Mrs Cameron is forever making extravagant gestures in the cause of Art and Friendship, both with capital letters. She is a bohemian ..., with sisters of exceptional beauty married to rich husbands. She hails from Calcutta, and burns incense. [Truss 7]
One of the reasons why her portraits are so lively is undoubtedly the simple fact that her sitters were with her. You could not be in Mrs Cameron's company and not react to it in some manner or another, even if your reaction — as so many of her sitters' reactions seem to have been — was absolute incredulity. [Wilson 222]
orn in 1815, Julia Margaret Cameron (neé Pattle) was the fourth of ten children of an East India Company official and his French wife in Calcutta. None of the sons of the family survived into adulthood, but the seven girls seem to have made enough of a houseful. They were educated in England and France: their grandfather had once been a member of Marie-Antoinette's court, and they each spent part of their childhood with their maternal grandmother in Versailles. Perhaps they inherited their bold, lively, unconventional streak from that side of the family. Lord Dalhousie is said to have divided society into "men, women and Pattles," and Thackeray is credited with having been the first to call the girls collectively a "Pattledom" (see Wilson 211, and Ford 13).
This "Pattledom" was soon in the forefront of Calcutta's Anglo-Indian society. Julia's sister Sara married Thoby Prinsep, brother of James Prinsep, the oriental scholar after whom Prinsep Ghat was named. She became the mother of the artist Val Prinsep. As for Julia, in 1835, when recovering from illness in the kinder climate of the Cape, she met another Englishman working in India, Charles Hay Cameron (1795–1880), who had also come away to recuperate. Both recovered their health. They got married in Calcutta in 1838. Charles went on to become President of the Calcutta Council of Education, and a member of the Indian Supreme Council. As his wife, Julia became an important society hostess: "during the 1840s she was effectively the first lady of Anglo-Indian society, acting as organizer and hostess of the social engagements of the governor-general, Lord Henry Hardinge" (Barlow).
Title page of Leonora designed by Daniel Maclise. 1847. Click on image to enlarge it.
She was not at all the typical memsahib, though. In 1847 she published Leonora, her own translation of Gottfried Augustus Bürger's Lenore, pointing out that Sir Walter Scott's version was not faithful enough to the original: "Scott's translation is incomplete ... its effect, whatever else it may be, is not that of the German poem" (vi). She went on to say, in words that have a particular resonance for her future career as a photographer, that "the present Translator, not aspiring to create, has studied only to catch the likeness of a beautiful picture, and to copy faithfully each feature and expression of the original" (vii).
Julia was still young when her husband, who was a good deal older than she was, took early retirement. The family duly returned to England in 1848, living first in Kent, then London, then following Tennyson to his Isle of Wight retreat, settling in property next to his at Farringford. It was only after that, when all but one of her six children had left home, and her husband Charles was away from time to time keeping an eye on his coffee and rubber plantations in Ceylon, that she finally took up photography. This was at the very end of 1863, when she was 48: hoping it might fill the void, her only daughter and her son-in-law gave her a sliding box camera for Christmas. It was the perfect gift. Julia continued to devote herself to her new hobby until leaving England for the East again in 1875. In the previous year, Tennyson's Idylls of the King had appeared with her illustrations, and she had also published her own poem, "On a Portrait," in Macmillan's Magazine in February 1876. The poem opens, prophetically enough, with: "Oh, mystery of Beauty! who can tell / Thy mighty influence?" She did take some more pictures in Ceylon, but in this new and very different milieu her career as a photographer tailed off (see Ford 36). She died there in 1879, the year before her husband.
Sadness (Ellen Terry)
Part of Julia Margaret Cameron's importance lies in the famous subjects who sat for her. While convalescing in South Africa as a young woman, she had also met the astronomer John Herschel, who pioneered the chemistry of photography, and first introduced her to at least the "absolute basics of it" (Hannavy 70). A close and lifelong friend, Herschel became both her mentor and one of those famous sitters. Her best-known sets of work can be found in what is called the Herschel Album, which she dedicated to him. Her many social connections provided her with numerous other important sitters, from Ellen Terry and G. F. Watts to Tennyson. However, she also used family members and local children for her subjects, and one of her most frequently photographed sitters was Mary Ryan, a young girl whose mother had come to the house begging, and whom she had taken in as a member of her own household. Her adventurous (not to say eccentric) nature enabled her to become a pioneer in several ways — in taking close-ups, for example, and in usefully promoting her own work not only by presenting it to her friends, but also by exhibiting it at the Royal Photographic Society, to which she was elected in 1864, as well as in Europe and as far away as Sydney.
"Once seen," says Pam Roberts, "her photographs and unique style are never forgotten" (48). Despite her struggles with the technical side of early photography, and early criticisms of her technical limitations, she has, in fact, become one of the best known names in the history of photography. "She had the real artist's gift of piercing through the outward appearance to the soul of the individual," explains Helmut Gernsheim (58). It is a mark of her distinction that A. N. Wilson selected her as one of the Eminent Victorians in his new version of Lytton Strachey's work of the same title.
Barlow, Helen. "Cameron [née Pattle], Julia Margaret (1815–1879), photographer." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. 1 March 2015.
Cameron, Julia M. Preface. Leonora, by Gottfried Augustus Bürger, trans. Cameron, illus. Daniel Maclise. London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1847. v-viii. Internet Archive. Contributed by the University of Oxford. Web. 1 March 2015.
_____. "On a Portrait." Macmillan's Magazine, Vol. XXXIII, Nov. 1875-April 1976: 372. Internet Archive. Contributed by Robarts Library, Univeristy of Toronto. Web. 1 March 2015.
Ford, Colin. "Geniuses, Poets, and Painters: The World of Julia Margaret Cameron." In Julia Margaret Cameron: the Complete Photographs. By Julian Cox and Colin Ford, with contributions by Joanne Lukitsh and Philippa Wright. Los Angeles: Getty Publications / Christopher Hudson, 2003. 11-39.
Gernsheim, Helmut. A Concise History of Photography. 3rd revised ed. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1986.
Hannavy, John. Masters of Victorian Photography. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1976.
Roberts, Pam. "Julia Margaret Cameron: A Triumph over Criticism." In The Portrait in Photography. Ed. Graham Clarke. London: Reaktion Books, 1992. 47-70.
Truss, Lynne. Tennyson's Gift. London: Profile Books, 2004 (neo-Victorian novel).
Wilson, A. N. "Julia Margaret Cameron." In Eminent Victorians. London: BBC Books, 1989. 203-36.
Last modified 1 March 2015