Julia Margaret Cameron moved easily in her art between the sacred and the profane, from heavenly to earthly love. In some of her pictures of children the poses recall religious subjects; in others the narratives are structured around classical myths, with a child serving as Cupid and an adult model, usually Mary Hillier (1847-1936), acting as Venus.
In 1872 Cameron made a series of pictures of her great-nieces Laura and Rachel Gurney (about 1867-1946 and 1864-1920, granddaughters of Sara Prinsep) dressed as angels. In the 1920s Laura recalled the experience of being photographed by Cameron: “We, Rachel and I, were pressed into the service of the camera. Our roles were no less than those of two of the angels of the Nativity, and to sustain them we were scantily clad, and each had a pair of heavy swan’s wings fastened to her narrow shoulders, while Aunt Julia, with ungentle hand, tousled our hair to get rid of its prim nursery look. No wonder those old photographs of us, leaning over imaginary ramparts of heaven, look anxious and wistful. This is how we felt, for we never knew what Aunt Julia was going to do next, nor did anyone else.”
The dramatic affectation and sometimes absurd character of Cameron’s art was not lost on George Bernard Shaw, who wrote in 1889: “There are photographs of children with no clothes on, or else the underclothes by way of propriety, with palpably paper wings, most inartistically grouped and artlessly labelled as angels, saints or fairies. No-one would imagine that the artist who produced the marvelous Carlyle would have produced such childish trivialities.” Despite its questionable taste, Angel of the Nativity is a technically accomplished picture, realized in the rich lustrous tones of the albumen print.