In 1926 Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press published Victorian Photographs of Famous Men & Women by Julia Margaret Cameron, with an introduction by Virginia Woolf and Roger Fry.
The book, dedicated to Virginia’s great-aunt, Julia Margaret Cameron, whom she’d never met, was Woolf’s chance to highlight Cameron’s work as an artist in her own right. As covered in Nasty Women Writer’s piece: Virginia Woolf’s Far Reaching Network Within the Web of Women Writers, highlighting important women artists and writers that came before her was very important to Virginia Woolf.
A large part of her tireless work as a feminist was dedicated to bringing forward women’s work that had been disappeared, erased or ignored. Here, in the person of her great-aunt was one such woman artist. As well as bringing forward her photographs, Woolf went through old family boxes full of letters and memories to get to know her great-aunt better and write the introduction of the book about her and her lifetime.
Julia Margaret Cameron
After raising five sons and a daughter, attending to her duties as the wife of a prominent lawyer in both India and England, Julia Cameron found herself with time on her hands and then, someone gave her a camera.
According to Gillian Gill, in Virginia Woolf and the Women who Shaped Her World, Julia Margaret Cameron’s daughter gifted her a camera at the age of 49 in 1864. Cameron learned how to use it. Since photography was in its infancy, this was no easy task. Cameron went on to become a celebrated photographer mostly known for her portraits and ability to capture the essence of personalities in a unique and compelling way.
“It was her daughter, also called Julia, not her husband or one of her sons who were back in Ceylon watching the coffee plants die, who thought to give forty-nine-year-old Julia Cameron a camera. Like the story of Madge Watts, Agatha Christie’s older sister, daring young Agatha to write a murder mystery, this story of the gift of a camera to Julia Cameron is one of those legendary, apparently random moments when a woman’s life veers and takes a bold new heading. Soon after the death her daughter, in the 1874 autobiographical fragment called “Annals of My Glasshouse,” Julia Cameron wrote, “The gift from those I loved so tenderly added more and more impulse to my deeply seated love of the beautiful and from the first moment I handled my lens with a tender ardour, and it has become to me as a living thing with voice and memory and creative vigour . . . I longed to arrest all beauty that came before me, and at length the longing has been satisfied”(35).
In Cameron’s time it was an arduous prospect to take photographs and develop them in her own “dark room.” Also, 12 minutes were needed for exposures at that time which meant if alive, the subject must sit still that long. And people and living beings were the subjects that Cameron chose.
Cameron used the wet collodion process with glass instead of paper:
“A highly polished, spotless glass plate had to be evenly coated with collodion solution and dipped into a bath of nitrate of silver to make the emulsion sensitive to light. . . . After exposure, the developing solution had to be poured over the plate. If the negative had survived thus far it had to be varnished to protect the chemical surface. This involved heating the plate and once again pouring liquid over it, with the risk that the varnish might crack the collodion surface”(JMC 17).
Of her great-aunt, Virginia Woolf writes:
“Now she became a photographer. All her sensibility was expressed, and, what was perhaps more to the purpose, controlled in the new born art. The coal-house was turned into a dark room; the fowl-house was turned into a glass-house. Boatmen were turned into King Arthur; village girls into Queen Guenevere, Tennyson was wrapped in rugs: Sir Henry Taylor was crowned with tinsel. The parlor-maid sat for her portrait and the guest had to answer the bells” (JMC 37).
Read Nasty Women Writer’s other posts about Virginia Woolf:
Virginia Woolf’s The Years: Time, Presence and the “Conversational Nature of Reality.”
Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway: Being, Non-Being and the Spiritual Continuum Holding up the World – A Woman Writer on Writing.
Women Writers on Writing: Virginia Woolf’s “Angel in the House” and What it Takes to be a #Nastywoman.
Woman Writer Virginia Woolf: A Bench of Her Own, with Room for You
Julia Margaret Cameron dressed up her photographic subjects to capture scenes out of myths, Shakespeare or the Bible. She possessed many costumes for the skits that people lucky enough to be invited to her famed, hospitable home used as entertainment at her parties The adults in Cameron’s circle were used to playing “dress up.” This easily translated into sittings for photographs.
However there were many complaints by her subjects about how long she made them sit and then sit again if she was not satisfied with the results.
