Late Onset Amateur Dramatics With Julia Margaret Cameron
I was introduced to the photography of Julia Margaret Cameron during my Masters in Art History and Visual Culture. In 1864, she was given a camera on her 48th birthday, and spent the next ten years consumed by photography, creating some of the most memorable portraits of famous people of the time like Darwin, Tennyson, Browning, Millais, Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Ellen Terry, as well as numerous Pre-Raphaelite inspired portraits of women.
Her favourite model was her niece Julia Prinsep Jackson (later Julia Stephen), the mother of Virginia Woolf. Woolf wrote a comic play called ‘Freshwater’ about her great aunt’s family home on the Isle of Wight, which along with entries in her diaries describe a fiercely determined woman who was not easily thwarted, whose demands on her friends, family and visitors to sit for her, were frequent and often tedious.
She became a member of the London Photographic Society but her work was not taken seriously at the time. Despite this, she was not to be daunted and built up a large body of work in a comparatively short space of time. She strove to capture beauty with her photographs –
“I longed to arrest all the beauty that came before me and at length the longing has been satisfied.”
She also used her photographic skills to paint with light and shade conjuring something of the divine, especially in her literary tableaux, such as her illustrations for Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King’, and which imbued her portraits with a haunting beauty.
While her literary tableaux might be a little sentimental for my taste, I think her portraits are exquisite. I also have so much admiration for a woman who, at the age of 48, took up photography for the first time and ran with it, undeterred by concern for old dogs and new tricks. Her talent was completely overlooked at the time, but thanks to the relentless pursuit of her passion, she has left an extraordinary photographic legacy. That must have taken tremendous grit, and I love her for it.