Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), Julia Margaret Cameron’s neighbor at Freshwater, was one of the artist’s most faithful friends, whom she regarded as a hero and lionized in photographic portraits. By 1850, when she first came to know him, he was a widely admired public figure who had been appointed poet laureate and enjoyed an amiable relationship with the royal family. Cameron took great advantage of her proximity to Tennyson and created many portraits of him over the years. This particular study became one of the most well-known, since Cameron used it as the frontispiece in the first of her two illustrated editions of his Idylls of the King. It also appears in most of her presentation volumes, including the Getty’s Overstone Album, where it is the very first picture. To augment the commercial value of her Tennyson portraits and to promote her own status as an artist, Cameron often had the poet sign her prints, a task he particularly abhorred.
Tennyson is presented in striking profile as a biblical elder, clutching a tome in his left hand, a fitting metaphor for the strength of his convictions and commitment to action. His bust is draped in a dark cloak, and he appears unkempt, tired, and worn in the face, characteristics of the picture that led him to dub it “The Dirty Monk.”
Cameron venerated Tennyson for his ability to express great truths at a time when science and rationalism had undermined many inherited beliefs. This portrait reveals something of his psychological landscape and vulnerability as a human being. Professor Benjamin Jowett (84.XZ.186.71) described Tennyson’s personality with great accuracy in 1861: “I find he is so greatly mistaken by those who don’t know him. . . . No one is more honest, truthful, manly, or a warmer friend. . . . He is the shyest person I ever knew, feeling sympathy and needing it to a degree quite painful.”
Julian Cox. Julia Margaret Cameron, In Focus: From the J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1996), 42. ©1996 The J. Paul Getty Museum.