Julia Margaret Cameron picked up a camera at age 48, recruiting family, renowned friends, and servants to pose for portraits and staged scenes. Shrewdly building a successful business, she held her ground in a male-dominated art world.
Julia Margaret Cameron (1874) by Henry Herschel Hay CameronThe J. Paul Getty Museum
Julia Margaret Cameron was born in Calcutta, India in 1815. Her father, James Pattle, was a judge of the Calcutta High Court during British rule. She and her six spirited sisters grew up comfortably as prominent members of Anglo-Indian society. In 1838 she married Charles Hay Cameron, a distinguished jurist and legal reformer. They moved to England with their six children in 1848 upon Charles’ retirement.
In December 1863, Cameron received the gift of a wooden box camera from her daughter, Julia, that would change her life. Her prodigious energies had been centered for years on raising her children. Now, with her daughter married and her husband and three eldest sons away on her family coffee estates in the British colony of Ceylon, the present-day nation of Sri Lanka, she found herself at a transitional moment in her life.
Taking up photography at this time, she began, in her own words, “to arrest all beauty that came before me.”
Primarily self-taught, she later described her early experiments, “I began with no knowledge of the art. I did not know where to place my dark box, how to focus my sitter, and my first picture I effaced to my consternation by rubbing my hand over the filmy side of the glass.”
The First Photograph
After a few weeks of experimentation in the January cold of her home studio on the Isle of Wight, Cameron created this portrait of Annie Philpot, the daughter of a local resident.
She later recalled, “I was in transport of delight. I ran all over the house to search for gifts for the child. I felt as if she entirely had made the picture. I printed, toned, fixed and framed it, and presented it to her father that same day.”
Annie (January 1864) by Julia Margaret CameronThe J. Paul Getty Museum
The image is conspicuously divided in terms of light and dark. The out-of-focus background and deep shadows around the model’s eyes were acceptable to Cameron, indicating that from the outset her criteria for “success” were notably out of step with Victorian convention, which valued realism and did not tolerate technical imperfections.
Cameron carefully trimmed another copy of the print and inscribed the picture’s mount, “My very first success in Photography.”
She was soon impassioned by photography and an ambitious aim: “My aspirations are to ennoble Photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real and Ideal, and sacrificing nothing of the Truth by all possible devotion to Poetry and beauty.”
[Lord Overstone] (negative 1865; print about 1870) by Julia Margaret CameronThe J. Paul Getty Museum
A Friend and Patron
Lord Overstone (Samuel Loyd Jones) was a friend and patron of Cameron who helped her family financially over a long period and contributed more than £6,000 (the equivalent of about $860,000 in 2022) to support her artmaking.
The Overstone Album: portraits, tableaux, and noted personalities [Front Cover] (1864/1865) by Julia Margaret CameronThe J. Paul Getty Museum
As a token of gratitude for his encouragement of her art, Cameron presented Lord Overstone with a collection of 112 of her photographs on August 5, 1865, bound in an album with an intricately carved wooden cover. Many of the images shown in this presentation come from that album.
[The Overstone Album: portraits, tableaux, and noted personalities] [The Overstone Album: portraits, tableaux, and noted personalities] (1864–1865) by Julia Margaret CameronThe J. Paul Getty Museum
It was dedicated with the inscription: “To Lord Overstone from his Friend Julia Margaret Cameron / Every thing in this book is from the Life & all these Photographs are printed as well as taken by J.M.C.”
In this early portrait of her husband, Cameron chose to picture him in an engaging, frontal pose, seated in an armchair, in his overcoat, and bathed in dramatic side lighting. Charles agreed to being photographed by his wife on only a few occasions, most notably when he posed as King Lear and Merlin for her illustrations for Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1872), a collection of poetry he had written over a period of nearly 40 years.
For Cameron, family life formed the cornerstone of her art. Her five sons were all pressed into service before the camera and often helped in practical matters, such as assisting in focusing her compositions. In this 1864 portrait, Hardinge, her third son, is presented in the guise of an artist.
The practice of dressing up and assuming a role was familiar to the Cameron children on account of the elaborate amateur theatricals that took place in their house, Dimbola, and at the Tennysons' neighboring home, Farringford.
Julia Jackson was the child of Cameron’s youngest sister, Mia. Her beauty made her continually sought after as a model by leading artists of the day.
Cameron photographed her treasured namesake niece repeatedly over the years, creating a series of portraits that are among the finest examples of her work.
The Five Wise Virgins (1864) by Julia Margaret CameronThe J. Paul Getty Museum
The wise virgins are huddled together, modestly veiled, solemn, and severe, bearing oil lamps upright and (supposedly) flaming.
The Five Foolish Virgins (1864) by Julia Margaret CameronThe J. Paul Getty Museum
The foolish virgins reveal long tresses of unbound hair, suggesting their moral corruption. Their expressions are remorseful and penitent. These women are arranged within the identifiable architectural space of the studio, complete with skylight and black drape.
A devout Christian, Cameron often took stories from the Bible, as well as works of literature and theater, as inspiration for individual images and then interpreted them loosely to communicate universal underlying themes.
