Chantal Joffe RA delights in the photographs of Julia Margaret Cameron

Published 11 November 2015

As two new shows celebrate the 200th anniversary of Julia Margaret Cameron, painter Chantal Joffe RA explains why her photographs interest and inspire her.

  • From the Winter 2015 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    The thing that really strikes me when I look at photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron (1815– 79) is the excitement, her delight in using this new medium. It is as if you are seeing the photographs as she first did, feeling as she must have felt when the face of her friend and mentor, the scientist John Herschel, emerged from the chemicals, looming out of the darkness (pictured).

    I like to think of Cameron in her converted henhouse in her garden on the Isle of Wight, her studio where people she had spotted on the beach would come and sit for her. Her photographs still have all the newness of those encounters contained in them.

    Cameron said that no woman should allow herself to be photographed between the ages of 18 and 80, and clearly she loved to make photographs of young, beautiful women. There is one of Alice Liddell in a white open-neck dress and the same fierce black eyes look back at you as from Lewis Caroll’s photograph of her as a child, dressed as a beggar maid.

    I am especially interested in the pictures of Julia Jackson (pictured). Cameron photographed her young niece many times; in the hooded eyes and bony, beautiful features you can see the daughters she will have, who will grow up to be Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. In Cameron’s Herschel Album (1864–67), there are pictures of Jackson in profile, and with her hair long and loose – she looks beautiful and free. And then abruptly there is one of her captioned Mrs Herbert Duckworth. Here Jackson is sombre, with her hair neatly tucked under a white cap and she wears a severe black dress.

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