statement Annals of my Glass House (1874):
'I was in a transport of delight. I ran all over the house to search for gifts for the child. I felt as if she entirely had made the picture. I printed, toned, fixed and framed it, and presented it to her father that same day: size 11 by 9 inches. Sweet, sunny haired Annie! No later prize has effaced the memory of this joy.'
Though known as her first successful photograph, the image has pictorial hallmarks that Cameron would continue to use and refine over her 15-year career.
The large-scale head-and-shoulders study, with simply
composed light and dark tones, stopping short of sharp
focus, remained central to her work.
In February 1864, Cameron included the photograph in an album assembled for her friend and mentor the painter G.F. Watts, offering him 'my first success in my mortal but yet divine! art of photography'.
The Turtle Doves
Julia Margaret Cameron took more than two hundred photographs of children, often casting them as winged angels and saints, or dressing them in costume to make illustrations after well known literary narratives. She also made studies of her young sitters in the same style as her 'Life Size Heads' series begun in 1866. Cameron was a mother, grandmother and aunt. Children were an important part of her life (she and Charles Cameron had six and adopted at least another five) and after her discovery of photography were readily available as models. Laura Gurney Troubridge, Cameron's great-niece who appears in several of her photographs, recalled that
'we never knew what Aunt Julia was going to do next, nor did any one else for the matter of that…once in her clutches, we were perfectly helpless. "Stand there", she shouted. And we stood for hours, if necessary'.
Joanne Lukitsh, a Cameron scholar, has noted that 'While embracing children had appeared before in literature and the visual arts, this opened-mouthed kiss is unusual and astonishingly sensual'. Cameron made another photograph also titled The Turtle Doves (almost identical in composition and also cut to an oval shape). These and other very similarly posed images of embracing children portray the ethereal embodiment of
innocence and devotion in love.
Another print of the same subject was inscribed by Mrs Cameron: Study of the Beatrice Cenci from May Prinsep (the photographer's niece). The true story of the Cenci, which took place in 16th-century Italy, inspired Percy Bysshe Shelley's poetic drama The Cenci (1819).
The debauched Count Cenci conceived an incestuous passion for his daughter Beatrice. The young woman devised, with her step-mother and brother, a desperate plan - hiring assassins to murder the count. Despite the justice of their cause, Beatrice and her helpers were arrested, admitted their guilt and were sentenced to death by the pope. The simple title invites this dramatic reading of the life-size, close-up head.
Julia Margaret Cameron took the subject of this photograph from the 1816 poem of the same title by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It describes a virtuous maiden who is put under a spell by an evil sorceress.
The themes of treachery and loss of innocence, acted out by Cameron's niece Emily Mary (May) Prinsep, contribute to the atmosphere of sensuality and psychological tension. Cameron manipulated the composition to heighten this effect by blurring the monumental head and the space around it.
Cameron wrote of her pioneering method with large-scale, out-of-focus portraiture,
'when focusing and coming to something which, to my eye, was very beautiful, I stopped there instead of screwing on the lens to the more definite focus which all other photographers insist on'.
The photograph St Agnes shows one of Julia Margaret Cameron's housemaids, Mary Hillier, posed to illustrate a poem by John Keats (1795-1821) called St Agnes Eve.
It tells of the evening that virgins dream of their future husbands. Cameron's close friend and neighbour Alfred Tennyson had also written a poem St Agnes Eve in which the young girl, or St Agnes, proclaims 'For me the Heavenly Bridegroom waits, To make me pure of sin', indicating a sacred union with Christ.
To suggest a night scene, Cameron printed the photograph dark and added a moon in the background.
Mary Hillier was one of Julia Margaret Cameron's favourite models. In her biographical statement Annals of my Glass House, Cameron wrote that Hillier
'has been one of the most beautiful and constant of my models, and in every manner of form has her face been reproduced, yet never has it been felt that the grace of the fashion of it has perished…The very unusual attributes of her character and complexion of her mind…are the wonder of those whose life is blended with ours as intimate friends of the house'.
This photograph is one of a series of nine that Julia Margaret Cameron made in 1864, her first year of photography. The series is entitled The Fruits of the Spirit and each mount bears a title corresponding to the virtues of love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and temperance.
