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Julia Margaret Cameron

Supported by The Bern Schwartz Family Foundation
This donation was made possible by the American Friends of the V&A

Julia Margaret Cameron: Biography

Photograph - Portrait of Julia Margaret Cameron (1815 - 79)

‘My aspirations are to ennoble Photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real & Ideal & sacrificing nothing of Truth by all possible devotion to poetry and beauty.’
- Julia Margaret Cameron to Sir John Herschel, 31 December 1864
Julia Margaret Cameron (1815 – 79) was one of the most important and innovative photographers of the 19th century. Best known for her powerful portraits, she also posed her sitters – friends, family and servants – as characters from biblical, historical or allegorical stories. Her photographs were rule-breaking: intentionally out of focus, and often including scratches, smudges and other traces of her process. In her lifetime, Cameron was criticised for her unconventional techniques, but also celebrated for the beauty of her compositions and her conviction that photography was an art form.

The Double Star, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1864, albumen print. Museum no. 45158 @ Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Julia Margaret Pattle was born in Calcutta on 11 June 1815, the fourth of seven sisters. Her father was an East India Company official and her mother descended from French aristocracy. Julia Margaret was the most flamboyant of the Pattle daughters, known for their sociability and artistic eccentricity. Educated mainly in France, she returned to India in 1834. In 1836, while convalescing from an illness in the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, she met the British astronomer Sir John Herschel (1792 – 1871), who was surveying the skies of the southern hemisphere. In 1842, Herschel introduced her to photography, sending her examples of the new invention. He remained a life-long friend and correspondent on technical photographic matters. During the same stay in South Africa, Julia Margaret met Charles Hay Cameron (1795–1880), 20 years her senior, a reformer of Indian law and education who would later invest in coffee plantations in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). They married in Calcutta in 1838 and she became a prominent hostess in colonial society. A decade later, the Camerons moved to England. By then they had four children; two more were born in England. Several of Julia Margaret’s sisters were already living there, and had established literary, artistic and social connections. Staying first in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, then moving to East Sheen and Putney in London, in 1860 the Camerons settled in Freshwater, on the Isle of Wight, where Julia Margaret later began making photographs. They lived there until 1875, when they moved to Ceylon to be near four of their sons and the family’s coffee plantations.

The year 2015 marks the bicentenary of Cameron’s birth and the 150th anniversary of her first museum exhibition, held in 1865 at the South Kensington Museum, London (now the Victoria and Albert Museum). The museum was founded in 1852, using profits from the 1851 Great Exhibition, with the aim of educating and inspiring British artists, designers and manufacturers and improving the taste of the public. The South Kensington Museum was not only the sole museum to exhibit Cameron’s work in her lifetime, but also the institution that collected her photographs most extensively in her day. In 1868 the Museum gave Cameron the use of two rooms as a portrait studio, perhaps qualifying her as its first artist-in-residence. Today the V&A’s Cameron collection includes photographs acquired directly from the artist, others collected later from various sources, and letters from Cameron to Sir Henry Cole (1808–82), the Museum’s founding director and an early supporter of photography.

This text has been taken from Julia Margaret Cameron: Photographs to electrify you with delight and startle the world by Marta Weiss, published to accompany the exhibition. 

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