I spent 3 months studying and researching the life of this fascinating, fabulous woman.
Julia Margaret Cameron was a modern artist for her time. Her fascinating perseverance and eccentric personality took her on to develop a career as a photographer who went beyond the conventionalities of the Victorian society. She lived a life independent of the will of others which I find fascinating. Devoted to her friends and family and dedicated to her passion, photography, she achieved an impressive catalogue of photographs which are delightful for the eyes and the souls of many who see them.
Victorian society was very much a society for men. Women had their space in the house, taking care of children and conducting the housework. Business was made by men and for men. It was typical that women never received a formal education, however, despite this, Cameron was well read. She translated a number of works from German to English, wrote poetry and started her own novel.
She was one of seven sisters, all of whom were reputed to have amazing beauty and personality. She is said to have inherited the “Talent” . Mrs Watts, wife of G. Watts, a dear friend of Cameron, wrote “She seems in herself to epitomize all the qualities of a remarkable family, presenting them in a doubly distilled form. She doubled the generosity of the most generous of the sisters, and the impulsiveness of the most impulsive. If they were enthusiastic, she was twice over; if they were persuasive, she was invincible.”
In 1838 she married Charles Hay Cameron, a philosopher who was twenty years older than her. He was the fourth member of the Council of Calcutta and they lived there until 1848. In England they were neighbours to Sir Henry Taylor and his wife. Her sister Sarah Prinsep hosted a salon at Little Holland house in Kensington, which became a meeting point for writers and artists such as Tennyson, G.F. Watts, J. Herschel and Sir Henry Taylor, among others.
After visiting the poet Lord Tennyson at Freshwaters on the Isle of Wight, Julia and her husband decided to move there, and bought a house which they called Dimbola Lodge. They lived there for fifteen years and this is where the bulk of her photographic output was created. She always had time to take interest in everyone with warm-hearted sympathy. “She writes us letters of six pages long all about ourselves, thinking that we can never be sufficiently sensible to the magnitude and enormity of our virtues.” She wrote every day to her friend H. Taylor, who replied in kind. Virginia Woolf, who was her grand niece, suggested that “the Victorian age killed the art of letter writing by kindness: it was only too easy to catch the post […] to share their whooping coughs and colds and misadventures, day by day, hour by hour. The standard of family affection was very high.”
From these accounts of her personality we can piece together the picture of someone empathetic, and full of energy and enthusiasm. So when her daughter gave her a camera as a present in 1865 Julia Margaret Cameron had found the medium she was looking for, and put all her energy into the act of creation. It was at this point that she started on her path to becoming a photographer.
We can observe in her work the literary influences and imagery of Victorian society: comprising themes of Virgins, Kings, legends and tales from medieval ages.
Her artistic influence was clearly Pre-Raphaelite, with far-away looks and limp poses and soft lighting. She recreated this world in her photographs, a world of beautiful young women, and a world of mothers. It is interesting to see her idea of beauty, she thought that a woman must be photographed in her twenties, all her models were young and white in complexion.
She also took portraits of older women but these represent only a small portion of her work. Virginia Woolf, Julia Jackson, was her muse and inspiration of many pieces. Her body of work was amazingly prolific, considering that she started photography when she was 50.
Woolf describes how Julia Margaret Cameron often forced her models to sit still for her photographs: “surely you can put with a little discomfort in the cause of art” .
Cameron’s works and life have been admired and critiqued for many years, historians talk about her life as a woman in Victorian society, her role as a high class lady, surrounded by artists and intellectuals of the époque, her ideal of motherhood and religion, as well as her work itself.
What is certain is that she made her day-to-day into fantasy. Cinderella is always becoming a princess in her real life-fairy tales.