Julia Margaret Cameron: The Pioneering Photographer

01 February 2019

Women in Photography: A History of British Trailblazers features four evocative photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron (1815 - 1879), a truly great pioneer of photography. Before moving to the Isle of Wight in 1860, Cameron had an unusual and interesting life. She was born in 1815 in Calcutta where her father, James Pattle, was a wealthy official of the East India Company. Home life was highly intellectual and stimulating. In 1818, Julia was sent to France to begin her education where she mostly stayed until 1834. On a visit to South Africa in 1836, she met her husband-to-be, Charles Hay Cameron, and also the famous astronomer Sir John Herschel. Both were to have a significant influence on her life, Cameron on her artistic development and Herschel on her approach to photography.


Julia Margaret Cameron taken by her son, Henry, Hershel Hay Cameron © JMCT

After her brief sojourn in South Africa, Julia returned to India, married in 1836 and over the next 12 years raised a family of six, always in an artistic environment. In 1841 the Camerons settled in Kent where they stayed for nearly two decades. In 1860 they moved to the Isle of Wight, where they converted two houses into one to become Dimbola Lodge, which they named after Julia’s family's tea plantations in Ceylon.

The artist's photographic career began in 1863, when she was gifted a box camera for Christmas by her daughter. Drawing on what she had learnt from Herschel, Julia quickly gained recognition and success with her photographs of family and friends. Her career blossomed and within just four years, she exhibited at the Universal Exhibition in Paris. Other exhibitions followed including in Germany and the Netherlands.


Dimbola Lodge © Julia Margaret Cameron Trust

Her photographs were recognisable from her individual and evocative style of portraiture and figurative shots. The London Illustrated News described her portraits as ‘the nearest approach to art, or rather the most bold and successful applications of the principles of fine-art to photography’. While living in Kent, Julia had become immersed in the Little Holland House salon run by her sister, Sara Princep, which for many years attracted leading artists and the literati.

Many of the artists and writers who stayed or visited Little Holland House were to visit Julia at Dimbola Lodge, which became a famous salon in its own right and where photographs of many of Julia’s visitors are on show today. Alfred Lord Tennyson, her near neighbour, was a frequent visitor. Among other well known visitors were G F Watts, Thomas Carlyle, Robert Browning, Henry Taylor, Charles Darwin, Sir John Herschel, Lewis Carroll, Alice Liddell, George Du Maurier, Holman Hunt, Ellen Terry and Charles Kingsley.


Venus Chiding Cupid and Removing his Wings, 1872 Julia Margaret Cameron  © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Julia’s brilliant career, which began relatively late in life, was sadly short-lived. In 1875 she left Dimbola and went to live in Ceylon to be with her tea planter sons. She died there in 1879.

Her huge legacy is well illustrated by the influence she had on other photographers who followed her. Much of what she achieved can be seen in the Dimbola Lodge and Galleries in Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight. The warren of Victorian rooms full of Julia’s photographs and treasures always reveal something unexpected. Dimbola is quaint and full of charm and well worth a visit.

Join Dr Judith Hill, Historian and Lecturer, as she takes us on an illustrated journey through Julia Margaret Cameron's life and work in the upcoming talk Julia Margaret Cameron: The Pursuit of Beauty, on Tuesday 2 April 2019.

Written by Friend of The Lightbox, Richard Freeman.

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