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Saturday, 23 October 2010

Julia Margaret Cameron - Victorian Photographer

A few months ago whilst researching Victorian England between 1860 and 1875, a name cropped up that intrigued me, and that name was Julia Margaret Cameron. I noted that she was a pioneering female photographer, and being interested in both Victoriana AND photography, my interest was piqued.
Julia Margaret Cameron
Photography was born in the late 1830’s when, in England, Henry Fox-Talbot, and in France, Louis Daguerre (after whom the daguerreotype is named) took photographs for the first time. Between then and the 1850’s, photography moved on in leaps and bounds as various techniques were discovered, such as the calotype process (read about here ) and the stereoscopic viewer (the fore-runner of 3D imagery) these were perfected and then bettered, until in 1888 the Kodak box camera brought photography to the general public, and the holiday snap was born.

Trawling through Victorian photography is incredibly interesting I think. Every picture is a snapshot into a life or an event, and gives us a glimpse into the past like no other period of history, which is one of the reasons I love the Victorian period so much – its close enough to almost touch because of, in large part, the photography, and yet, its almost a hundred and ten years in the past.

Amongst these photographs that we can see that show us the everyday of the 19th century, are photographs that are closer to being art than just glimpses through the windows of the past, and for me, no photographer’s work demonstrates this like the often-haunting work of Julia Margaret Cameron.

Despite not coming to photography until she was forty-eight years old in 1864, the art was still young enough for Cameron to develop her own distinctive style of mixing photography with fantasy – often relating to Arthurian legend, and also her distinctive close-cropped portraits. As far as careers’ go, Cameron’s photographic career was short, lasting only eleven years, but in that time she produced some stunning work, including portraits of Charles Darwin, J.F.W Herschel and Julia Prinsep Jackson – her niece, and mother to Virginia Woolf.

Using soft focus, she captured beautiful pictures that she clearly held dear, as during her career, Cameron registered each of her photographs with the copyright office and kept detailed records. Her shrewd business sense is one reason that so many of her works survive today. Another reason that many of Cameron's portraits are significant is because they are often the only existing photograph of historical figures. Many paintings and drawings exist, but, at the time, photography was still a new and challenging medium for someone outside a typical portrait studio.

My favourite photograph of Cameron’s is “I Wait” which depicts a little girl as an angel. The little girl in the picture is Rachel Gurney, Cameron’s niece, who went on to become the Countess of Dudley before drowning in Ireland in 1920.
"I Wait"
I find this photo particularly haunting and beautiful at the same time.

Cameron was born in Calcutta, India, as her father worked for the East India Company, and she was educated in France before moving back to India where she married a member of the law commission based in Calcutta – Charles Hay Cameron, who was twenty years older than her, and would become a future portrait subject.

In 1848 he retired and they left India for London where, in 1863, Cameron’s daughter, also named Julia, gave her a camera as a gift, and Cameron threw herself into photography with fierce determination.

1873 her only daughter died, and for the rest of that year there were no Julia Margaret Cameron photographs registered.

In 1875 Julia and Charles moved back to India, where Julia tried to continue with her photography but complained in letters about the difficulties of getting chemicals and pure water to develop and print photographs. Also, in India, she did not have access to Little Holland House's artistic community. She also did not have a market to distribute her photographs as she had in England. Because of this, Cameron took fewer pictures in India. These pictures were of posed Indian natives, paralleling the posed pictures that Cameron had taken of neighbours in England. Almost none of Cameron's work from India survives.

In 1879, aged 63, Julia caught a chill and soon died.

Despite the beauty of her work, it was not until 1948 that her photography became more widely known when Helmut Gernsheim wrote a book on her work.
In 1977 Gernsheim noted that although a great photographer, Cameron had "left no mark" on the history of Photography because her work had never been imitated, but this situation was already changing by then thanks to his popularisation of her work.

If you wish to know more about not only Julia Margaret Cameron, but Victorian photography too, see the book by Victoria Olsen entitled “The Story of Julia Margaret Cameron and Victorian Photography” which you can find on Amazon here

And for those interested in the history of photography, a timeline can be viewed here


  1. Great post! I studied Cameron at Uni. She did well to get recognistion at that time.

    You are right, the photograph of her niece seems to have a haunting feel about it now, the title being quite ironic when you think about it.

  2. Thanks for the comment, studying her at university must have been a pleasure. I also love her photograph of the actress Ellen Terry, which you can find on this site too under a post about the music halls.

    Your blog looks promising, I have followed!

  3. Yes, I only did art history and photography as an elective but wish I had done it full time now just to study the Victorian arts.

    Thanks ever so much for being my first follower!

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