Monday, March 13, 2023

My review of Julia Margaret Cameron Arresting Beauty by Lisa Springer, Marta Weiss - Victoria and Albert Museum



Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–1879) was one of the most innovative and influential photographers in the history of the medium. Though criticized in her own lifetime, her distinctive use of close-up and soft-focus is now considered groundbreaking. The Victoria and Albert Museum’s extensive holdings represent the largest collection of her work anywhere in the world, newly united with treasures from the Royal Photographic Society. Drawing on this unparalleled collection, this book presents an engaging introduction to Cameron’s life and work through more than 100 of her most important photographs. Three sections explore Cameron’s unique artistry and range: from her early experiments in the art of photography, to her pioneering portraits of public figures such as Charles Darwin and Sir John Herschel, to her allegorical compositions and the artistic tableaus she created to illustrate Alfred Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. Also including pages from the original manuscript of Cameron’s autobiography and insightful explanatory texts, Arresting Beauty tells the story of her pioneering career and lasting legacy in one accessible and beautiful volume.


Lisa Springer


Lisa Springer is Curator of Touring Exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Marta Weiss


Marta Weiss is Senior Curator of Photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum. She is an expert on nineteenth-century photography and has published widely on the subject.


Publisher:  Thames & Hudson USA
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Pages: 208
  • Artwork: 126 illustrations
  • Size: 7.1 in x 9.1 in
  • Forthcoming: April 4th, 2023
  • ISBN-10: 0500480869
  • ISBN-13: 9780500480861

julia margaret cameron photographed by
her son, Henry Herschel Hay Cameron, 
albumen print, 1870.

It is with effort that I restrain the overflow of my heart and simply
state that my first lens was given to me by my cherished departed 
daughter and her husband, with the words, 'It may amuse you,
Mother, to try to photograph during your solitude at Freshwater.'

The gift from those I loved so tenderly added more and more
impulse to my deeply seated love of the beautiful, and from the first
moment I handled my lens with a tender ardour, and it has become
to me a living thing, with voice and memory and creative vigor.
Julia Margaret Cameron, Annals of My Glass House

Inside the pages of, Julia Margaret Cameron Arresting Beauty amongst the pictorial explorations of her life, are a few pages of the original manuscript of Annals of My Glass House written in Julia Margaret Cameron's own hand in 1874 now a part of the RPS - Royal Photographic Society Collection and transferred to the V&A.

I gasped out loud as I turned the pages and saw and read Julia Margaret Cameron's own words, in her handwriting. I felt as if I had stumbled into her bedroom at Dimbola Lodge, her home of Freshwater Bay, Isle of Wight in the United Kingdom. Some curious busybody going through her things all the while knowing its wrong but not being able to tear myself away. Her voice ringing in my ear, her feelings about her albumen prints, her life and loved ones abundantly clear.  This is how it feels to turn the pages of this beautiful book that Lisa Springer and Marta Weiss have so lovingly put together in Arresting Beauty.
Annie, 1864, 
albumen print by julia margaret cameron

The first part of Arresting Beauty is entitled, 'Beauty That Came Before Me' beginning with the first albumen print Julia ever took of sitter, Annie Philpot, a neighbor's daughter. It took several hours to complete and several sweets to get the child to remain still for many hours. Mrs. Cameron remarked, 'I was in a transport of delight. I ran all over the house to search for gifts for the child. I felt as if she entirely had made the picture I printed, toned, fixed and framed it, and presented it to her father the same day.' 

These are the beginning years of photography for Julia Margaret Cameron where she experimented with portraiture by seeking out Old Master paintings from the Italian Renaissance as well as Parthenon Marbles. Julia found beauty all around her whether it be her neighbors down the road or a face captured in a painting before her time. 

Giotto Arena Chapel The Virigin Mary and Elizabeth embrace - Julia Margaret Camerons version, 1864

The seconed part of Arresting Beauty is entitled, 'Poets, Prophets,  Painters and Lovely Maidens.' Julia begins photographing 'her friends and neighbors' around Freshwater Bay, Isle of Wight, where she lives in  her home, Dimbola Lodge, a nod to her plantations in Ceylon. Julia begins with a grand poet of her day, Alfred Tennyson.  She also photographs astronomer and friend, Sir John Herschel as well as her housemaid, Mary Hillier and model, Emily Peacock.

A Tennyson, 1865, albumen print by julia margaret cameron

'I took another immortal head, that of Alfred Tennyson and the result
was that profile portrait which he himself designates as the "Dirty Monk", states Cameron in Annals.
Tennyson was Cameron's neighbor and a loyal friend. By 1850, when she first came to know him,
he was a widely admired public figure who had been appointed Poet Laureate. Cameron considered
him a hero and created many portraits of him over the years.

Mary by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1873
Mary Hillier one of Julia's housemaids

This portrait of Mary Hillier emphasizes her hair falling in waves over her shoulder,
recalling the flowing hair made famous by Pre-Raphaelite painters like Dante Gabriel Rossetti the decade before. A review of Cameron's photographs in the Intellectual Observer in February 1867 
drew attention to her skilful rendering of hair. 
'Beautiful hair, left free, is one of the most poetic of nature's  productions...very subtle and sympathetic 
are the combinations of light...which defy the efforts of ordinary artists to reproduce.'

The last section of Arresting Beauty is entitled, 'Voice and Memory and Creative Vigor.'  Julia loves storytelling through depicting characters and scenes from literary sources including, Shakespeare, Browning and Tennyson.

Prospero and Miranda, 1865

This was the photograph that allegedly prompted Henry John Stedman Cotton to propose 
to Mary Ryan. Cameron writes in Annals that 'entirely out of the 
Prospero and Miranda picture sprung a marriage which has I hope 
cemented the welfare and wellbeing of a real King Cophetua who in the Miranda saw
the prize which has proved a jewel in that monarch crown.' 
In a legend popularized in verse by Tennyson, Cophetua is a king who falls in love 
with and marries a beggar. 

Browning's Sordello, 1867

Cameron was proud of Ryan and Cotton's cross-class romance and
posed them together on several occasions. Here they play
characters from a narrative poem by Robert Browning, Sordello, published in 1840.
Cameron inscribed a verse on one print, ending with the lines...
'she/Unbound a scar and laid it heavily/Upon him, her neck's warmth and all.'

My absolute favorite part of Arresting Beauty is the last section which includes Idylls of the King and Other Poems, vol. I by Alfred Lord Tennyson. Photographed in its entirety by Julia Margaret Cameron including her own handwritten pages of various sections  of 'Idylls.' 

In 1874, Alfred Tennyson, the Poet Laureate, invited Cameron to make photographic illustrations to Idylls of the King, his series of narrative poems based on the legends of King Arthur. After her large photographs were published as small woodcut copies, Cameron decided to  produce an edition illustrated by original photographic prints accompanied by handwritten extracts from the poems printed in facsimile. She claimed to have made as many as 245 exposures to arrive at the 25 she finally published in two volumes in 1874 and 1875.

My favorite photograph is Merlin and Vivien as depicted by Julia Margaret Cameron 
(sitters:  Agnes Mangles standing with loose hair standing in profile and Charles Hay Cameron (Julia's husband) facing her with shining silvery white long hair).

If you are just interested in studying Julia Margaret Cameron's photographs then Arresting Beauty is a wonderful place to start getting to know the photographer herelf through her work, love and passion for creating beauty. 

Thank you so much to the folks at Thames and Hudson USA for my beautiul review copy.
I will add it to my varied research collection of books.

For more information and to purchase a copy, Thames & Hudson USA

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