Dr. Rachel Flynn presented a talk on Julia Margaret Cameron, at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, entitled ‘The Faulty Photography of Cameron’.
2015 was Cameron’s year, what with the bicentennial conference at Portsmouth, the BRLSI talk, the V&A exhibition, and the Science Museum exhibition. There was also a symposium held at the Bodleian in January 2016. Full notes of which can be found here.
Flynn’s talk sought to present Cameron’s work as innovative and ground-breaking, affirming her position as a valuable contributor to nineteenth century visual culture. Through a presentation of various predominantly female images, Flynn asked her audience to consider both typological narratives, and roles of the feminine within typological pairings.
Introducing St. Clement’s Eve (1862), a play by well-known dramatist Sir Henry Taylor, Flynn suggested that Cameron was responding to central themes within his work. ‘The mole upon the neck…is it a charm, or a blemish?’ Cameron’s work was criticised during her lifetime for the marks and spots easily visible on the plates, and yet Flynn’s reading suggests this was not error, it was design. Cameron was known to discard works which were not as ‘perfect’ as she wished them to be. She is known to have said “As to the spots, they must I think remain….artists’ value these images’. Cameron then, was decisive about the look of her work and this statement shows she aligned her work with that of artists: knowing that they would respond to the painterly effects she captured. She sought to make the heavenly human and the human heavenly.
Her figures were flawed and sometimes faulty, and thus one way of reading this marks is to consider them as aligned and as a mirror of the characters themselves. Flynn stressed the out of focus sometimes cracked images were not due to inexperience but down to imbuing the works with these additional layers of meaning. Flynn described her own attempts at learning the process of glass plate photography and acknowledged the difficulties to achieve convincing effects of the standard of Cameron’s work.
Flynn gave some background to Cameron’s life, e.g. that she married James Hay Cameron and spent time living in Ceylon, as well as spending some years on the Isle of Wight, at Dimbola. It was at Dimbola that she first took up photography with an F6 camera as given to her by her daughter. She took her first photo when she was 48 and there are still new images coming to light, and some known but only via prints, e.g. it is known she took a portrait of Christina Rossetti but this has yet to be traced. Interestingly, Flynn described Cameron as something of an ugly duckling although the famous portrait of her by her mentor G.F. Watts makes her look not dissimilar to Christina.
Like so many female artists, Cameron turned to her female associates, local girls, serving girls, daughters etc,. to be her models. Although there are also some strong male figures, such as her neighbour on the Isle of Wight, Lord Alfred Tennyson, as well as Sir John Herschel and Thomas Carlyle. Many of her works are indicative of a devotion to poetry and of a deliberate intention of making photography part of High Art. Mary Hillier for example appears in simple portraits but also as characters in history, e.g. Sappho (1866, V&A). We should ask what makes this figure Sappho or even Sapphic, for she does not look particularly Grecian although her costume would, no doubt, have been chosen with care (albeit perhaps limited by Cameron’s access to such things. We know for example that certain props were reused). Flynn referred to Sontag’s Consequences of Lying here, where one can move beyond the ‘truth-telling’ of photography, becoming an indexical trace of the real rather than an iconic likeness. In her description of Marsyas we can substitute Sappho to provide us clarity: it is a photography, not a painting; a real Sappho, not a mythic one – and still alive in the picture.
As much as Cameron attempted to make High Art, and to create real (tragic, heroic) figures, she enjoyed layering identities. From capturing the real essential characteristics which embody sitters such as Carlyle, she plays with characters as part of ‘a female continuum’. Through the multiple guises and contemplations of the female, we find Cameron relating to [persons from different times and in different moral and religious ideas and also texts – author Mike Weaver discusses this in more detail.
This approach lead Cameron to typological pairings, typology being an important Victorian aesthetic, particularly for the Pre-Raphaelites. The Double Star (1864, V&A) is a mirror image which acts as a type of bridge between the New (Jesus) and the last of the Old (John the Baptist). They children in the work are under an arc of light, a halo perhaps. (Cameron actually appends hand drawn moons on some of her works, e.g. The Passing of King Arthur (1874, V&A)).
