Julia Margaret Cameron was one of the most important and innovative photographers of the 19th century. Her photographs purposely out of focus, often including scratches, smudges and other traces of the artistic’s process were considered rule-breaking by the critics of her time.
She started taking up photography for her amusement at the age of 48, when she received a camera as a gift from her daughter and son-in-law. Nowadays she’s known for her portraits of the great men of the Victorian age, with whom she was well acquainted.
She photographed not only influential figures of her time, but also women of her household, casting them in allegories of literary and/or religious subjects. Cameron intended her photographs to evince a connection between the spiritual and the natural realms, like her contemporaries the Pre-Raphaelite painters.
The Rosebud Garden of Girls
It’s a photograph of a group of four young women all with untied hair. Two of them are seated and are flanked by the other two standing. They all wear light coloured dresses and holding flowers. There are flowers and greenery in the background. This photograph is mounted along with three other prints on a folded paper mount.
This photo was taken in the garden of Cameron’s neighbour on the Isle of Wight, the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson. Cameron took the opportunity of photographing the four Fraser-Tytler sisters (Nelly, Christina, Mary and Ethel) during their visit to Lord Tennyson residence in June 1868.
The title of the work is taken from the line “Queen rose of the rosebud garden of girls” in Tennyson’s poem Maud (1855) which is considered one of his finest achievements. Cameron’s picture cannot be considered as an accurate illustration Tennyson’s verse, her group of soporific maidens set against a lush floral background is more of an attempt to capture the quality and feeling of Pre-Raphaelite paintings (especially by Rossetti and Burne-Jones). The free hair and ethereal faces of these four sisters are a reflection of the ideal of beauty established by Pre-Raphaelite painters, with whom Cameron was closely connected.
In this kind of picture Cameron acted also as a director, arranging the group according to her whim, an aspect that was not entirely to the taste of critics. One critic said once, in the Pall Mall Gazette in January 1868, that “some of the groups or tableaux vivants lose, from the very reason of their artificialness, that noble and natural harmony of expression which is the charm of Mrs. Cameron’s production”.
- The figure seated second from the right, Mary Fraser-Tytler, studied painting with George Frederick Watts and in 1886 became his second wife. She memorialised her husband in a biography with three volumes that was published in 1912 under the title George Frederick Watts: The Annals of an Artist’s Life, the offers intimate glimpses of their circle.
- Mary Fraser-Tytler is the same Mary Seaton Watts, the artist who designed and buil the Watts Mortuary Chapel, here on the blog there is an old post about this beautiful Art Nouveau chapel.