“She was “magnificently uncompromising about her art. Brown stains appeared on her hands, and the smell of chemicals mixed on her hands with the scent of the sweet briar in the road outside her house. She cared nothing for the miseries of her sitters nor for their rank. The carpenter and the Crown Prince of Prussia alike must sit as still as stones in the attitudes she chose, in the draperies she arranged, for as long as she wished”(JMC 37)
And she had many great subjects at her disposal because Cameron had, upon returning from India to live in England, created a colorful world on her property on the Isle of Wight, which drew many famous people, among them Charles Darwin, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Anthony Trollope, Thomas Carlyle, Sir William Herschel and Henry Longfellow.
Of Robert Browning’s portrait taken in 1865 is written,“The poet was trapped by Mrs. Cameron in the garden at Little Holland House, and . . . ‘beguiled into sitting as she would have him, draped in strange wise, and left by her helpless in the folds of the drapery, forgotten for the time as she flew off to some other conquest’” (JMC Plate 5).
She also took many photos of Julia Jackson, her god-daughter and the mother of Virginia (Woolf) and Vanessa (Bell) Stephen. These photos must have been precious to the daughters who lost their mother at an early age. They spoke of a time before, as the photos were all taken by their great-aunt before their mother married their father, Leslie Stephen, and became a somber and solemn woman.
Read Nasty Woman Writer’s piece on Vanessa Bell: Nasty Woman Artist Vanessa Bell: Life as Artform
To me her photos are nothing if not nostalgic. I first encountered them in a small book I bought when I began to write seriously and wanted to feel literary. It is called A Book of Days for the Literary Year. Each entry lists important literary events that happened on that day: the birth or death of an important author, publication or correspondence between important literary types.
On November 21, there is a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow “dramatically photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron in 1868.” On that day in 1820 thirteen-year-old Longfellow’s first poem, “The Battle of Lovell’s Pond” was published in the Portland, Maine Gazette.
On December 9 is a photo of Alfred Lord Tennyson and his sons taken by Cameron in 1862. Tennyson appears on this page in relation to John Milton who was born on that day in 1608.
I greatly admired Julia Margaret Cameron’s photos in this book. I had no idea at the time that she was Virginia Woolf’s great-aunt. The blurry intimacy of her photos moved something in me. I felt like I was in these people’s homes, the morning after a sleepover. That subtle, not-quite-focused quality Cameron created, at first by mistake but then decided she liked it, and so made it her trademark.
“She aimed to capture on collodion gel not just the outer appearance but the inner truth of the men and women who peopled her domestic landscape, and once she had chosen her subjects, she was inexorable. Illustrious friends like Charles Darwin and Alfred Tennyson sat rigid for interminable minutes in front of her artfully ill-focused lens, and the images she produced of Victorian Grand Old Men now grace our biographies and history books.
But the photographs for which Julia Cameron was most cherished her life time and that are today most prized by the art world are of the beautiful young women she knew”(Gill 35).
Gillian Gill tells us that until you see one in person, you cannot truly appreciate their artistry. It would be worth one’s while to locate which museums have her photographs.
Of Julia Margaret Cameron Tristan Powell writes:
“No other early photographer, except perhaps Fox-Talbot, has conveyed so clearly the excitement of experimenting with the camera, and the attempt to make full use of the characteristics inherent in what must have seemed a magical new medium”(JMC 15).
The tradition of genius
Does genius run in families? Does a great aunt’s tenacity and commitment to her own art inspire her descendants to also pursue their dreams? I think so. I think as well as appreciating her photographs, we can thank Julia Margaret Cameron in part for her grand nieces’ pursuit and commitment to their passions. For giving them a sort of “permission” to take themselves seriously, to allow themselves to claim the time and space to do what they found important. Yes, they were all white and middle-class with a certain amount of privilege but still, it was not common for women to pursue the careers the way Julia Cameron and the Stephen women did.
I believe all women benefit from women who dare, women who take up space. Julia Cameron is important and her photos are important. It matters that she served as a role model to Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf.
Julia Margaret Cameron is a Nasty Woman Artist.
©Theresa C. Dintino 2022
Gill, Gillian. Virginia Woolf and the Women who Shaped Her World. Houghton Mifflin, 2019.
Jones, Neal T., ed. A Book of Days for the Library Year. Thames and Hudson, 1978.
Woolf, Cameron, and Fry. Julia Margaret Cameron. The J. Paul Getty Museum. 2018.