Fascinating Stories Behind 19 Stunning Portraits Taken by Julia Margaret Cameron in the Late 19th Century

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Julia Margaret Cameron was a British photographer. She became known for her portraits of celebrities of the time, and for photographs with Arthurian and other legendary or heroic themes.

“I longed to arrest all beauty that came before me, and at length the longing has been satisfied.” – Julia Margaret Cameron

Cameron’s photographic career was short, spanning eleven years of her life. She took up photography at the relatively late age of 48, when she was given a camera as a present. Her style was not widely appreciated in her own day: her choice to use a soft focus and to treat photography as an art as well as a science, by manipulating the wet collodion process, caused her works to be viewed as “slovenly”, marred by “mistakes” and bad photography. She found more acceptance among pre-Raphaelite artists than among photographers. Her work has influenced modern photographers, especially her closely cropped portraits. Her house, Dimbola Lodge, on the Isle of Wight is open to the public.

1. Julia Jackson (1864)

Cameron was especially drawn to photographing the leading men of the period but she also had a range of favourite female sitters. This portrait of Julia Jackson, Cameron’s niece and godchild, was taken three years before she married her first husband, Herbert Duckworth, at the age of nineteen. He was sixty-six and died only three years later. She later married Leslie Stephen, a writer and critic, and two of their daughters were the painter Vanessa Bell and the author Virginia Woolf.

Cameron loved to photograph the young Jackson, taking her first portrait in 1864 and the last ten years later. Her well-defined features and distinctive bone structure inspired Cameron who experimented with lighting her face in various ways. This is one of several photographs she made at the same sitting in which she focuses our attention on the attenuated and taut neck of her sitter, leaving most of her features in shadow. Jackson was also the only woman that Cameron did not require to appear in costume at some point: it appears that her enigmatic and strong face alone was sufficient to fascinate the photographer.

Cameron was especially inspired by portraiture and created some of the period’s most poetic and physiologically intense portraits. As she wrote some two years after she took this portrait:

“I have been just engaged in doing … a series of Life sized heads – They are not only From the Life but to the Life and startle the eye with wonder & delight. I hope they will astound the Public & reveal more of the mystery of this heaven & our art – They lose nothing in beauty & gain much in power.” (Julia Margaret Cameron, 1866 in Isobel Crombie, Re-View: 170 years of photography, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2009, p.34).

2. Ellen Terry at Age Sixteen (negative 1864; print about 1875)

Julia Margaret Cameron probably made this contemplative portrait of Ellen Terry as a new bride during the Shakespearean actress’s honeymoon stay at Freshwater on the Isle of Wight, where Cameron lived. Terry had married the portrait painter George Frederick Watts, who was thirty years her senior; the marriage, orchestrated by Cameron and her sisters, was a brief and unhappy union.

Terry’s forlorn expression and nervous gesture may be an actress’s performance put on for the camera. Her demeanor, indicated by the title Sadness, which Cameron gave to another print of this image, may also indicate Terry’s realization that her marriage was a mistake. Employing a non-fading print process used for commercially distributed pictures, Cameron’s printer made multiple carbon prints available for purchase by Terry’s and Cameron’s fans.

3. I Wait (Rachel Gurney) (1872)

Laura (Gurney) Troubridge Young Rachel Gurney’s forlorn expression does not quite fit her role as an angel, but in a humorous way, her performance supports this photograph’s staged look. She is perched on a box that is covered loosely in drapery and positioned stiffly on a table, with fake wings attached to her. Resting her chin on her crossed arms, she appears resigned to her fate of posing for the camera. Julia Margaret Cameron made a suite of photographs based on putti from Renaissance and post-Renaissance paintings. As children, Rachel and her sister Laura were often recruited to play the cherubs. Years later, they remembered the patience it took to pose for their great aunt.

4. A Holy Family (1872)

Cameron would have been interested in that notion of the holy family as working class, humble, peasant people. She used her maid Mary Hillier as Mary Madonna, and two local children as John the Baptist and Jesus.

“I think she was interested in that contradiction between the high and the low–between the clean and the dirty, the mortal and the divine, the ordinary and the extraordinary.” – Victoria Olsen, From Life: Julia Margaret Cameron and Victorian Photography

Soft-focus and dramatic lighting imbue this photograph with a painterly quality reminiscent of works by Renaissance artists. At least that may have been Julia Margaret Cameron’s intention as part of her strategy to elevate photography to the status of high-art. By contrast, Cameron’s subjects–the Madonna with infants Jesus and John the Baptist–appear humble in their simple clothing and quiet demeanor. Cameron’s interest in the working-class origins of the Holy Family stemmed from contemporary biblical scholarship and art that focused on the historical context of Christ’s life, frequently portraying him as a carpenter’s son.

5. Girl, Ceylon (1875 – 1879)

Dramatic lighting emphasizes this Ceylonese girl’s physical features. Her shiny pearl necklace and white shirt stand out against her dark skin and bare feet. The child’s legs are tucked close to her body, and her arms are folded protectively around her waist. Julia Margaret Cameron’s tight framing confines the subject within a small space, making her slight unease more noticeable . But the full-figure composition also suggests a distance between photographer and subject that is both physical and cultural.

Cameron made this photograph near the end of her life, when she lived in what is now Sri Lanka. This Tamil child may have been the daughter of a worker on her family’s estate. 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. This picture appears to blend an ethnographic point of view with Cameron’s more intimate approach to portraiture of family and friends.

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