Julia Margaret Cameron: The Most Important Portraitists of the 19th Century

Julia Margaret Cameron was an English portrait photographer best known for her portraits of George IV and Queen Victoria. During her brief career, she produced almost 900 photographs in just 12 years. Her work is recognized for its soft-focus close-ups of prominent Victorians and mythical figures, as well as illustration pictures depicting heroes from Greek mythology, Christianity, and literature. She also took sensitive portraits of women and children.

Julia Margaret Cameron
Julia Margaret Cameron in an 1870 portrait by her son, Henry Herschel Hay Cameron.

Cameron’s work helped to popularize the “artistic” photography movement, which favored expressive and atmospheric images over the more precise and detailed approach of the prevailing style of the time.

Cameron was born in Calcutta, India, in 1815 to British parents. She moved to England with her family in 1824 and married Charles Hay Cameron in 1838. The Camerons moved to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1848, where Charles Hay Cameron took up a post as a government official. Julia Margaret Cameron began her career as a photographer in 1863 when she was given a camera as a gift from her husband.

Cameron’s early photographs were of family and friends, and she quickly began to experiment with different techniques. She became particularly interested in the newly developed art of portraiture and sought to capture her sitters’ inner emotions and personalities. Cameron’s style was highly experimental, and she frequently used unconventional methods such as photographing her subjects through gauze or painting them with light-sensitive chemicals.

Cameron’s work was not well-received by the mainstream photographic establishment of her day, but it was endorsed by a few notable critics. The most important of these was the art critic John Ruskin, who wrote effusively about Cameron’s portraits in his book Elements of Drawing. Ruskin’s support helped to secure Cameron’s reputation as an important artist, and she was elected to the Photographic Society in 1874.

In 1875, Cameron’s health began to decline, and she stopped photographing altogether. She died in Ceylon in 1879, at the age of 64.

Cameron’s photographs are now highly prized by collectors and fetch high prices at auction. Her work has been the subject of numerous exhibitions, and her portraits of Victorian luminaries such as Lord Tennyson, Thomas Carlyle, and Disraeli are some of the most recognizable images of the 19th century.


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Julia Margaret Cameron Portraits

Tennyson: This portrait of the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson was taken in 1869, when the sitter was aged 58. Cameron used a soft-focus technique to blur the details of Tennyson’s face, which she felt helped to capture his inner character. The portrait was not well received by the public, but Tennyson himself was pleased with it.

 Lord Tennyson
Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Carbon print, 1869

Carlyle: This 1867 portrait of the historian and philosopher Thomas Carlyle shows the sitter in a contemplative mood, his head resting on his hand. Cameron’s use of soft lighting and focus helped to create a dreamlike quality in the image, which some critics felt captured Carlyle’s personality.

Thomas Carlyle

Sir John Herschel: This 1867 portrait of the astronomer Sir John Herschel was taken just a few months before his death. It shows Herschel seated at a desk, surrounded by books and papers. Cameron’s use of soft lighting and focus gives the image an otherworldly quality, which some have interpreted as Herschel’s soul already being in the afterlife.

Sir John Herschel

Charles Darwin: This 1874 portrait of the scientist Charles Darwin was taken just a few months before his death. It shows Darwin seated in an armchair, looking frail and ill. Cameron’s use of soft lighting and focus gives the image an otherworldly quality, which some have interpreted as Darwin’s soul already being in the afterlife.

Charles Darwin

More portraits

Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere 1874 – Idyllis of the King
Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere 1874 – Idyllis of the King
King Arthur
King Arthur
Alice Liddel
Alice Liddel
Paul and Virginia
Paul and Virginia
Maud
Maud “There has Fallen a splendid Tear From the Passion Flower at the Gate”, 1875
Queen Esther before King Ahasuerus
Queen Esther before King Ahasuerus, 1865
Parting of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere
Parting of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere 1874
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