Fine Art Photography Series
Julia Margaret Cameron

Victorian Portrait Photographer Noted for Pre-Raphaelite Portraits.

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Julia Margaret Cameron
Portrait Photographer (1870)
National Portrait Gallery, London.

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79)


Julia Margaret Cameron's Photography
Great Portrait Photographers

For more about the early inventions upon which Julia Margaret Cameron's art is founded, see: History of Photography (c.1800-1900).

The model Miss Keene photographed
as "Mountain Nymph, Sweet Liberty"
(1866) Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Photo by Julia Margaret Cameron.
The picture illustrates text from
John Milton's poem "L'Allegro."

For a short explanation of
camera and photographic
terms, please see:

Art Photography Glossary.

Julia Margaret Cameron's Photography

Now considered to be one of the greatest photographers of the mid-19th century, the Victorian camera artist Julia Margaret Cameron languished in relative obscurity for some 80 years before being 'rediscovered' in 1948 by the historian Helmut Gernsheim (1913-95), in his book "Julia Margaret Cameron; her life and photographic work". Cameron practiced fine art photography for only about eleven years of her life (1864–1875), and focused entirely on non-commercial portrait art - a genre which she imbued with a deeply spiritual sensibility, and a Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic. Her unique approach enabled her to create a gallery of extraordinary portraits which recapture something of Renaissance art, while at the same time embodying the qualities of innocence, virtue, piety and passion associated with Victorian womanhood. Introduced to photography at the age of 48, Cameron eventually produced some 900 images during her short career - an extraordinary feat in an era of cumbersome and labour-intensive camera equipment. Her work falls into two basic categories: (1) uncommissioned portraits of celebrities - including the likes of Alfred Lord Tennyson, Charles Darwin, Sir John Herschel and Robert Browning, as well as Victorian artists such as John Everett Millais, William Michael Rossetti (brother of Dante Gabriel Rossetti), Edward Burne-Jones, and George Frederic Watts - and (2) portraits of friends, family, and household staff, often costumed and theatrically posed to depict Renaissance or Arthurian themes. Although not imitated by other 19th century photographers her work has led to her reevaluation as an important contributor to early pictorialism and one of the best portrait artists of her time and an important pioneer in one of the newest forms of Victorian art in 19th century Britain. In particular, her portraits are ranked among the finest expressions of the artistic possibilities of the medium.

For a brief guide to the aesthetics and artistic nature of lens-based art, please see: Is Photography Art?


May Prinsep, as "Beatrice Cenci" (1866) in a series of
Pre-Raphaelite portraits illustrating the tragic Cenci story
from Renaissance Italy. Photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron.


Born Julia Margaret Pattle in Calcutta, India, into a British Colonial family, Cameron was educated in France. After this she returned to India, and at the age of 23 married Charles Hay Cameron, a British lawyer in his 40s who was stationed in Calcutta. Ten years later, in 1848, Charles Hay Cameron retired, and the family moved to London, England. Cameron's sister, Sarah Prinsep, had a house in Kensington, and was visited regularly by famous painters and writers of the day. In 1860, the Cameron family bought a house at Freshwater on the Isle of Wight, close to the estate of poet Alfred Lord Tennyson.

In December 1863, Julia Margaret Cameron was given a camera by her daughter Julia, as a means of amusement while staying Freshwater when her husband was in Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka), visiting the family's coffee plantations. It was an apt gift, since at this point, Cameron was a 48 year old, devout, well read, mother of six children, whose sons were grown up or away at boarding school, and whose daughter, Julia, had married and moved away.

Cameron took to photography in an instant. It became her link to her wide circle of friends, including the scientists and artists who served as her intellectual correspondents. This, despite her complete ignorance of cameras and the art of photography. Indeed, she was tireless in her efforts to understand and master the steps needed to produce negatives with wet collodion on glass plates. And if she began as an amateur, with no thought of earning a living from her new 'hobby', she immediately adopted a wholly professional approach, copyrighting, exhibiting, and marketing her prints. Within 18 months she had turned a chicken coop into a studio, a coal house into a darkroom, sold 80 photographs to the Victoria and Albert Museum, set up a second studio in two of the museum's rooms, and arranged for a London firm to publish and sell her prints. At the same time she took advice whenever she needed it, learning for example the technique of 'soft focus' from the British painter and photographer David Wilkie Wynfield (1837-87), a distant relative of the famous genre-painter David Wilkie (1785-1841).

Even so, Cameron had no interest in establishing a commercial portrait practice. Instead - with the help of friends, family, and household staff - she used her photography as a means of illustrating a variety of historical, artistic and literary themes (see, for instance, her illustrations for Tennyson's Idylls of the King). A house maid might be transformed into the Madonna, her husband into Merlin, a neighbour's young child into Cupid or an angel from the famous Sistine Madonna (1513-14) by Raphael (1483-1520). Early Renaissance art was a source for much of her work (see, for instance, her Annunciation in the style of Perugino) most of which was wholly original for any photographer. In addition, as stated above, she took portrait photographs of a wide variety of Victorian celebrities - typically done in soft focus and cropped closely around the head - many of whom were her friends.

Her photographs, however, did not meet with universal approval: the photographic establishment found fault with her supposedly poor technique, as did several publications. In 1865, for example, the Photographic Journal published a highly critical review of her submission to the annual exhibition of the Photographic Society of Scotland. By contrast, her work was greatly admired by her artist friends - a view shared by modern-day art critics, who applaud her preference for beauty before technical perfection. In hindsight, it is obvious that Cameron had an extraordinary talent for endowing her prints with spiritual depth, a quality noticeably absent in many commercial portraits of the day.

In 1875, Julia Cameron and her husband returned to their plantations in Ceylon, taking with them her photographic equipment and a cow, as well as two coffins in case such items should be unobtainable locally. She continued to take photographs (none of which have survived), although she was greatly hampered by shortages of materials and lack of suitable sitters. She died in Ceylon four years later at the age of 63.

Photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron are in the collections of several of the best art museums in Europe and America. The most recent exhibition of her photographs were held in 2013, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Great Portrait Photographers

For other renowned camera artists best-known for their portraits, please see the following forthcoming articles.

Man Ray (1890-1976)
Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)
Walker Evans (1903-75)
Cecil Beaton (1904-1980)
Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002)
Norman Parkinson (1913-90)
Hans Namuth (1915-90)
Richard Avedon (1923-2004)
Annie Leibovitz (b.1949)

• For more about nineteenth century art photography, see: Homepage.

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