Review: Julia Margaret Cameron's 'Fancy subjects' by Jeff Rosen

Julia Margaret Cameron's 'Fancy subjects' is the first study of Cameron's allegorical photographs and the first to examine the intellectual connections of this imagery to British culture and politics of the 1860s and 1870s. In these photographs, Cameron depicted passages from classical mythology, the Old and New Testament, and historical and contemporary literature. She costumed her friends, domestic help, and village children in dramatic poses, turning them into goddesses and nymphs, biblical kings and medieval knights; she photographed young women in the style of the Elgin marbles, making sculpture come alive, and re-imagined scenes depicted in the poetry of Byron and Tennyson. 

Cameron chose allegory as her primary artistic device because it allowed her to use popular iconography to convey a latent or secondary meaning. In her photographs, a primary meaning is first conveyed by the title of the image; then, social and political ideas that the artist implanted in the image begin to emerge, contributing to and commenting on the contemporary cultural, religious and political debates of the time. Cameron used the term 'fancy subjects' to embed these moral, intellectual and political narratives in her photographs. This book reconnects her to the prominent minds in her circle who influenced her thinking, including Benjamin Jowett, George Grote and Henry Taylor, and demonstrates her awareness and responsiveness to popular graphic art, including textiles and wall paper, book illustrations and engravings from period folios, cartoons from Punch and line drawings from the Illustrated London News, cabinet photographs and autotype prints.

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Manchester University Press; 1 edition (July 1, 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1784993174
  • ISBN-13: 978-1784993177

The historical and the devotional were one to Mrs. Cameron. Thus in her work we find the embodiment of the ideas of Keble and Newman So it was that Mrs. Cameron's treatment of her friends, her servants, her acquaintances, her heroes, and those whom she snatched off the streets like any scout for a model agency had but one aim-to show their divine and superhuman aspect She clearly regarded her photographs as theophanies, manifestations of God in terms of living persons-both indexes and icons of the true, the good, and the beautiful. 

The Five Foolish Virgins by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1864 
Albumen print from collodion wet-plate negative
V&A Museum

These two 'fancy subjects' The Five Foolish Virgins and Variant of Too Late! Too Late! are representations of different verses of Idylls of the King by Alfred, Lord Tennyson re-interpreted through the eye of Julia Margaret Cameron. They happen to be two of my favorite images. I can't help but wonder if the image of the foolish virgins was taken inside Mrs. Cameron's 'glass house'? I am looking at the roof above the girls to the left side it looks like glass panes sectioned off by wood possibly. I might be wrong but it would've given them great natural light for photographs. 
(Rejlander/JMC image not included in the book but 
I use it here as a possible example of the roof
of the glass house). 
The Idylls of the Village or The Idols of the Village (1863) 
Oscar Rejlander possible collaboration with Julia Margaret Cameron

Back to the allegory at hand. Mrs. Cameron portrayed the foolish virgins from the biblical Parable of the Ten Virgins which dates back to theologian Augustine of Hippo and became a staple in church sermons across the centuries. Eighteenth century evangelical George Whitfield preached the parable as a way of connecting everyday responsibility with moral obligation. Parable of the Ten Virgins tells the story of how ten virgins are waiting for a bridegroom as part of an Eastern marriage ceremony. It is their job to wait for the groom so they could bring him to the ceremony. However, while waiting for the groom to arrive, every one of the ten virgins falls asleep. He is so late that the sound of his footsteps awakens the virgins who groggily fumble about in the darkness. They try to light their oil lamps but discover they are out of oil. They take off in search of some and by the time they all return, it is too late too late!. For they find the gate locked; the service begins without them. 
Variant of Too Late! Too Late!  {Have we not Heard the Bridegroom is so Sweet}
  by Julia Margaret Cameron,  August 1874, Albumen Print
Estate of Vanessa Bell, 1998

One of my favorite stories in, 'Fancy subjects', is the day Julia Margaret Cameron listened to a sermon of Parable of the Ten Virgins by Anglican priest William Henry Brookfield one Sunday at her local church on Freshwater Bay, Isle of Wight. Her dear friend, Anny Thackeray sets the scene:

"Mrs Cameron led her way into the gallery and took up her place in front exactly facing the pulpit. When Mr. Brookfield appeared climbing the pulpit stairs to deliver his sermon, his head was so near us that we could have almost touched it. Mrs. Cameron chose the moment to lean forward and kiss her hand to him repeatedly". 

During his sermon, Brookfield quoted from Tennyson's Guinevere and the song of the Little Novice as an example of a moral dilemma when 'repentance and the real wish for amendment have become impossible, and it becomes 'too late. The door is shut' as it pertains to the Parable of the Ten Virgins.

I have learned to view Mrs. Cameron's albumen prints in a completely different light thanks to author and art historian, Jeff Rosen. Personally, I tend to focus on the straight, non-thematical albumen prints of the friends of Julia Margaret Cameron instead of the allegory behind the photograph. 

One of the terrific highlights of 'Fancy subjects' is the in depth knowledge and research Jeff Rosen has done. He has gone through The Getty Museum's catalogue raisonnĂ©  of Cameron's works focusing on her allegorical subjective albumen prints with the aim of providing the reader with a religious, cultural, and historical background. It was wonderful reading the seven chapters of the book some focused on thematic storyline while others focused on poets and their works like Alfred Tennyson and his Idylls of the King being the most famous and recognizable. 

If you are not into allegory specifically, maybe you are curious about the personal life of photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879)? Well, Jeff Rosen includes drawings, sketches and correspondence excerpts from her husband, Charles Hay Cameron. The mysterious and not well known final years of their personal lives (1875-1880) are discussed. Specifically, the travel from Ceylon to Isle of Wight and the career woes of her husband bring some information to view in a different way. You see them more as humanized, a married couple and parents of six children who also run coffee plantations.  

This is a comprehensive and densely written compendium but a must for all photography and poetry lovers.  I hope everyone will read it to enjoy the photographs and the stories behind them.  

Thank you to Oxford University Press in the U.S. for sending me a beautiful hardcover edition review copy that is proudly on my research shelf. 

Julia Margaret Cameron's 'Fancy subjects' is out now in the United Kingdom,  Amazon UK

You can pre-order your copy now, Amazon US


Kevin Marsh said…
Hello Kimberly,

What lovely and interesting photographs.
Thank you for sharing.