Toward the end of August 1874 Alfred, Lord Tennyson suggested to Julia Margaret Cameron that she attempt a photographic illustration of his Idylls of the King (1872), a collection of poetry he had written over a period of nearly forty years. Her response was typically enthusiastic: “Now you know, Alfred, that I know that it is immortality to me to be bound up with you.” The enormous production costs and labor involved in such a venture were no deterrent—Tennyson was the finest poet in the land, and Cameron, by association, hoped for both financial gain and further validation of her status as an artist. She was determined to demonstrate that photography was the equal any other form of book illustration.
Cameron began a search for models who would exactly personify the character in the Idylls. She employed her husband, nieces, friends, and visitors and went to great lengths in order to fit them to the most appropriate narrative. For The Parting of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere she purportedly expended forty-two negatives before she achieved the desired result. Her principal difficulty was in finding the right model to perform the role of Sir Lancelot; she eventually found a porter at the local Yarmouth pier whom she considered suitable.
Cameron’s picture describes the final embrace of the tragic lovers before they part forever:And Lancelot ever promised but remain’d,
And still they met and met. Again she said,
“O Lancelot, if thou love me get thee hence,”
And then they were agreed upon a night
(When the good King should not be there) to meet
And part forever. Passion-pale they met
And greeted; hands in hands, and eye to eye,
Low on the border of her couch they sat
Stammering and staring; it was their last hour,
A madness of farewells.
Julian Cox. Julia Margaret Cameron, In Focus: From the J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1996), 96. ©1996 The J. Paul Getty Museum.