Scalps of the rich and clever

Julia Margaret Cameron - From Life

May 9, 2003

Tom Rosenthal turns the lens on a colourful Victorian photographer.

"When I have had such men before my camera my whole soul has endeavoured to do its duty towards them in recording faithfully the greatness of the inner as well as the features of the outer man. The photograph thus taken has been almost the embodiment of a prayer," Julia Margaret Cameron muses, in her autobiography, on her great portrait of Thomas Carlyle. Not everyone, however, was as enthralled with her work as she was. John Ruskin who, along with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, had refused to sit for her, had written to her in a letter: "As for photography, you have only taken it up so eagerly because you have not known what Watts ought long ago to have explained to you - that it has nothing in common with art ."

For Cameron, photography had to be an art and she pursued her goal with great pertinacity. She was born in Calcutta in 1815 the week before Waterloo. Her mother was a minor French aristocrat with some Bengali blood; her father was a senior Anglo-Indian employee of the British East India Company. Malicious gossip suggested that his perfectly sound English name of Pattle was a corruption of Patel. One of her sisters might have married Thackeray, who knew them well in India, had he not lost his inheritance when the bank that housed it went bankrupt.

Julia and her sisters were educated in France and she spoke fluent French and Hindi as well as English. She married Charles Hay Cameron, a friend of the Herschels, a distinguished jurist and member of the the Indian Civil Service. He was 20 years her senior, never reached the highest rank, was both invalid and valetudinarian, was an unsuccessful planter in Ceylon and looked like a hirsute but frail Old Testament Prophet.

They had six children and, after the relative wealth of India, settled down in Freshwater, Isle of Wight, near the Tennysons, whom they befriended.

Always broke, they depended on frequent loans from Charles Cameron's well-heeled friends while Julia became an inveterate collector of intellectual scalps and a fanatical student of photography.

Broke they may have been, but their children were expensively educated and they had several servants. Cameron was a great giver of lavish gifts, and photography, with its huge, cumbersome plate cameras, was no cheap hobby.

Friends, children, servants and Freshwater locals were press-ganged by Cameron into posing for hours for her elaborate, often dramatic, often allegorical tableaux. The methods were long-winded, the attendant chemicals fairly smelly and disgusting, so that one can only see Cameron's efforts as heroic. Yet, Ruskin and Rossetti apart, few could resist her requests to sit for a portrait and a list of all her subjects reads like a roll call of Victorian intellectual society.

Prone to breakdowns, she nonetheless was a woman of formidable energy, exhausting in her friendships with the great, inexhaustible in her pursuit of good reviews and plugs for her work, simultaneously extravagant and business-like. During the Irish famine, still in Calcutta, she raised £14,000 for relief (at least £500,000 today). Yet, as Victoria Olsen succinctly puts it: "She worked like a dynamo but ignored her balance sheets." She registered her photographs for copyright, employed Colnaghi's as her London dealer, charged 16 shillings (the equivalent of £50 today) for her prints, manoeuvred Tennyson into requesting her to illustrate an edition of The Idylls of the King. She implored - unsuccessfully - the astronomer Sir John Herschel to write an introduction to an album of her work, nursed Charles when he was - frequently - ill and, all in all, demonstrated the kind of Victorian energy that would make Mrs Beeton look like an amiable domestic dilettante.

From Life: Julia Margaret Cameron and Victorian Photography is a well-written and deeply researched book in which Olsen makes skilful use of the voluminous Cameron correspondence and makes her subject, who is far from being the most appealing of women, come vividly to life. Unlike many American scholars who tackle the English upper classes, she is blessedly free from solecism, apart from one howler, "a head master at Marlborough School" for the master of Marlborough College, from which her English publisher's editor should really have protected her. But Olsen does miss the endemic humour of the Freshwater scene and, for those who believe in the maxim of the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes that the only reality is fiction, one must recommend reading Lynne Truss' novel Tennyson's Gift (1996). This masterly picture of the Camerons, the Tennysons, Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), G. F. Watts and his teenage bride Ellen Terry is unforgettably hilarious and feels alarmingly authentic as it recreates the rich absurdities that permeated the lives and characters of these Victorian demi-gods.

