Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Julia Margaret Cameron: a Poetry of Photography


Art Eyewitness Book Review: 

Julia Margaret Cameron: a Poetry of Photography
Bodleian Library Publishing/University of Chicago Press
279 pages/$75.00

Reviewed by Ed Voves

As Christmas presents go, the large box camera given to Julia Margaret Cameron in December 1863 was a gift to cherish - by Mrs. Cameron and by art lovers ever since.

A camera in 1863 was a most unusual choice for a Christmas gift. More of a "contraption" than a life-enhancing device, cameras were bulky and difficult to use. Taking photos required 12 x 10 glass plate negatives and potentially hazardous chemical solutions, the "wet collodion process", to develop pictures.

"It may amuse you, Mother, to try to photograph during your solitude at Freshwater." 

The holiday greeting from her daughter and son-in-law, who had selected the gift, seems more concerned with the "empty-nest" syndrome facing Mrs. Cameron than any idea that she might make her mark as a photographer. A devoted mother of six grown or adolescent children, Mrs. Cameron now had plenty of time to devote to a new pastime.

Julia Margaret Cameron,
A Story of the Heavens (Freddy Gould & Elizabeth Keown)1866 

Julia Margaret Cameron did not regard the box camera with alarm or as passing fancy. Cameron was an intelligent, cultured woman. Her sensitive features had been captured in an 1850 portrait by the noted painter, G.F. Watts, who was to play a prominent role in her photographic career.

George Frederic Watts, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1850-52 
We will never know if Cameron's daughter and son-in-law suspected the extent of her artistic abilities. Prior to December 1863, the 48-year old "gentlewoman" had experimented printing from the negatives of photographer-friend, Oscar Gustave Rejlander. But, upon opening her Christmas present, Cameron's life was truly transformed. 

"From the first moment," Cameron wrote, "I handled my lens with a tender ardour and it has become to me as a living thing, with a voice and memory and creative vigour.".

The life and photographic career of Julia Margaret Cameron are the subject of a magnificent, large-format volume published by the Bodleian Library of Oxford University and distributed in the U.S. by the University of Chicago Press. Julia Margaret Cameron: a Poetry of Photography is a book to treasure, the next best thing to enjoying an exhibition of Cameron's photos.

At this point, it should be noted that the Bodleian volume is not a complete record of Cameron's oeuvre. Gaps in the story of Cameron's embrace of photography result from the content of what is known as the Taylor Album.

In 1930, the Bodleian Library received a collection of 112 original Cameron photographs bound in a scrapbook-like volume. This impressive assemblage of photos was donated by the daughter of Sir Henry Taylor. A close friend of Cameron's husband, Taylor was a confidente and supporter of her as well. Taylor's "serious, unyielding" expression, complemented by a flowing-beard, made him an ideal model (as we will discuss) for Cameron's  photography. 

Julia Margaret Cameron, Henry Taylor, 1864 

The bequest of the Taylor Album to the Bodleian Library made many of Cameron's greatest works available to scholars. However, the album contained no examples of her sensitive, late-life photos of the people of Ceylon, modern-day Sri Lanka. Cameron took these photos during the late 1870's, when she accompanied her husband back to Ceylon, where he owned coffee plantations. She died and was buried in Ceylon in 1879.

This caveat aside, Julia Margaret Cameron: a Poetry of Photography is a compelling testament to Cameron's "creative vigour." The insightful text by Nichole J. Fazio cogently discusses Cameron's efforts to "ennoble photography." A lover of Renaissance painting, Cameron grasped the potential of photography to achieve the status of high art. 

"I longed to arrest all the beauty that came before me," Cameron wrote, "and at length that longing has been satisfied."

"At length" was, in actuality, an astonishingly short interval between Cameron's initial attempts to take a photo and her breakthrough "first success."

After a mere three weeks of experimentation, Cameron created a portrait of a young girl, Annie Philpot, which was to prove a major contribution to the development of photography.

The picture of Annie Philpot differed from the sharp, stiff exactitude of mid-Victorian photography. The background of Annie was out-of-focus. Deep pools of shadow shrouded the girl's eyes. It was more a portrait of a passing moment in a child's life than a meticulous record of her features.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Annie (Annie Philpot), 1864 

In her autobiographical essay, Annals of My Glass House, Cameron recalled the magic moment when she glimpsed the image on the 12 x 10 inch glass negative.

"I was in a transport of delight. I ran all over the house to search for gifts for the child. I felt as if she entirely had made the picture. I printed, toned, fixed and framed it, and presented it to her father that same day." 

Another print of Annie was inscribed, "My first success with photography."

Julia Margaret Cameron, G.F. Watts, 1864
Cameron was fortunate in having the painter Watts as an appreciative friend and mentor. Watts brought a "fresh pair of eyes" and an open mind to the appraisal of Cameron's photos. Watts wrote to Cameron:

Please do not send me valuable mounted copies ... send me any .. defective unmounted impressions, I shall be able to judge just as well & shall be just as much charmed with success...

