Afternoon with Julia Margaret Cameron’s Photographs

The other week, I had a respite from the tyranny of work. Some rostered days off that allowed me the opportunity of reflection and wandering around the city enjoying its scenic delights. The weather was fortuitously very sunny and warm as well, so I set off for the NSW Art Gallery without a care in the world.

My main purpose in visiting the NSW Art Gallery was to view the exhibition of the photography of the 19th century Victorian, Julia Margaret Cameron. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK had generously lent a selection of its precious gems to our Gallery. Having read about this exhibition in The Guardian (can’t find the review now unfortunately, but here’s one from the Sydney Morning Herald) and having a passion for going back in time, it was a must for me to go and see.

I am discovering the art of photography myself, finding in its ability to capture a beautiful moment an instant gratification.

Pink daisy flowers

Flowers at Royal Botanic Garden

So much better than fiddling for ages with paint brushes,

Vietnamese dragon-like mythical beast

Mythical beast from Cham Museum, Da Nang, Vietnam.

pencils, charcoal and colours and the eternal frustration of never getting it quite right. And the amazing thing about photography is how much the artist can manipulate the media and choose the focus to get the kind of picture, effect or interpretation they see with their mind’s eye.

Photography is a true picture of a reality outside the self, but that reality is different for everyone.

So I entered the Art Gallery, paid for my ticket and went upstairs to view the exhibition. Apparently Cameron’s career as a photographer started in her late-forties when she was given a camera as a gift.  This was new-fangled media then, but already conventions were in play.  Subjects were stiffly posed and subject to highly focused scrutiny, with every button shining and every detail sharply delineated.

But Cameron departed somewhat radically from these norms, with her portraits of people wreathed in a kind of ethereal mist and her romantic idea that she was portraying people in terms of their personal ‘essence’ rather than the realistic rendition of the subject in the bald light of day.  She went for the Great Moment, rather than the Perfect Picture.  She said that when confronted with a sight of great beauty, she would take the picture immediately rather than start fiddling with the focus like a lot of other photographers did.

Alfred Lord Tennyson in bust profile

Alfred Lord Tennyson

Thus a portrait of the Poet Laureate, Alfred Lord Tennyson, portrays a dishevelled bearded and long-haired man almost in mid-movement, intent far more on his art than his appearance.  He liked this picture immensely and called it ‘the dirty monk’.

Another photo portrays a young woman of classic, finely-modelled features approaching the camera, her beauty all the more enhanced for its being slightly off-focus.

This spontaneity that graces her portraits must have been an extremely difficult thing to achieve with such an intractable media like the Victorian camera.  The exposures were so long that everybody had to stay absolutely still in their allotted positions and scarcely breathe for quite a while, lest an extraordinary amount of trouble and expense was ruined.

This probably accounts for the distinct lack of gaiety in all the portraits.  None of the people were smiling.  But Cameron seems to have made a virtue of this with people appearing rather serious, pensive and reflective which plays more to the idea of portraying the inner and less temporal person.

Alice Liddell as a young woman

Alice Liddell

A portrait of Alice Liddell (said to be the muse of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’) reveals a girl nearing the edge of adulthood with fine eyes of an inimitably imperious expression, but shot through with a kind of sadness. Why she should be so sad, I did not know. It is one of those mysteries that Cameron is wont to throw up and leave lying in the air.

Another picture was titled ‘Summer days’, with a frieze of young

Group of two women and two children in summer clothes

Summer Days

women and girls arrayed becomingly in their large, floppy summer hats and festive, holiday clothes, but resting against each other with expressions of the most pervasive pensiveness.  These days, the caption would invite depictions of riotous jollity.  But somehow I really liked the serious tone of it, as if it was an evocation that nothing, no matter how good, lasts forever.  That time moves on and these eternally good times, one and all become nothing more than memories.

She was very fond of putting together theatrical scenes from Shakespeare, Tennyson, Antiquity or the Bible, creating many moments of fine dark drama or gentle, aerial mystery and melancholy.

Young woman in profile


My favourite of these is of her house-mistress, a dark-haired young woman with the beautiful features and profile of a 15th century Madonna. She is posing as the Ancient Greek poet Sappho, with an embroidered peasant blouse I’d like to steal and a dramatic necklace of hanging teardrops.  The deliberate position of her hand on the lyre forms a gentle and respectful tribute.

Cameron, according to the script, was a very religious person and consequently there were a number of pictures devoted to the subject of piety.  Piety is something I do not understand, being an atheist from another time and place.

Woman in prayer

Pensive Nun

But there was something very moving about one portrait of a woman devoutly pressing her hands to her chest in a heartfelt, prayer-like position that could only be a gesture of some very deep love and reverence.  The caption was from a poem ,’Il Penseroso’, by the 17th century English poet John Milton ‘Come pensive nun devout and pure, sober steadfast and demure’.

Her portrait of the scientist astronomer and her muse, Sir John Herschel,

Portrait of a scientist

Sir John Herschel

is a triumph of the documentation of a another time.  Rough-headed and unkempt, he is gazing indomitably into the future with the questing, wildly surmising look of a person accustomed to acutely observing phenomena and exploring its implications with his massive intellect.  And yet he belongs solidly in the 19th Century, as one of its pioneers and progenitors, one of those who shaped the future.  She captures the darkness science was emerging from at that age.  No scientist today could ever be quite in the same place of so much unknowing.

Young woman in profile


But Cameron was also capable of taking photos that seemed as if they were taken yesterday.  A young woman in a becoming short-sleeve white peasant’s blouse rests up against a wall, one hand holding her necklace and the silvery bangles on her arm lending a sharp and precise light. Also interesting about this picture is how Cameron seems to make the pattern on the wall-paper part of the shadow of the woman herself and somehow expressive of her personality.

Two children holding flowers

The Sad White Roses

Much is made of Cameron’s treatment of children in her photos.  Coming from the background of being housewife and mother, she seems to absolutely love putting them into various becoming theatrical positions with adults such as the aforesaid house-mistress in scenes like Madonna and child, or together in various poses that seem to evoke a kind of elegant floating world that the Victorian well-to-do lived in.  While they look like adorable little animals and it must have been a major feat getting them to stay still for so long, I think Cameron does best when there is an accidental quality to the shot.

One of her first pictures was of a child caught as if just

Young girl face and neck

‘Annie, my first success’

coming in to a room from outside.  She is buttoned up in warm clothing and her shy expression and birdlike personality shines unerringly through.  Cameron was understandably delighted with this picture, calling it her first successful photo.

There was much more, but having gazed and stayed for long in this gallery room of mystical melancholy and shades of black and white, it seemed a relief to leave and get out into the afternoon sunlight and colour of the green Sydney Domain with its massive fig trees and long airy stretch of green lawn.

Spreading fig tree in city park

Fig tree in the Sydney Domain

I wonder whether people from the Victorian age really did live their life with a kind of seriousness that today’s society with its relentless hedonism does not seem to value.  Or that the people might look back at all that unremitting sobriety and think ‘that was then. Thank goodness for that’.

Maybe a balance between the two would be progress!