In the second installment of her series of monthly blogs on the London Library and the Victorians, Helen O’Neill our Archive, Heritage and Development Librarian looks at the fascinating connections between the pioneer of photography, Julia Margaret Cameron and the Library.
Between 1864 and 1875 an artist working in a new medium from a converted hen house on the Isle of Wight unleashed a distinctive female aesthetic on the visual arts in Britain. Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–1879) was a pioneer of photography and a master of portraiture. She was an experimental innovator who pushed at the boundaries of the medium. She exhibited nationally and internationally; took advantage of new copyright law to protect 500 of her images; sought avenues for mainstream review to expand her audience and critical reputation; approached high profile sitters and sought payment and recognition for her work. She had a clear artistic vision for her work, which she adhered to and defended in the face of criticism. When Cameron began her photographic career she was 48; had lived on three continents; raised 11 children; been a society hostess alongside her Benthamite jurist husband Charles Hay Cameron; was accustomed to socialising with the Victorian intelligentsia and counted, as a personal friend, the scientist who coined the term “photography”. She had the mettle and the means not to be easily swayed by criticism. Cameron’s intense psychological portraits of what her great niece, Virginia Woolf called “great men and beautiful women” are considered some of the most significant photographic work in the history of the medium.
Cameron joined the Library in 1856, being nominated by her son-in-law Henry Thoby Prinsep. The association between the Cameron family and the London Library travels through several generations, from her sister Sara’s influential Kensington salon at Little Holland House, to the Bloomsbury circle. At Little Holland House Cameron socialised and formed friendships with many of the scientists, writers, poets and painters she later photographed. Charles Darwin, John Herschel, Henry Taylor, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Anthony Trollope, W.E.H. Lecky, Robert Browning, John Ruskin, Alfred Tennyson and the Prinseps’ artist in residence, George Frederick Watts all sat for portraits by her. Her work reflects the richness of 19th century culture and the diverse circle amongst whom she moved. Like her son-in-law Leslie Stephen, in his editorship of the Dictionary of National Biography and the “Hall of Fame” portraits of George Frederick Watts, Cameron chronicled the influential men of her day. In little more than a decade she produced some of the most compelling portraits of the Victorian age and her work has subsequently fuelled more exhibitions and publications than any other 19th century photographer.
Thomas Carlyle, social critic and founder of the Library said “Portraits are the candle by which we read history.” He sat for his portrait in the studio of George Frederic Watts in Little Holland House during a London downpour. Her soft focus, long exposure lens captures both the force and vulnerability of his character. Cameron noted on Carlyle’s portrait: “like a rough block of Michel Angelo’s sculpture”. In Annals of my Glass House she explained: ‘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’. Carlyle considered the portrait, which was taken after the death of his wife, “worth a dozen biographies”.
In addition to her portraits of notable men, Cameron took a range of portraits of women which exhibit an intensity rarely displayed in Victorian society. These portraits, often have a pre-Raphaelite feel but Cameron allocated her subjects a much more varied and complex palette of visual representations than the pre-Raphaelite painters. Melancholy and sensual, they are also surprisingly forthright and defiant. Drawn from literary, religious and classical sources Cameron’s combination of soft focus, dramatic lighting and extreme close-up produced strong and arresting profiles.
In 1864 she was elected to the Photographic Society of London, and submitted 5 prints to the 10th annual photographic Society of London Exhibition in the same year. Her work polarised opinion. The Society recommended that Cameron “should not let herself be misled by the indiscriminate praise bestowed upon her by the non-photographic press and should do much better when she has learnt the proper use of her apparatus.” What the Society saw as technical incompetence was for Cameron, artistic choice. She sought to capture the moment “when focusing and coming to something which to my eye was very beautiful“; she wrote “I stopped there instead of screwing on the lens to the more definite focus which all other photographers insist upon.” She defended her stylistic choices in a letter to John Herschel after the exhibition: “What is focus and who has the right to say what focus is the legitimate focus….My aspirations are to ennoble photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High art by combining the real and Ideal and sacrificing nothing of the Truth by all possible devotion to Poetry and beauty…your eye can best detect and your imagination conceive all that is to be done.”
Though criticised by the photographic establishment, Cameron was praised by artists and writers including Tennyson and George Frederick Watts. Victor Hugo was similarly impressed, writing to Cameron: “No one has ever captured the rays of sun as you have: I throw myself at your feet.” Sir John Herschel, who coined the term “photography” acknowledged how far she had exceeded the medium and Rossetti, writing towards the end of his life, referred to Cameron’s “unrivalled” work in “sun-portraiture.” While not adhering to standards of realism Cameron’s portraits reflected in their use of light and shade the painters of the Renaissance art. A letter written in 1867 offers an insight into her working practices and drive: “I work with more zeal and rapidity than can be supposed…I took last week 35 life sized portraits and printed 62 in 5 days time and I work without any assistance printing on my own prints – varnishing my own glasses – continuing till 2am and recommencing at 7am.” She drew from a reservoir of artistic, literary and religious sources in her work, using many literary sources including the Bible, Greek mythology, the classics of English literature, Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Coleridge, and Tennyson.
Virginia Woolf, Cameron’s great niece, parodied Cameron’s Victorian circle in her 1923 play Freshwater but with the art critic, Roger Fry, was responsible for the first major monograph on Cameron’s work, published by the Hogarth Press in 1926. Today Cameron, photographer and London Library member, is considered one of the most important figures in the history of photography.
Archive, Heritage & Development Librarian