Watts also posed for Cameron for several early attempts to invest photography with symbolic content, notably Whisper of the Muse, 1865. Cameron made two versions of the photo; the first (below), stressed the ineffable moment of inspiration. The second was a more distinct portrait of Watts, though the configuration of the photo was essentially the same.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Whisper of the Muse, 1865

Many of the experts of the professional photographic "fraternity" were not so obliging as Watts. Cameron was harshly criticized for her "imprecise" focus and "sloppy" technique. 

In fact, smudges and an occasional finger print did find their way onto some of Cameron's negatives. But Cameron was driven to radical experimentation. She sought to summon the spirit, the very souls, of the people being photographed onto the images she created.

In approaching photography from a spiritual perspective, Cameron drew on the ideals of the "sublime" which lay at the heart of Romanticism. Nicole Fazio writes:

The invisible presence of the sublime may be what leaves such an impression upon viewers of Cameron's work. She capitalizes on the capacity of her medium to make visible the real as it exists before her lens, but at the same time infuses her most successful images with a sense of that which exists just below the surface.

Cameron's astonishing facility to use the camera lens to capture what "exists just below the surface" is manifest in her portraits of individual people and of models posing to illustrate religious and poetic-themed topics. A contrasting look at two similarly posed photos, dating to the same time, 1866-67, is very revealing.

Julia Margaret Cameron,
 Mrs. Herbert Duckworth/Julia Jackson, 1867 

The first is a portrait of Julia Jackson, Cameron's niece and god-daughter. It is a haunting image of a young person facing her future, the "great unknown" of life.

Julia Jackson married Herbert Duckworth in 1867. After his tragic, early death in 1870 - and a long period of Victorian mourning - she married Leslie Stephen in 1878. Their daughter, Virginia, born in 1882 would bear a striking resemblance to her mother. In Cameron's photo of Julia, we can see a glimpse of the face and the intellect of Virginia Woolf.

Julia Margaret Cameron,
 Portrait of Christabel (May Prinsep)1866 

Cameron's model for Christabel was another favorite sitter, May Prinsep. Here Prinsep posed as the protagonist of the unfinished narrative poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The "lovely lady" Christabel falls under the malign spell of a sorceress, an enchantment brilliantly evoked by the "soft" focus of Cameron's photo.

Interestingly, May Prinsep also posed for Cameron as the youthful St. John, the "apostle whom Jesus loved" in an even more "imprecise" picture (with a finger print at the top edge of the photo)!

Julia Margaret Cameron, Head of St. John (May Prinsep), 1866 

Both of the photos of Prinsep - and of the portrait of Julia Jackson - reveal how the manipulation of a camera lens can leave much to  the viewer to consider and decide. Cameron orchestrated the composition of these remarkable photos but left the last adjustment of the lens, the final focus, for us to make ... in our mind's eye.

If Watts acted as a valued mentor, Sir Henry Taylor (1800-1886) came close to the role of collaborator in Cameron's efforts to "ennoble" photography.  As well as being an important official in the British Colonial Office, Taylor was a serious poet and playwright. His early life had been shattered by family tragedy, thus making him sensitive to the lives of others. Cameron regarded him with emotions close to hero worship.

Taylor's venerable face proved a perfect "canvas" for Cameron's character-probing portraits. But Cameron was interested in far more than representative facial features. With Taylor and other "high minded" individuals, she declared her aim to record "the inner as well as the features of the outer man."

To visualize the inner/outer nature of humanity, Cameron planned to use photography to illustrate incidents and episodes showing noble thoughts and sentiments translated into practice. Cameron aimed to depict scenes from the Holy Bible and English literature, thus "combining the real and the ideal and sacrificing nothing of the Truth..."

Julia Margaret Cameron,
 Prospero and Miranda (Henry Taylor and Mary Ryan), 1865 

Taylor posed as a pensive King David, Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest and Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet. Two servants from the Cameron household were cast as Taylor's co-stars, Mary Ryan as Miranda and Mary Ann Hillier as Juliet.

With only a year of experience in photography, Cameron was taking an audacious step forward and she might-well have stumbled. But she did not. 

Instead of trying to rival large scale allegories like Rejlander's vast photo montage, The Two Ways of Life, Cameron made a virtue of simplicity. Two figures, expertly juxtaposed with faces and (in the case of Miranda) figures emerging from the the shadows create an indelible image. 

If Cameron's Biblical and Shakespearean scenes seem "dated" today, they do so in a manner similar to "dated" movie still photos of the early decades of the twentieth century. This implies that the "look" of Cameron's photos was decades ahead of their time and have a cinematic quality to them - true on both counts!

