Christopher Allen on the photography of Julia Margaret Cameron
Somewhere in his Lives of the Poets (1779-81), Dr Johnson comments on the seriousness of the 17th century, especially as it appeared from the point of view of his own time. And the 17th century was indeed a very intense period, one in which the burgeoning scientific revolution coincided with a revival of religious piety — when the laws of nature were being uncovered by men who, for the most part, still believed in a reality beyond those laws and an afterlife of heaven or hell.
It was an age of profound tensions, expressed in the drama and energy of baroque art. Even metaphysics, in this age of science, was tormented by the paradoxes of dualism: how could the connection between mind and body, spirit and matter even be conceived? Extreme philosophical hypotheses such as occasionalism or preordained harmony were entertained as solutions to these conundrums.
The 18th century did not so much resolve these problems as cease to take them seriously. People still went to church but were less concerned about sin and divine judgment. Thinkers turned away from the Gordian knots of rationalist philosophy to embrace empiricism and scientific research, though David Hume continued to remind them of its fragile theoretical underpinnings. Pessimism about the corrupt nature of man was replaced by a more optimistic belief in natural beneficence and the perfectibility of humanity through education and improved social order. Rationality, lightness and wit were more appreciated than grandeur and gloom.
But in the very middle of this period, there was a return to darker, grander and more intense themes. The quality of the sublime was discovered in a natural world that dwarfed humanity. The romantics explored the obscure regions of the imagination and what would later be called the unconscious, beyond the lucidity of the Enlightenment: they became fascinated with everything that the 18th century had dismissed and looked back on that period as frivolous and even immoral.
The mid-19th century, a couple of generations later, seems to combine elements of the romantic and Enlightenment sensibilities, and in that sense recalls the tensions of the 17th cen- tury: once again great minds were drawn between religious belief and ever-accelerating scientific and technological development. Indeed the new discoveries of science in the fields of geology, botany, and especially genetics and evolutionary theory seemed to contradict biblical accounts of creation far more directly than those of Newton. And yet Victorian spirituality seems more dreamy and subjective than anything else: earnest, morally introspective and woven into contemporary concerns for philanthropy, reform and social progress.
This is the world we enter in the fascinating exhibition of the photographic work of Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79), which comes from the comprehensive collection held by the Victoria and Albert Museum and is accompanied by a handsome and scholarly catalogue.
Cameron’s photographs — all taken between 1864 and 1875 — plunge us immediately into the moral world, the sensibility and ethos of the high Victorian period as perhaps no other body of work could do: we are surrounded by quiet, serious faces, sometimes intense, often dreamy and faraway, almost always soulful.
The women are mostly youthful, often beautiful but in no way glamorous; they wear no make-up. The men have strong features, long hair and patriarchal beards. Nothing could be more unlike the art of the 18th century: then, the differences between male and female features were minimised, now they are emphasised. Then, elegance, grace and wit were prized, now seriousness and sincerity are valued above all. The beards would grow shorter and then disappear over the next half-century, but in Cameron’s time, senior civil servants and intellectuals such as Cameron’s own husband Charles Hay Cameron or their friend Henry Taylor of the Colonial Office could easily be mistaken for Albus Dumbledore.
Cameron was not a professional studio photographer, so the portraits that surround us are not clients but family members and friends, and because she was very well-connected, they are an unusually interesting group of people. One of these was Henry Taylor, who was their neighbour in Tunbridge Wells on their return from many years in India, and who introduced them to Tennyson; later they became the poet’s neighbours on the Isle of Wight.
Julia’s sister Sarah, meanwhile, was married to Henry Thoby Prinsep, also a member of a prominent Anglo-Indian family; Sarah and Henry lived at Little Holland House with GF Watts, one of the most distinguished painters of the time. The Prinsep and Watt household was the centre of a salon that included Ruskin, Car- lyle, Thackeray, Tennyson, and Henry Cole, director of the South Kensington Museum, which was later to become the Victoria and Albert.
Cole was an invaluable supporter who acquired a large number of Cameron’s works for the museum, while Watts became an artistic mentor and received many pieces that later found their way into the V&A, but have only recently been recognised as having belonged to Watts; the catalogue says this is important because many of them were imperfect prints sent for advice but not intended for publication.
Another of Julia’s sisters, Maria Jackson, had a beautiful daughter, also named Julia, who became one of the photographer’s favourite sitters, and it is her portrait that is on the cover of the catalogue. Julia Jackson married Herbert Duckworth, and appears in a later portrait, bearing his name, as a young widow after his premature death. She later married Leslie Stephen and became the mother of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, so the literary associations of this exhibition resonate into the 20th century.