To see the essential richness of Cameron's illustrations, the reader must turn to Colin Ford's volume, which accompanies an exhibition of Cameron's photographs at the National Portrait Gallery. Ford is the doyen of British historians of photography and was for several years the director of the National Museum for Photography, Film and Television at Bradford. His book is the catalogue for the current exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery and his text consists of a long essay preceding the plates. These are superbly reproduced and catch Cameron's most celebrated images in all their primitive, often out-of-focus splendour and go some way to suggesting the deep colour range of blacks, whites and sepias that emerged from the so-called monochrome of the originals.

Ford's essay is concise but authoritative on the biographical, technical and aesthetic aspects of Cameron's oeuvre, and is particularly valuable because of its comparative, well-reproduced contemporary photographs by several of Cameron's coevals, including Reginald Southey, David Wilkie Wynfield, the Swede Oscar Gustave Rejlander, J. J. E. Mayall and others, all of whom far excelled Cameron in technical competence but fell far behind her in aesthetic daring and dramatic composition.

However mawkish some of her more theatrical compositions are, however obviously posed, they glow with life and animation when compared with the frozen attitudes of most of her competitors. She is particularly good with children, who must have been a nightmare to do because of their inability to keep still for the long exposures (several minutes) required in mid-19th-century photography. She almost always manages to capture their natural beauty without any of the questionable eroticism of the sinisterly voyeuristic pictures by Dodgson. Indeed, there is a Cameron portrait of Alice Liddell as a teenager that is far more innocent than Carroll's versions of her as a child. (Olsen tells us of an Oxford party thrown for 300 guests in Cameron's honour by Dean Liddell.) But it is when one looks at Cameron's formal portraits of some of the giants of Victorian England that one observes her true genius. She could, of course, do beauty and glamour as well. Her study of the teenaged Terry is a stunning image of feminine beauty that renders more or less meretricious the flashy vulgarity of such Hollywood dream-makers as Mario Testino or Patrick de Marchellier. Cameron makes you see why poor old Watts made such a fool of himself when he married Terry and why, when the inevitable split took place, he settled, as Olsen indicates, £300 a year on her if she remained "chaste", reducing to £200 should she return, as she inevitably did, to the stage.

For many of us, the standard images of Tennyson, Herschel and Carlyle are those of Cameron's photographs. Her 1867 Carlyle full face, which she titled C arlyle like a Rough Block of Michel Angelo's Sculpture, inadequately focused as it is, is closer to a painting than either a sculpture or a photograph. The planes of his high cheekbones, the contrasting upward sweep of his thatch of grey hair and the downward force of his beard set off the quasi-luminous glow of those half-hidden, hyper-intelligent eyes so that you can almost feel the man's intellectual authority. When you look at the blemished plate of Alfred Tennyson with Book you see at once why the poet laureate called it "The Dirty Monk"; yet for all the authentic grubbiness it is no caricature but a brilliant rendering of a flesh-and-blood poet. Darwin is shown with a profile and emphasis on his great domed simian brow as if Cameron is endorsing his evolutionary theory, and when you look at Herschel you can entirely credit Olsen's account of his highly innovative contributions to the technology of photography, a field in which, had it not been his violon d'Ingres, Herschel could have outshone Fox-Talbot and Cameron herself.

Perhaps the most fascinating of all the photographs is the portrait of Cameron's niece Julia Jackson, who married first Herbert Duckworth and then Sir Leslie Stephen, by whom she had four children including Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, to whom she bears an almost uncanny resemblance. Ford's book is a glorious treasure trove that should be perused with Olsen's end-papers to hand. These contain an invaluable and highly illuminating family tree that graphically illustrates the truth of Noel Annan's seminal 1955 essay on the interlocking great Victorian families, "The intellectual aristocracy". The Olsen and Ford volumes are neatly complementary and together comprise a detailed portrait of this overbearing woman and great photographer.

Tom Rosenthal's most recent book is Sidney Nolan. The exhibition of Cameron's photographs is at the National Portrait Gallery until May 26 and at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, Bradford from June to September 14.

Julia Margaret Cameron: 19th Century Photographer of Genius

Author - Colin Ford
ISBN - 1 85514 506 5 and 332 1
Publisher - National Portrait Gallery
Price - £40.00 and £25.00
Pages - 212

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