In June 1868 Julia Margaret Cameron took the opportunity of photographing the four Fraser-Tytler sisters—Nelly, Christiana, Mary, and Ethel—during their visit to the Alfred, Lord Tennyson residence, Farringford. The title of the work is taken from a line—“Queen rose of the rosebud garden of girls.”—in Tennyson’s Maud (1855), a poem that he considered one of his finest achievements. In 1855 Dante Gabriel Rossetti sketched Tennyson reading the poem at the home of Robert Browning (http://www.rossettiarchive.org/docs/s526.r-2.rap.html) and described the performance as “delivered with a voice and vehemence which he alone of living men can compass, the softer passages and the songs made the tears course down his cheeks.”
Cameron’s picture cannot be considered an accurate or direct illustration of the verse. Her group of soporific maidens set against a lush floral background is more of an attempt to capture the quality and feeling of Pre-Raphaelite paintings by Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones.
Cameron was at her most directorial in this kind of picture, arranging the group according to her whim. This was not entirely to the taste of critics, one of whom remarked in the Pall Mall Gazette in January 1868 that “some of the groups or tableaux vivants lose, from the very reason of their artificialness, that noble and natural harmony of expression which is the charm of Mrs. Cameron’s productions.”
The figure seated second from the right, Mary Fraser-Tytler, studied painting with George Frederick Watts for several years and in 1886 became his second wife when he was sixty-nine. Mrs. Watts memorialized her husband in a three-volume biography that was published in 1912 under the rather grandiose title George Frederick Watts: The Annals of an Artist’s Life, a book that offers intimate glimpses of Cameron and her circle.