Following the success of these 1865 images, Cameron posed models from her circle of family, friends and servants to illustrate characters and episodes in Alfred Lord Tennyson's poems. Some of the Arthurian group photos were problematical. In a bit of a gaffe, Cameron used British Army dragoon helmets for the headgear of Arthur and Lancelot.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Call, I Follow, I Follow, Let Me Die, 1867 

For the most part, however, Cameron's photos illustrating The Idylls of the King and other Tennyson poems are as vivid today as they were in the 1860's and 70's. Whether it is the searching look of "May Queen" Emily Peacock which introduces this review or the dramatic profile of Mary Ann Hillier as the Arthurian heroine, Elaine, these are images which grip the heart and mind - and don't let go.

Over the course of a little over a decade, Cameron took more than 800 photos - a sensational achievement. But in 1875, the year Emily Peacock posed for ‘For I’m to be Queen o’ the May...', Cameron's photographic career came to an effective end.

The Cameron family fortune was based, as we have seen, on coffee plantations in Ceylon. The task of managing these distant plantations was never easy, requiring occasional trips by Cameron's husband. The 1870's were a decade of world-wide economic woe and the Camerons fell deeply in debt. Although Charles Cameron was 80 years of age and in poor health, he determined to return to Ceylon in 1875. Julia, aged 60, faithfully, if reluctantly, accompanied him.

Henry Herschel Hay Cameron, Julia Margaret Cameron, c. 1873
This image does not appear in Julia Margaret Cameron: A Poetry of Photography

Julia Margaret Cameron knew that she was unlikely ever to return to England. When she departed for Ceylon, she took her faithful box camera with her - and a coffin.

The Idylls of the Queen of British photography were over. But the legacy of Julia Margaret Cameron remains, in the way we look at the world and attempt to "arrest" its beauty with the lens of a camera. 


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved   

Cover art, courtesy of Bodleian Library Publishing/University of Chicago Press                                                                     

Introductory Image:

Julia Margaret Cameron (British, 1815-1879 ‘For I’m to be Queen o’ the May, Mother, I’m to be Queen o’ the May, (Emily Peacock) 1875. Albumen print: 35 x 27.5 cm. From Illustrations to Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and Other Poems, vol. 2, 1875. Oxford, Bodleian Library, Arch. K b.18. no 2

Julia Margaret Cameron (British, 1815-1879) A Story of the Heavens (Freddy Gould and Elizabeth Keown), 1866. Albumen print: 25.4 x 19.7 cm. Oxford, Bodleian Library, Arch. K b.12. fol. 71r

George Frederic Watts (British, 1817-1904) Julia Margaret Cameron, 1850-52. Oil on canvas: 24 x 20 in. (610 x 508 mm.) National Portrait Gallery, London. NPO 505046

Julia Margaret Cameron (British, 1815-1879) Henry Taylor, 1864. Albumen print: 25.4 x 19.6 cm. Oxford, Bodleian Library, Arch. K b.12. fol. 6r

Julia Margaret Cameron (British, 1815-1879) Annie (Annie Philpot), 1864 (Inscription: ‘My first success’). Albumen print: 19.1 x 13.5 cm. Oxford, Bodleian Library, Arch. K b.12. fol. 20v

Julia Margaret Cameron (British, 1815-1879)  G.F. Watts, 1864. Albumen print: 25.4 x 19.7 cm. Oxford, Bodleian Library, Arch. K b.12. fol. 71r

Julia Margaret Cameron (British, 1815-1879) Whisper of the Muse (George Frederic Watts), 1865. Albumen print: 26.7 x 21.2 cm. Oxford, Bodleian Library, Arch. K b.12. fol. 70r

Julia Margaret Cameron (British, 1815-1879)  Mrs. Herbert Duckworth /Julia Jackson, 1867. Albumen print: 25.2 x 19 cm. Oxford, Bodleian Library, Arch. K b.12. fol. 23v

Julia Margaret Cameron (British, 1815-1879) Portrait of Christabel (May Prinsep), 1866. Albumen print: 25.4 x 20.2 cm. Oxford,  Ashmolean Museum WAHP48555

Julia Margaret Cameron (British, 1815-1879) Head of Saint John (May Prinsep), 1866. Albumen print: 32.7 x 27 cm. Oxford, Ashmolean Museum WA2009.184

Julia Margaret Cameron (British, 1815-1879) Prospero and Miranda (Henry Taylor and Mary Ryan), 1865. Albumen print: 31.6 x 26.6 cm. Oxford, Bodleian Library, Arch. K b.12. fol. 13r

Julia Margaret Cameron (British, 1815-1879) Call, I Follow, I Follow, Let Me Die (Mary Ann Hillier), 1867. Carbon print: 35.1 x 26.7 cm. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Henry Herschel Hay Cameron (British 1852-1911) Julia Margaret Cameron, c. 1873. Albumen Print. 244 x 203 mm.  National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG P696.

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