The Genius of the Glass House

In a short essay in the voluminous catalog that accompanies the exhibition “Julia Margaret Cameron’s Women,” Phyllis Rose notes that “Cameron’s women do not smile. Their poses embody sorrow, resignation, composure, solemnity, and love, determined love, love which will have a hard time of it.” Rose goes on to write of the illness, disaster, and defeat that perpetually hovered over the lives of Victorian women. But there were causes closer to hand for the tragic address of Cameron’s women. Cameron used a photo-graphic apparatus—fifteen- by twelve-inch glass plates and a lens of thirty-inch focal length—that required exposures of between three and ten minutes. Here is an account of a sitting by one of the unsmiling women, quoted by Helmut Gernsheim in his book Julia Margaret Cameron: Her Life and Photographic Work (1948 and 1974):

Mrs. Cameron put a crown on my head and posed me as the heroic queen. This was somewhat tedious, but not half so bad as the exposure…. The exposure began. A minute went over and I felt as if I must scream; another minute, and the sensation was as if my eyes were coming out of my head; a third, and the back of my neck appeared to be afflicted with palsy; a fourth, and the crown, which was too large, began to slip down my forehead….

As it proved, the sitter’s excruciations were for naught. The photograph was ruined during the fifth minute by Cameron’s husband Charles, a distinguished retired colonial official with a magnificent white beard, who would affably lend himself to his wife’s enterprise to play a Merlin or Lear as the occasion required, but who was unfortunately given to “unconquerable fits of hilarity which always came in the wrong places.” When Charles “began to laugh audibly…this was too much for my self-possession, and I was obliged to join the dear old gentleman.”

We have been affectionately laughing at Julia Cameron for over half a century; her reputation as a major photographer is inextricably entangled with the legend of her endearing ridiculousness. Virginia Woolf, who was Cameron’s great-niece, set the legend in motion in 1926 in a biographical essay she wrote for the Hogarth Press monograph Victorian Photographs of Famous Men and Fair Women by Julia Margaret Cameron. Three years earlier, Woolf had written a farce called Freshwater (a sort of Patience manqué, named for Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight, where Charles and Julia lived) in which she poked fun at the Victorian cult of beauty and rendered her great-aunt as one of its more exalted high priestesses. She described Cameron as “a brown-faced gypsylike-looking old woman, wearing a green shawl, fastened by an enormous cameo,” and gave her this speech:

All my sisters were beautiful, but I had genius. They were the brides of men, but I am the bride of Art. I have sought the beautiful in the most unlikely places. I have searched the police force at Freshwater …

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