I owe a huge amount of personal and creative inspirations to my pioneering ancestor Julia Margaret Cameron. I am lucky enough to have a heritage rich in artistic archives of books and photographs, stories and iconic women such as Virginia Woolf. These women were trailblazers, fearlessly pushing boundaries in the creative arts and thought leaders amongst the men and women of the 18th century. Their legacies live on and are culturally celebrated to this day.
My great great great grandmother Julia Margaret Cameron was a pioneer British photographer, amongst the first to be known as an artist in the photographic sense. Certainly the first female photographer from the Victorian era whose photographs are still held in such high regard today. Her life story, eccentric character and celebrated circle of friends continue to be a great source of fascination to me. I have spent hours consuming books and articles and various archives of images she took many of which are held at the Victoria and Albert museum where she once had a studio.
Born in Calcutta, India in 1815, Julia Margaret became most notably famous for her portraits of celebrities of the time including Charles Darwin, Alfred Lloyd Tennyson, her niece Virginia Woolf, Alice Liddell, G F Watts and John Herschel. Some of her more iconic images took on Arthurian and other legendary or heroic themes. Many of her images captured Pre Raphaelite beauties adorned in jewellery and headpieces that she had collected from her time living in India. In many of my previous photo-shoots I have referenced these images in style and artistic feeling even naming my collection ‘A Pre Raphaelite Utopia’ in honor of her memory. Cameron resided in The Isle Of White for most of her photographic career where she created a magical world frequented by artists, poets and revolutionaries of the day where no one was commonplace. A magical world where all are welcome and liberated.
Cameron’s photographic career started late in life, at age 48 when she was given a camera as a gift from her daughter to keep her occupied in times of solitude. She took this on not as a part time hobby as one might assume but as a dedicated passion with such focus and vigor that she produced thousands of images within her ten-year career. Tirelessly creating and engaging everyone from celebrities, maids to orphans she found on the street who would sit for her in whichever way she decided.
Although her style was not widely appreciated in her own day, her work has had an impact on modern photographers, especially her closely cropped portraits.
Julia was from a family of celebrated beauties and was considered an ugly duckling among her seven sisters. As her great-niece Virginia Woolf wrote in the 1926 introduction to the Hogarth Press collection of Cameron’s photographs, “In the trio [of sisters] where…[one] was Beauty; and [one] Dash; Mrs. Cameron was undoubtedly Talent”. The trio of sisters were known for their personal style and tastes, which were deemed to be unusual. Having moved to England they continued to dress in the style to which they had been accustomed when growing up in India. Swathed in colourful saris and adorned in vibrant gemstones. They were also known for their eccentric characters and were even labelled as the collective Pattledom as from the outset they appeared to live in their own world where the conventionalities of the day were outside of their concerns.
Having this powerful and pioneering strong woman in my heritage has helped me find connection within myself as the more I read about her the greater I see my own quirks as bearing a remarkable resemblance which gives me confidence in my own abilities. Whenever personal doubts arise I think of her. She set the bar in encouraging anyone with a vision to move forward fearlessly despite perceived lacks or negative opinions from others. The confidence and self-belief she had to begin a career when women were resigned to be confined to the house and not much else demonstrates her ferocious and progressive nature. She gave little thought to the presupposed obstacles and barriers placed upon women of the Victorian. Her passion for creative freedom and capturing beauty was unprecedented.
An incredible role model to me and surely one of the original feminists. She lived her life according to the beat of her own drum. She lived by her rules and no one elses.
I have included a gallery here of some of my favourite photographs. I would love to know which of her images inspire you and why.