The portraits are no doubt the most striking part of Cameron’s oeuvre, but she also made
THE TABLEAUX REVEAL THE CULTURAL AND AESTHETIC CONTEXT IN WHICH CAMERON WORKED
many narrative compositions, from Madonna and Child groups to tableaux evoking episodes from literature, often persuading even the most distinguished of her friends to take on dramatic parts. Thus Watts becomes a bard listening to the inspiration of the muse and Henry Taylor plays Friar Laurence in a scene from Romeo and
Juliet, while Charles Hay Cameron, with cascading white hair and beard, is Merlin in a scene from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King.
These tableaux are also particularly interesting because they reveal the cultural and aesthetic environment in which Cameron was working: the Arthurian and other medieval themes — as well as the interest in Dante and Shakespeare — are inherited from the romantic period, but an important new theme in the mid-19th century was the rediscovery of the Italian Renaissance and especially the art of the earlier stages of that movement.
The influence of the Renaissance is most obvious in Cameron’s many variations on the Madonna and Child theme, for which she posed a grandson and her housemaid, coincidentally called Mary. A sibyl after the manner of Michelangelo borrows the composition of the Erythraean Sibyl from the Sistine ceiling, and another group of girls is inspired by Raphael’s St Cecilia. The Head of St John, modelled by another niece, May Prinsep, recalls Leonardo’s androgynous St John in type, but the Christ of the Last Supper in the tilt of the head.
It may seem surprising that Cameron’s career as a photographer was relatively brief, but we have to remember that she was born well before the invention of the camera, and when she was given one in 1863, it was still relatively new and anything but the consumer toy it became.
Taking pictures, as we are reminded by the detailed description of the wet collodion process that Cameron used, was complicated at every stage from hand-preparing the plates to expos- ing, developing and printing them. Of course exposure times were long, so stillness was an absolute requirement in the sitter, adding to the solemnity and even melancholy we feel throughout.
At the same time, Cameron achieves a sense of immediacy and spontaneity — and ultimately of sincerity — by having her sitters pose in simple clothes, hair often loose in the case of women and almost unkempt in the case of men.
On the other hand, she often has men in particular draped in black velvet to cover their city clothes and isolate the head as the main object of interest, and lighting and chiaroscuro — including dark as well as light backgrounds — are adroitly used to dramatise the subject and bring out character.
One of the most distinctive aspects of her style is the preference for a soft focus. As she wrote, “when focusing and coming to something which to my eye was very beautiful, I stopped there instead of screwing the lens to the more definite focus which all other photographers insist upon”.
As this was such a conspicuous quality of her pictures, it was inevitably a subject of discussion, and it seems her literary supporters approved of the moody and suggestive indeterminacy, but professional photographers and critics on the whole objected to it, tending to see it as part of a generally amateurish approach to the technique, and in some cases resenting the advantages Cameron derived from her social status and powerful connections.
In 1865, she acquired a new and larger camera, capable of taking a 12-inch by 15-inch (30cm x 38cm) glass negative — much larger than before and correspondingly more difficult to manage.
But this new format allowed her to achieve the larger heads we see in the second half of the exhibition, for all prints were in effect contact prints at this time, and were exposed using daylight; modern enlargers were only introduced much later.
All of this makes these images from the early days of the new technology as immediate and direct an impression — literally an imprint — of the real as photography has ever achieved. Cameron’s choice to adopt a close-up view of the sitter makes her portraits especially vivid and intimate, and yet her choices of lighting, focus and depth of field make these pictures utterly different from most portraits of the 20th century.
In the first place, there is none of the seamless illusion of objectivity of later photography, and she seems to be consciously rejecting even the tendency of her contemporaries towards precise definition of the face as an object. In the portrait of Julia Jackson already mentioned, for example, the sitter’s features are clear and defined at the point they meet our attention, so to speak, while more peripheral details fade into a blur: the image seems to capture the essentially intersubjective and mutual quality of our encounter with another person.
In the photograph of May Prinsep as Coleridge’s Christabel, it is something still more subtle that is evoked. The composition is beautifully asymmetrical and the eyes are slightly downturned. It is as though a person is emerging from amorphous matter and taking shape: as though, in fact, we were witnessing the emergence of the self into consciousness, not yet quite fully awake.
Vivien and Merlin from Illustrations to Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1874)
From far left, Portrait of Herschel (1867), Kept in the Heart/La Madonna della Ricodanza (1864), Whisper of the Muse
(1865) and Annie (1864)