Publication: The Sunday Herald
Julia Margaret Cameron: 19th Century Photographer of Genius
National Portrait Gallery
It’s almost axiomatic that a photograph is as revelatory of the photographer as it is of the subject. Nowhere is this more so than in the work of the Victorian photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron. Her portraits of eminent figures from literature and science, her tableaux draw from literature and mythology and her quasi-ethnological studies of Tamil estate workers in Sri Lanka reveal the social mores, aesthetic sensibility and the spiritual and religious leanings of an upper middle-class lady of the time.
Given the diversity and quantity of Cameron’s output it is difficult to conceive that she took up photography almost by accident at the age of 48 when she was gifted a camera by her daughter and son-in-law. Cameron produced hundreds of images in the intervening sixteen years up to her death in 1879.
Through a mixture of happenstance, artistic insight and sheer force of personality Cameron produced one of the most remarkable bodies of work of her age rivalling the work of the Scottish pioneers of the calotype, D.O. Hill and Robert Adamson, some twenty years earlier. Cameron’s achievement is all the more remarkable given the constraints operating on women at this point in history.
Partly because of the immense good fortune of owning a house on the Isle of Wight which neigboured that of the Poet Laureate, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Cameron had easy social access not only to him but also a wide circle of other figures such as Charles Darwin and Robert Browning. Indeed her portraits of men are for the most part of the great and the good; very few ‘ordinary’ males made it in front of Cameron’s lens, a notable exception being the by now iconic, and strangely contemporary study of Angelo Colarossi (as Iago) taken in 1867. In London, Colarossi - as the leading member of a resident group of Italian model-actors - had also sat for some of the leading painters of the day. Indeed the relationship between many of these images and that of earlier paintings is an important aspect of Cameron’s work, as she was clearly influenced in terms of composition and subject matter by this historically well-established artform.
In contrast to the often staid and stately representations of men, Cameron’s studies involving women and girls are notable by their startlingly different approach. Cameron was clearly in thrall to the Pre-Raphaelite notion of female beauty which held that women - long haired, pretty and handsome - represented a kind of aesthetic nobility. Her studies of, for example, Mary Ann Hillier in various guises including Maud - as illustrations for Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King and Other Poems’ - typify this aesthetic. Hillier’s beauty and youth, long hair, distant dreamy gaze and flowing costumes are indeed the visual equivalent of Tennyson’s literary outlook and the painted images of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Despite what we now may regard as her slightly suspect images of some very young children and the fey nature of some of her female studies, this is undoubtedly a body of work almost without rival.