VICTORIAN HISTORY MEME: works of art [6/10]
Julia Margaret Cameron — ‘My Niece, Julia’ (April 1867)
Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron was given her first camera by her daughter in 1863, Cameron, who took hundreds of portraits of well-known figures — including her neighbor on the Isle of Wight, Alfred Tennyson (whose Idylls of the King she would photographically illustrate) — as well as numerous mythical/Biblical scenes featuring her family and staff as models.
This portrait, of ‘My Niece, Julia’, is one of several similar images of Julia Jackson, later to become Julia Duckworth and then Stephen upon her marriage to critic and philosopher Leslie Stephen, parents of Virginia Woolf. Julia Jackson (as she was in early 1867) herself was a renowned Victorian beauty, Cameron’s niece and one of the famously beautiful Pattle side of the family; Jackson sat for many of Cameron’s images (as did her sisters), as well as for Pre-Raphaelite artists William Holman Hunt, Edward Burne-Jones, and Cameron’s own artistic mentor (and sometime sitter) George Frederic Watts.
Cameron’s portraits can read like a Who’s Who of mid-Victorian life: Tennyson, Robert Browning, Charles Darwin, Jamaican governor (leading to the infamous Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865) Edward Eyre, Anthony Trollope, Thomas Carlyle, astronomer and mathematician/chemist Sir John Frederick William Herschel, and American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the young up-and-coming actress Ellen Terry (later to be the subject of Sargent’s famous Lady Macbeth painting) and numerous others.
Several points make Cameron’s series of photographs of her female relatives and models particularly interesting. First, while many studio photographers sought to make straightforward presentable images of their sitters, Cameron notoriously positioned and directed her models — including the celebrities, sometimes for hours — to create exactly the evocative image she wanted, often achieving a more artistic photograph in a time when the medium was very much still considered a scientific factual representation of a face. Second, Cameron’s images of women — as with the above portrait of Julia Jackson — often show them looking directly at the camera, engaging Cameron’s gaze through the lens rather than always shying away from it. (This is less true in the Arthurian and Biblical scenes, in which costumed women and children enact scenes without much appeal to the viewer.) Additionally, many of the women have their hair down and loose, in combination with (especially here) dramatic lighting, producing the overall hazy, even ethereal quality of many of Cameron’s images, her deliberate imprecision due to her desire to create organic images by a combination of skill and luck, rather than technical exactitude.
Much of Cameron’s work was forgotten after she died in 1879 in Ceylon, but her great-niece Virginia Woolf contributed a tongue-in-cheek essay and compilation of Cameron’s photographs in 1926, as well as a satirical cabinet play, Freshwater (after the photographer’s home) in the early 1920s. In both, Woolf stresses the domineering power of Cameron’s serious, religious personality:
Sir Henry and Lady Taylor suffered the extreme fury of her affection. Indian shawls, turquoise bracelets, inlaid portfolios, ivory elephants, “etc.,” showered on their heads. […] It was impossible, they found, not to love that “genial, ardent, and generous" woman, who had "a power of loving which I have never seen exceeded, and an equal determination to be loved.” If it was impossible to reject her affection, it was even dangerous to reject her shawls. Either she would burn them, she threatened, then and there, or, if the gift were returned, she would sell it, buy with the proceeds a very expensive invalid sofa, and present it to the Putney Hospital for Incurables with an inscription which said, much to the surprise of Lady Taylor, when she chanced upon it, that it was the gift of Lady Taylor herself. It was better, on the whole, to bow the shoulder and submit to the shawl. [x, pp. 71-2]
[image source 1, 2; Cameron’s photos at the: National Portrait Gallery; V&A; Met Museum. MORE: DNB; Julia Margaret Cameron Museum at Dimbola; Cameron’s Women.]