She sought to convey the biblical message that the wise (or righteous) virgins were those who led virtuous lives and were therefore prepared to enter heaven. The foolish virgins were those unrighteous women who were unprepared for the coming of the bridegroom (Christ) and consequently had the gates of heaven closed to them.
This pairing of The Five Wise Virgins and The Five Foolish Virgins was registered for copyright and exhibited at the Dublin International Exhibition of 1865. It was not well received by the critic of the Photographic Journal, who remarked, “It is difficult to distinguish which are the ‘Wise’ and which are the ‘Foolish’ . . . we should be doing an injustice to photography to let them pass as examples of good art or perfect photography.”
Mary Hillier, Cameron’s household maid, is recognizable in both studies; the identities of the other subjects are unknown.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson was one of the artist’s most faithful friends, whom Cameron regarded as a hero and celebrated in 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 Idylls of the King. It is also the very first picture in the Overstone album. To raise the commercial value of her portraits of Tennyson and to promote her own status as an artist, Cameron often had the poet sign her prints, a task he particularly abhorred.
Prospero (May 1865) by Julia Margaret CameronThe J. Paul Getty Museum
In the same month that she created her commanding portrait of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Cameron photographed the poet Henry Taylor as Prospero, the duke of Milan, in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. Cameron and Taylor met in 1848.
He described the Cameron household as an environment where “conventionalities had no place.”
Wm. Holman Hunt (1864) by Julia Margaret CameronThe J. Paul Getty Museum
Julia Margaret Cameron was described by many of her friends and contemporaries as a lionizer, always searching for important artists and writers to place before her camera. By the spring of 1864 she was sufficiently intrepid to begin transporting her camera equipment from the Isle of Wight to London.
On one such trip she photographed William Holman Hunt, a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and one of the leading painters of the day. Cameron presented him as the painter of the Holy Land, in an informal studio setting with a dark curtain serving as a backdrop.
J.F.W. Herschel (April 1867) by Julia Margaret CameronThe J. Paul Getty Museum
Sir John Frederick William Herschel was a longtime friend of Julia Margaret Cameron and one of the most accomplished scientists of his generation. He contributed enormously to the early processes of photography by discovering the power of sodium hyposulfate as a fixing agent and inventing the cyanotype process.
Cameron first met Herschel in 1835 in South Africa, where she was recovering from an illness and he was conducting astronomical investigations. They began a close friendship that lasted until his death in 1871.
She photographed Herschel in April 1867 with the intention of capturing “faithfully the greatness of the inner as well as the features of the outer man.”
Cameron was acutely aware of the commercial viability of her portraits of Herschel. She promptly registered them for copyright, and in June 1867 put them on display at Colnaghi’s, a commercial art gallery and print publisher in London. She was awarded an honorable mention when she sent this same work to the Universal Exhibition in Paris.
Parting of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere (1874)The J. Paul Getty Museum
Toward the end of August 1874, Tennyson suggested to Cameron that she make photographs to illustrate his Idylls of the King.
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 not deterrents; 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.
By the early 1870s Cameron and her husband had fallen on hard times. Deciding that they would be better off living with their sons in Ceylon near the family coffee plantations, they set sail in October 1875. Their destination was the fishing village of Kalutara, on the southwest coast of the island.
Only a few of Cameron’s Ceylon photographs have survived; there are less than 30 examples in existence. As on the Isle of Wight, Cameron often turned to those working in her home to pose for her. These photographs are mostly portraits of maidservants and plantation workers. In this image, Cameron’s approach differs from her work in England in that she has asked the girl to pose as “herself,” rather than as a literary or biblical character.
Although Cameron had a benevolent attitude toward the Ceylonese, she supported the British Empire's “civilizing mission” in Asia, as was typical of her time and social position.
Cameron admired her subjects for their beauty and poise, but they are clearly represented as “other.” In this picture of a Ceylonese girl—who was likely a domestic servant for the Cameron family—the camera is positioned low and close to the sitter.
While intimate in scale, the composition is organized so as to emphasize her “otherness," prominently lighting her bare and hardened feet.
Cameron lived out her days on the island of Ceylon, a setting that was idyllic, but far from her beloved circle of friends, her favorite photographic subjects, and the cultural life of England. She died there on the 26th of January, 1879.
In the span of about 15 years, Julia Margaret Cameron made over 1,200 photographs. With a single-mindedness, she explored the same themes and subjects again and again in search of elusive grand truths. While insisting on the artistic significance of her work, her business savvy also led her to file copyrights on her images and print many of her popular photographs in the smaller carte-de-visite and cabinet card formats. Her art visually conveys familiar stories and broad-reaching themes from literature and the Bible. At the same time, it gives us insight into her privileged, intellectual, and creatively vibrant Victorian world.
© 2022 The J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles
The text for this exhibition was adapted from Julian Cox's Julia Margaret Cameron: In Focus: Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2006.
For more resources:
Julia Margaret Cameron and Violet Hamilton. Annals of My Glass House: Photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997.
Julian Cox and Colin Ford. Julia Margaret Cameron: The Complete Photographs. Joanne Lukitsh and Philippa Wright, contributors. Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2003.
To cite this exhibition, please use: "Julia Margaret Cameron" published online in 2022 via Google Arts & Culture, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.