The photographs show a model as a contemplative Madonna. In all but one, she is posed in the manner of the Madonna and Child, with one or two infants. The model was Cameron's housemaid Mary Hillier, and she appeared so frequently and convincingly in the guise of Madonna that she was known in the Freshwater circles as 'Mary Madonna'.
Temperance could almost be read as a Pieta, the pose in which the Madonna holds the dead Christ. There is a resigned sadness and intensity to Hillier's gaze, and the slumped limpness of the body of the child suggests death. Cameron made another version of the photograph in which she printed the negative in reverse.
The series was the first of her photographs to enter a public collection. Cameron presented it to the British Museum in January 1865 and subsequently it transferred to the Victoria and Albert Museum, in 2000.
Study after the Elgin Marbles
Julia Margaret Cameron often experimented with her models in different attitudes and poses. She also set out to create photographs that followed the long-standing tradition of copying work by great artists.The two figures in this image, Mary Hillier and Cyllena Wilson (an orphan adopted by Cameron), imitate figures from the Elgin Marbles.
These famous classical sculptures came originally from the Parthenon and were named after Lord Elgin, who sold them to the British Government in 1816. Displayed in the British Museum were widely copied and a source of inspiration for many artists.
The Elgin Marbles were reproduced by the Arundel Society, which aimed to promote knowledge of art by circulating and exhibiting copies of otherwise unavailable European masterpieces. Cameron's close friend and adviser, the painter George Watts also encouraged artists to study them. Cameron made two different photographs, carefully positioning Wilson and Hillier according to the gestures of the headless sculptures.
In the first study the models turn their heads to each other as though in conversation. In this version, Cameron has them both looking straight ahead, with
Wilson facing outwards and Hillier in profile.
Call, I follow, I follow, let me die!
This photograph concentrates upon the head of Cameron's house maid Mary Hillier by using a darkened background and draping the figure in simple dark cloth.
The lack of surrounding detail or context obscures reference to narrative, identity or historical context. We are left to focus on the expression of the sitter. The mood implied is one of melancholy, suffering and abandon. Yet the flowing hair, lightly parted lips and exposed neck also suggest sensuality.
Cameron sometimes called this photograph 'Call, I follow, I follow, let me die!'. She took this title from a line in a poem by Tennyson 'Lancelot and Elaine' from Idylls of the King (1859), in which Elaine is driven mad by her unrequited love for Lancelot.
Before Cameron left England for Ceylon in 1875, she entrusted her negatives to the Autotype Company, who supplied and sold carbon prints of her images. She undertook this in the hope of wider commercial success and, as carbon prints are more permanent than albumen-silver prints, probably for reasons of longevity.
Vivien and Merlin
The image relates to the following passage from Merlin and Vivien, the fifth book of Alfred Tennyson's Idylls of the King (1859):
For Merlin overtalk'd and overworn
Had yielded, told her all the charm and slept. And lost to life and use
Then in the moment, she put forth the charm
Of woven paces and of waving hands
And in the hollow oak he lay as dead,
And lost to life and use, and name and fame.
In the photograph Cameron re-creates the moment in which Merlin (played by her husband Charles Hay Cameron) is put under a spell by the sorceress Vivien (Agnes Mangles). Later Mangles wrote that Charles could not stop chuckling during the theatrically posed sitting, thus spoiling many negatives.
Mrs Cameron illustrated Tennyson's Idylls of the King, at the poet's request, for a 12-volume trade edition of his work. It reproduced her large photographs as woodcut copies, much-reduced in size. However, she also published an edition with the original photographic prints, like this one, faced with hand-written extracts from the Idylls printed in facsimile.
John Frederick William Herschel
Sir John Herschel (1792-1871) was a life-long friend, adviser and correspondent of Julia Margaret Cameron. She made four portraits of him, all from the same sitting at his home Collingwood, at Hawkhurst in Kent.
Herschel was an important astronomer who also contributed to the early development of photography, coining the terms 'positive', 'negative' and even the word 'photography' itself. He developed the chemical recipe for 'hypo', which stops silver salts reacting with light, thereby fixing the image permanently. Herschel introduced Cameron to photography, and on one of the portraits she wrote:
'My great teacher in this art since he used to correspond with me when in India and sent to me all specimens of the advance of the science'.
