Julia Margaret Cameron, despite having only practised the medium for eleven years, is one of the most celebrated British photographers of the 19th century. One of the first photographers to explore both narrative and atmosphere in her portraiture, Cameron also left an archive that catalogues the great and the good of her time. Cameron was born in June, 1815, in Calcutta, India. Her father was a British official of the East India Company and her mother was the daughter of a family of French aristocrats. Her great niece, Virginia Woolf, wrote of her and her two sisters in 1926, ‘where ... (one) was Beauty; and (one) was Dash; Mrs. Cameron was undoubtedly Talent.’
Cameron had an inventive imagination and her portraits were not simply representational, but showed expression, detail and narrative.
Highly influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite movement in painting, Cameron was keen to explore the aesthetic value of photography and was said to have ‘handled her lens with a tender ardour’. She sought to capture the essence of the sitter as opposed to simply taking their portrait, a novel idea in photography at the time.
A mother of twelve children, Cameron didn’t start taking photographs until she was forty-eight. Through a mixture of innovation and determination, she juggled her two careers, turning her hen-house into a light studio and her coal-room into a dark-room. Skill, and the right connections with the artistic and literary elite, enabled her to make a good living from photography, which was unheard of for her sex at the time. She photographed many of the notable personalities of her day, and sold prints of her work through the Bond Street art dealers, Colnaghi & Co.
In 1875, Cameron and her family moved back to Ceylon, and her photography career soon came to an end. She died there in 1879.