Christo­pher Allen on the pho­tog­ra­phy of Ju­lia Mar­garet Cameron

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Christo­pher Allen

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


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)

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