The opportunity to take Herschel's portrait was a deeply significant moment. In her book Annals of my Glass House (1874) Cameron wrote:
'When I have such men before my camera 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. Most devoutly was this feeling present to me when I photographed my illustrious friend, Sir John Herschel. He was to me as a teacher and High Priest. From my earliest girlhood I had loved and honoured him, and it was after a friendship of 31 years duration that the high task of giving his portrait to the nations was allotted to me.'
Cameron's biographer Helmut Gernsheim has written that his was 'probably the most striking face she ever had before her lens, displaying the majesty and energy of genius, softened by age'. To enhance the commercial value of the portrait, Cameron sent Herschel mounts, which he signed for her.
Florence Fisher was Julia Margaret Cameron's great niece. Cameron made six studies of her, one of which she titled A Study of St John the Baptist. There is a striking intensity to this portrait, achieved through the large scale, the contrast between light and dark tones, the sitter's direct frontal gaze, delicate skin and white dress, and background out of which she emerges.
Cameron incorporated flowers and foliage into her photographs for symbolic and compositional purposes. Her female sitters often hold lilies and roses or are surrounded, sometimes even physically enveloped, by nature. In 1855 she wrote to Tennyson
'I always think that flowers tell as much of the bounty of God's love as the Firmament shows of His handiwork'.
Paul and Virginia
In this early photograph Cameron evokes the narrative of Jacques Henri Bernardin de Saint Pierre's tragic romance Paul et Virginie (1787). The story, which was popular at the time, tells of the ill fated love of two children (here played by Freddy Gould and Elizabeth Keown) living on Mauritius, an island off the coast of Africa. Their idyllic existence is shattered by separation when Virginia is sent away to be educated. Attempting to return to the island, her boat is ship-wrecked within sight of land and Paul witnesses her drown rather than remove her clothes, which were too heavy for her to swim to safety. Not long afterwards Paul dies of grief.
In her biography From Life, Julia Margaret Cameron and Victorian Photography, Victoria Olsen suggests that the image relates to the passage in which the two are caught in a storm:
'both were laughing heartily at being sheltered together under an umbrella of their own invention. Those two charming faces, placed within the petticoat, swelled by the wind, recalled to my mind the children of Leda, enclosed within the same shell'.
Floss and Iolande
Only three months after the gift of her camera, Cameron made four similar photographs of the same title. One imagines Mrs Cameron striving to pose the children and position the props. Technically too, even at this early stage, there is experimentation: Cameron intervened after developing the negative by retouching the Paul’s feet to make them appear less prominent.
Floss and Iolande (Mary Hillier and Kate Dore) are characters in St Clement's Eve (1862), a play by Julia Margaret Cameron's close friend the author Sir Henry Taylor. While the title of the photograph is drawn from Taylor's play, the image also relates to Cameron's depictions of the Salutation or Visitation. This episode in the New Testament was a favourite subject in Italian painting. It tells of the meeting between the Virgin Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, who would be the mother of John the Baptist.
In Photography: An Independent Art, Mark Haworth-Booth notes that
'here the forms have dissolved into each other. …This is almost a "spirit photograph". Swirls of collodion film on the negative merge ambiguously with swirling draperies.'
Cameron made two studies of the subject. The other, cut to an oval shape, is a sharper and more contrived pose. The embrace is reversed, with Dore kissing Hillier on the cheek.
Julia Jackson was Julia Margaret Cameron's niece and goddaughter, later the mother of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. A renowned beauty who sat for G.F. Watts and Edward Burne-Jones, Jackson was one of Mrs Cameron's favourite and most photographed subjects. She made numerous portraits of Jackson but none are as visually compelling as this profile, where the light cast across her face and neck emphasises her strong classical features. The photograph was taken shortly before Jackson's marriage to Herbert Duckworth. Mrs Cameron did not generally use Jackson to portray religious or literary figures and narratives but rather made heroic studies of her in her own right such as this.
The print has a hair, probably the photographer's, embedded between the print and the original mount in the lower right section of the sheet.
