Julia Margaret Cameron née Pattle was a British photographer born in 1815 who is considered one of the most important portraitists of the 19th century. She was the fourth of ten children and one of seven to survive to adulthood.
Her father was a British official from England in India while working for the East India Company. His family had been involved with the East India Company for many years, though he traced his line to a 17th-century ancestor living in Chancery Lane, London. Her mother was a French aristocrat and the daughter of Chevalier Ambrose Pierre Antoine de l’Etang, who had been a page to Marie Antoinette and an officer in the Garde du Corps of King Louis XVI.
The seven Pattle sisters were close, outspoken, and unconventional in behaviour and dress and for their “charm, wit and beauty” —were all sent to France as children to be educated which a a common occurence in those days. Julia lived there with her maternal grandmother from 1818 to 1834, after which she returned to India.
In 1835, after suffering several illnesses, Julia visited the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa with her parents to recover. It was common for Europeans living in India to visit South Africa to convalesce after an illness.
While there, she met the British astronomer and photochemist Sir John Herschel, who was observing the southern celestial hemisphere. She also met Charles Hay Cameron, twenty years her senior and a reformer of Indian law and education who later invested in coffee plantations in what is now Sri Lanka. Charles Hay was also there to convalesce, likely from a virulent malarial fever which often spread during the Indian monsoon season. The illness he suffered caused recurring kidney trouble and diarrhoea for the rest of his life.
They were married in Calcutta two years after meeting on 1 February 1838. In December of that same year, Julia gave birth to their first child; Sir John Herschel was the godfather. Between 1839 and 1852, they had six children, one of whom was adopted. In all, the Camerons raised 11 children, five of her own, five orphaned children of relatives, and an Irish girl named Mary Ryan whom they found begging on Putney Heath and whom Cameron used as a model in her photographs. Their son, Henry Herschel Hay Cameron, also later became a photographer.
Through the early 1840s, as the organiser of social engagements for the Governor-General, Lord Hardinge, Cameron became a prominent hostess in Anglo-Indian society. During this time she also corresponded with Herschel about the latest developments in photographic technology. In 1839, Herschel informed Cameron about the invention of photography. In 1842, he sent her two dozen calotypes and daguerreotypes, the first photographs she ever saw.
Cameron showed interest in photography in the late 1850s and there are indications that she experimented with making photographs in the early 1860s. Around 1863, her daughter and her son-in-law gave her her first camera (a sliding-box camera) as a Christmas present. The gift was meant to provide a diversion while her husband was in Ceylon tending to his coffee plantations. Of the gift, her daughter stated “It may amuse you, Mother, to try to photograph during your solitude at Freshwater.”
After receiving the camera, she cleared out a chicken coop and converted it into studio space.
On 29 January 1864 she photographed nine‐year‐old Annie Philpot, an image she described as her “first success”. She sent the photograph to the subject’s father with the note:
“My first perfect success in the complete photograph owing greatly to the docility & sweetness of my best & fairest sitter. This photograph was taken by me at 1pm Friday Jan. 29th. Printed, Toned, Fixed and Framed all by me & given as it is now by 8pm this same day”
That same year, she compiled albums of her images for Watts and Herschel, registered her work and prepared it for exhibition and sale, and was elected to the Photographic Society of London, of which she remained a member until her death and where she displayed work at yearly exhibitions.
Though Cameron took up photography as an amateur and considered herself an artist, and despite never making commissioned portraits nor establishing a commercial studio, she thought of her photographic activity as a professional endeavour, actively copyrighting, publishing, and marketing her work.
In 1865, she became a member of the Photographic Society of Scotland and arranged to have her prints sold through the London dealers P. & D. Colnaghi. She presented a series of photographs, The Fruits of the Spirit, to the British Museum, and held her first solo exhibition in November 1865. Her prints generated robust demand and she showed her work throughout Europe, securing awards in Berlin in 1865 and 1866, and an honourable mention in Dublin.
In August 1865, the South Kensington Museum, now the Victoria and Albert Museum, purchased 80 of her photographs. Three years later, the museum offered her two rooms to use as a portrait studio, essentially making her the museum’s first artist-in-residence.
She produced images of Thomas Carlyle and John Herschel in 1867. By 1868, she was generating sales through P. & D. Colnaghi and a second London agent, William Spooner. In 1869, she created The Kiss of Peace, which she considered her finest work.
In the early 1870s, Cameron’s work matured. Her elaborate illustrative tableaux involving religious, literary, and classical figures peaked in a series of images for Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, published in 1874 and 1875, evidently at her expense. During this time, she also wrote Annals of my Glass House, an unfinished memoir recounting her photographic career.
In October 1873, her daughter died in childbirth. Two years later, because of her husband’s ill health, because of the lower cost of living, Cameron and her husband left Freshwater for Ceylon with a cow, Cameron’s photographic equipment, and two coffins, in case such items should not be available in the East.
The move effectively marked the end of Cameron’s photography career; she took few photographs afterwards, mostly of Tamil servants and workers. Fewer than 30 images survive from this period. Cameron’s output may have dropped in part because of the difficulty working with collodion in the insect-friendly heat where fresh water was less available for washing prints.
In February 1876, Macmillan’s Magazine published her poem, On a Portrait. The following year, her image The Parting of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere appeared on the cover Harper’s Weekly as a wood engraving.
After a short visit to England six months earlier, Cameron fell ill with a dangerous chill and died on 26 January 1879 at the Glencairn estate in Ceylon. It is often reported that her last word was “Beauty” or “Beautiful”.
In her 12-year career, Cameron produced around 900 photo. She is known for her soft-focus close-ups of famous Victorian men and for illustrative images depicting characters from mythology, Christianity, and literature. She also produced sensitive portraits of women and children.
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