The following is a piece of my research for “Following a Thread” our next exhibition.
Julia Margaret Cameron (née Pattle) was the sister of Virginia Woolf's grandmother. Born in 1815 she married Charles Cameron and spent much of her married life in India where Charles worked for the East India Company. Not long after their return to England, Julia was given a camera for her birthday - an auspicious present - as she went on to become one of the most important and innovative photographers of the nineteenth century. Best known for her powerful portraits, she also posed her sitters - friends, family and servants - as characters from biblical, historical and allegorical stories. One such sitter, a good friend Anne Thackeray Ritchie, recalled: Sitting to her was a serious affair, and not to be lightly entered upon. We came at her summons, we trembled (or we should have trembled had we dared to do so) when the round black eye of the camera was turned upon us. We felt the consequences, what a disastrous waste of time and money and effort, might ensue from any passing quiver of emotion.
Cameron’s photographs were rule-breaking: purposely out of focus, and often including scratches, smudges and other traces of the artist's process. She was criticized for her unconventional techniques but also celebrated for the beauty of her compositions and her commitment to photography as an art form.
2015 marks the bi-centenary of Cameron's birth and 150 years since her first exhibition, which was held in 1865 at the South Kensington Museum, now the V&A. The museum's founding director, Henry Cole, was an early champion of Cameron's work. He purchased her photographs for the collection, granted her the use of two rooms at the museum as a studio and corresponded with her about technical matters.
In a letter to Sir John Herschel in December 1864, Cameron wrote: My aspirations are to ennoble Photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the reality & Ideal & sacrificing nothing of Truth by all possible devotion to poetry and beauty.
Another prominent Victorian and close friend of Cameron's was the painter and sculptor G.F.Watts. Watts had befriended her sister, Julia Princep, and as he had no accommodation at the time, had been invited to stay, temporarily, in the family home, Little Holland House. Watts lived there for twenty years, initially with his young wife, actor Ellen Terry, and later his second wife the artist and designer, Mary Fraser-Tytler, who with her sisters became photographic subjects for Mrs. Cameron. Cameron considered Watts to be her chief artistic advisor and wrote, Mr. Watts gave me such encouragement that I considered I had wings to fly with.
One member of the family who was photographed regularly was Cameron's niece and god-daughter Julia Jackson, who married Leslie Stephens in 1878. Julia and Leslie had four children, Vanessa (later Vanessa Bell), Thoby, Virginia (later Virginia Woolf) and Adrian. Cameron’s portraits of Julia are unusual in that they show her as an individual rather than a religious or literary character, a position more usually reserved for her male sitters.