Sappho was a female poet in ancient Greece who lived on the island of Lesbos and wrote of romantic love between women. Plato elevated her to the status of 'Muse' and Julia Margaret Cameron's profile portrait, which emphasises the sitter's strong facial features, depicts her as heroic and intelligent. The model was Mary Hillier, one of Cameron's housemaids. She wears a necklace of gold coins and an embroidered jacket. Her costume suggests individuality and creates a visually elaborate pattern, enhancing the simplicity of the top half of the photograph.
Cameron continued to make prints from the negative despite the large crack in the left hand corner of the glass.
The Angel at the Sepulchre
This portrait is another of Cameron's images suggesting biblical themes and 'types' rather than reconstructing a specific narrative. The photo is a representation of the angel that guarded Christ's tomb before his resurrection. As Mike Weaver points out in his book Julia Margaret Cameron, 1815-1879, it suggests Mary Magdalene, who was the first to witness the risen Christ.
Cameron noted on the mount that the photograph was a companion picture to Angel of the Tomb, which is also a profile portrait using Mary Hillier as model. In both, light is thrown across the face, with the rest of the figure merging and softening into dark tones. In The Angel at the Sepulchre, Hillier wears a black veil which increases the contrast between light and dark in the image. This contrast is also set off by the lily at the bottom of the composition.
Cameron was proud of an inscription by G.F. Watts - 'very beautiful, none better' - which she lithographed onto the mount of at least one other print of the subject.
Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), the Poet Laureate, was a major source of inspiration for artists, and in particular for Julia Margaret Cameron, who was his neighbour in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight. It was largely through Tennyson's celebrity that Freshwater became well known. It attracted many of the most prominent artists, writers and intellectuals of the time. Coming to visit the great poet, they were then called upon to sit for Mrs Cameron.
She made at least 19 portraits of Tennyson, often depicting him theatrically in a black cloak and cap, with a book to emphasise his intellect and vocation as poet. This, the last portrait that Cameron made of him, is a quiet yet noble likeness of Tennyson. He wears modern dress and the light catching on the folds of draped fabric creates a golden aura behind his head. The focus of the image is sharpest around the poet’s eyes and nose, to suggest his visionary, 'seeing' gaze.
The Whisper of the Muse
The painter G.F.Watts (1817-1904), known to Julia Margaret Cameron as the 'Signor', was acknowledged by the photographer as her chief artistic advisor and one of her closest friends.
In 1861 he donated his 'Hall of Fame' to the National Portrait Gallery. It consisted of over 60 paintings of 'great men of the age' and was a major influence on Cameron's own 'pantheon of famous men'. This series of life-size head studies, including Sir John Herschel, Henry Taylor and Thomas Carlyle, remain among her best known works. It was a major development in modelling the head 'not only from the Life, but to the Life'.
In Whisper of the Muse Cameron transforms Watts into a musician, making him a symbol of the creative artist rather than showing him specifically as a painter or individual. In this version Kate Keown, the young girl on the right of the picture, whispers inspiration. In another version, Watts looks down on the second child, Elizabeth Keown, resting on his arm while Kate Keown watches intently.
Cameron achieves a satisfying circular balance by the positioning of the violin and the two children either side of Watts in the composition. Watts also painted a portrait of Julia Margaret Cameron, held by the National Portrait Gallery in London.
The poet Henry Taylor (1800-86) was Cameron's most frequently photographed male subject. She met him when he and his wife moved from India to Kent and became her neighbours. Like her portraits of Tennyson and Watts, many of her photographs of Taylor mark her friendship but also attempt to convey the 'greatness of the inner as well as the features of the outer man'.
This photograph, another of her 'famous men', is typically devoid of the props or extravagant costumes associated with literary and biblical illustrations. There is a gentle introspection to Taylor's downward gaze and a marked stillness of pose in the photograph. Surrounded by darkness, his white hair and long beard are emphasised as the main visual focus of the image. His hands, placed in his lap, create another highlight and serve to ground him in the composition.
As with other of her well known sitters, Cameron had Taylor sign the mounts of her photographs for sale and also had facsimile signatures copied on to mounts.