Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879)

Julia Margaret Cameron, the photographer, finds a place on these pages because she was the 'Pre-Raphaelite photographer', and produced illustrative work using photography of poems by Tennyson and others, in the same way that many artists painted and illustrated them.

She was born in Calcutta, educated in Paris, and back in India, married Charles Hay Cameron, a wealthy tea estate owner. He was 20 years older than her, and retired in 1838. They went to live in London, becoming part of the artistic community centred around Little Holland House in Kensington. Tennyson became a friend of the Camerons, and they visited him at his home in the Isle of Wight (at Farringford, Freshwater) in the 1850s. In 1860, the Camerons bought two adjacent houses at Freshwater Bay on the island, and converted them into one large residence by adding a central, squat Gothic tower. Julia Cameron took up photography while living there, in 1863. She was then 48 years old. Her Pre-Raphaelite subjects included Arthurian illustrations for Idylls of the King (1874), and of other poems by Tennyson, Browning, Kingsley, and Shakespeare. She also made figure studies of Pre-Raphaelite types - girls in flowing dresses with long hair, looking melancholy, and very much one of her aims in photography was to show moods of sadness or introspection. As well, she produced some of the best photographic portraits of famous people of her day - Tennyson of course (many times), Browning , Richard Burton, Herschel the astronomer (a friend who helped teach her photographic processes), Darwin, Carlyle, and Ellen Terry (in 1864, the year she married G. F. Watts, who had a large influence on Cameron's work). She also did ideal portraits of children, and well known, though looking overly contrived today, cherubs and angels with goose wings. Her illustrative work for Idylls of the King also seems posed to the modern eye - but it remains important in attempting to do in photography what many artists did in paint.

Julia Margaret Cameron's career as a photographer was not that long - only a dozen years or so, because in 1875 she returned with her husband to Ceylon, and the family tea plantation. She seems to have given up photography, and she died there in 1879. One of her visitors in her last years in Ceylon, incidentally, was the botanical painter Marianne North.

Julia Margaret Cameron's work has been reproduced interminably as postcards, and original prints can be seen at the National Portrait Gallery. On the Isle of Wight, her residence at Freshwater Bay has been converted into a museum dedicated to her work, and shows many photographs by her.

Top of page

Other artists

Home