Cameron, Julia Margaret (1815–1879)

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Cameron, Julia Margaret (1815–1879)

British Victorian portrait photographer who was one of the most prominent figures in the history of photography. Born Julia Margaret Pattle in Calcutta, India, on June 11, 1815; died in Kalutara, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), on January 26, 1879; one of ten children, and third of six daughters, of James Pattle (an official of the East India Company) and Adeline (de l'Etang) Pattle; great-aunt of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell ; educated in France and England; married Charles Hay

Cameron (an official in the British Civil Service), in 1838; children: five sons and one daughter.

Julia Margaret Cameron, one of the most prominent figures in the history of photography, was one of ten children of James and Adeline Pattle , an official of the East India Company. Although considered quite plain when compared to her five beautiful sisters, she was to be known for her abundance of wit and her extraordinary gift for capturing the beauty in others. Her career in photography, however, was something of an afterthought. In 1838, she married Charles Hay Cameron, a widower twenty years her senior, and ten years later moved with him to England, living first in London, then Putney, and finally settling on the Isle of Wight in a house next door to Alfred and Emily Tennyson . In addition to raising six children, Cameron was active in philanthropic and artistic activities. As a member of the Society for Promoting Knowledge of Art, she used her home, "Dimbola," to entertain some of the most prominent scientists, artists, and literary figures of Victorian England.

Cameron did not take up photography until the age of 49, after receiving a camera and photographic equipment from her married daughter. She transformed a chicken coop into a studio and a coal bin into a darkroom and, by 1864, had produced her first portrait of a young girl, which she inscribed "Annie, my first success." In a biographical fragment, "Annals of My Glass House" (published in The Photographic Journal, 1927), Cameron elaborated on this early effort: "From the first moment," she wrote, "I handled my lens with a tender ardour. … I longed to arrest all beauty that came before me." She first displayed her work in 1864, at the 10th Exhibition of the Photographic Society in London. Many shows followed in London as well as in Edinburgh, Dublin, Berlin, Paris, and Vienna.

Cameron focused her camera on the luminaries of her social circle, including Sir John Herschel, Sir Henry Taylor, Charles Darwin, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Robert Browning, and Ellen Terry . Most sat for her more than once, enduring long hours and uncomfortable postures. Tennyson, who posed up to 50 times, once remarked to Longfellow who was embarking on his first sitting, "You'll have to do whatever she tells you. I'll come back soon and see what is left of you." Cameron's soft-focused portraits, usually large, mostly heads or half-lengths (never full-lengths), are considered some of the finest contributions to early photography in England. Some critics compared her portraits to the paintings of Velasquez and Rembrandt, and one critic called her a "Whistler in photography."

Cameron was less successful with her allegorical, religious, and genre pictures, which were criticized harshly by professional photographers as being beyond the limits of the medium. She often posed her grandchildren with swans' wings and crowns of flowers, or draped parlor maids as Madonnas. She once pulled an unsuspecting tourist into service as Guinevere and on another occasion induced her husband to pose as Merlin in a hollow tree. Many works were influenced by the artists of the time, mostly Pre-Raphaelites such as Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, G.F. Watts, and Holman Hunt. Her photographs, in turn, influenced the work of these painters. It is believed that Cameron used two different, poorly defining landscape lenses, constructed for her by Sir John Herschel, to create her characteristic out-of-focus pictures. She may have also placed a piece of glass between the paper and the negative to achieve the soft, fuzzy effect she sought and for which she was often criticized by those who did not comprehend her intent.

Cameron illustrated Tennyson's Idylls of the King, which was published in different formats in 1874 and 1875. Decades after her death, America was introduced to her work through the periodical Camera Work, which published some photographs in a 1913 publication. Two years later, in 1915, her works were exhibited at the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York.

In 1875, after the death of her only daughter, Cameron and her husband embarked for Ceylon (later Sri Lanka), where four of their sons were employed. Years later, in 1919, Cameron's great-niece Virginia Woolf , who held her great-aunt in high regard but also considered her somewhat of an eccentric, envisioned a burlesque with Cameron as the leading character. An entry in Woolf's diary contains notes on how her aunt's departure for Ceylon might appear in the little drama. "… & the last sight of Aunt Julia is on board ship, presenting porters with large photographs of Sir Henry Taylor and the Madonna in default of small change." In Ceylon, Cameron continued to photograph, mostly the native inhabitants. She died there in 1879, supposedly uttering the word "Beautiful!" with her last breath.


Lukitsh, Joanne. Cameron: Her Work and Career. Rochester, NY: International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, 1986.

Newhall, Beaumont and Nancy, eds. Masters of Photography. NY: Castle Books, 1958.

Williams, Val. The Other Observers. London, England: Virago Press, 1986.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Cameron, Julia Margaret (1815–1879)

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