Using equivalents, Jesus and John, and Iolande and Floss (1864, V&A) creates really tightly drawn narratives, often typological, e.g. Iolande and Floss replicate the typology of the virtuous and the Magdalene – the Fallen Woman. The narrative is based on St Clement’s Eve where two novice nuns fall in love with a nobleman. These Brides of Christ are exemplary but rather provincial Magdalenes.
The author Mrs. Anna Jameson, wrote that ‘of all those who were left on earth at the crucifixion Mary is the most melancholy’. Images like Iolande and Floss, as well as Maud (1875, V&A) are racked with melancholy. Even Maud captures this typological melancholy in the full title ‘There has Fallen a splendid Tear from the Passion Flower at the Gate’. I noted during this talk how rather interestingly, Maud is reminiscent of Watts’ Ellen Terry ‘Choosing’ (1864, National Gallery) and also Waterhouse’s much later work My Sweet Rose (1908): suggesting both inheritance and reception between these artists.
One of the most overtly melancholic works is the Deathbed Study of Adeline Grace Clogstoun (1872, NGA). Adelina was Cameron’s adopted daughter and died aged ten. With no response possible from Adelina, Cameron constructs the scene around her daughter, and the camera responds to itself as we can see from the flash in the background. The camera becomes self-referential, the sitter lifeless, and any photographic exchange rendered inert. Whereas Cameron inscribed ‘from life’ on the back of her images, on this work she wrote ‘from death’, and the pain is palpable.
The Shunnamite Woman and her dead Son (1865, V&A) lacks this pain, but is illustrative of Cameron’s interest in contemplative poetry, melancholy, typology, religion, and literature. The Day Spring (1865) also features within the so called ‘Madonna Pictures’ Cameron created, of which there are many. These ‘equivalents’ as Flynn called them, feature woman to child, as well as woman to woman. In many of the Madonna works, the child is sleeping which meant there was less risk of blurring from movement during the long exposures technically required. This design also suggested death, which Cameron experienced, as did many families during the Victorian era. More broadly, the construction references the Pietà, where Mary is shown cradling the dead Christ.
Simple props transform these works into religious themes, e.g. in The Shadow of the Cross (1865, V&A) Cameron’s use of a simple cross and drapery for the female’s costume transforms the scene into a timeless religious space. The tender mother leaning over the child prefigures Mary mourning over the body of her son after his crucifixion.
Other religious works of interest are The Kiss of Peace (1869) (dealing with notions of purity and impurity via the untied hair) and the Angel at the Sepulchre (1869, V&A) and the Angel at the Tomb (1869, V&A).
The Angel at the Sepulchre is an example of Cameron’s large-scale, closeup heads which she saw as a rejection of ‘mere conventional topographic photography – map-making and skeleton rendering of feature and form’ in favour of a less precise but more emotionally penetrating form of portraiture. One critic accused Cameron of ‘questionable taste’ for exhibiting this photograph with the words ‘very beautiful / none better / G.F. Watts’ inscribed on it. Cameron was clearly proud of Watts’ praise and produced prints of the image with his inscription reproduced on the mounts. The title refers to the angel that appeared at Christ’s tomb after his resurrection, though in the biblical account the angel was male. It is curious that despite this work being an angelic one, the symbolism is Marian and therefore making the work even more feminine. Cameron uses the untied hair to supplement this effect, and does so even more in Angel at the Tomb. The diffusion of focus mirrors the diffusion of subject and narrative in these works.
Cameron’s works continue to delight us, but we also continue to struggle with them. We cannot seemingly accept these technical or thematic distortions with ease. We continue to discuss Cameron’s assertion ‘as to the spots, they must I think remain’ and we have yet to find consensus in our viewpoint. Perhaps it should be enough to accept Cameron’s view that ‘artists value the images’, after all, we enjoy them enough to continue discussing them.
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Flynn is currently based at Dimbola, a charitable trust on the Isle of Wight which receives no central or local government funding. Dimbola Lodge was the home of Cameron, and it is now a Museum and Gallery dedicated to her life and work
Letters between Watts and Cameron can be found here.
 Maud being a Tennyson poem, his favourite in fact.