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Photograph - Il Penseroso
  • Il Penseroso
    Cameron, Julia Margaret, born 1815 - died 1879
  • Enlarge image

Il Penseroso

  • Object:


  • Place of origin:

    England (photographed)

  • Date:

    1864 - 1865 (photographed)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Cameron, Julia Margaret, born 1815 - died 1879 (photographer)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Albumen print from wet collodion glass negative

  • Credit Line:

    Given by or Purchased from Julia Margaret Cameron, 27 September 1865

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Prints & Drawings Study Room, level F, case X, shelf 311, box B

Julia Margaret Cameron accepted and even embraced irregularities that other photographers would have rejected as technical flaws. In addition to her pioneering use of soft focus, she scratched into her negatives, printed from broken or damaged ones and occasionally used multiple negatives to form a single picture. Although criticised at the time as evidence of ‘slovenly’ technique, these traces of the artist’s hand in Cameron’s prints can now be appreciated for their modernity.

Cameron was not uncritical of her work and strove to improve her skills. She sought the opinion of her mentor, the painter G. F. Watts, though at his insistence she sent him imperfect prints for comment, reserving the more successful ones for potential sale. Cameron also sought advice from the Photographic Society and from Henry Cole, the founding director of the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum) on combatting the ‘cruel calamity’ of crackling that had ruined some of her ‘most precious negatives’.

This is one of four versions done to illustrate John Milton’s poem Il Penseroso. In this version the irregular streaks and swirls produced by the unevenly coated glass negative are echoed in the sitter’s diaphanous veil.

Physical description

Half-lenght portrait of a woman with long dark hair wearing black clothes, looking down at her right with joined hands.

Place of Origin

England (photographed)


1864 - 1865 (photographed)


Cameron, Julia Margaret, born 1815 - died 1879 (photographer)

Materials and Techniques

Albumen print from wet collodion glass negative

Marks and inscriptions

Il Penseroso
Recto mount in ink by JMC at lower centre

From Life Julia Margaret Cameron
Recto mount in ink by JMC at lower centre

Girl (half-lenght), Study of.
Recto mount in ink by unknown hand at lower left corner

Colnaghi blind stamp at lower centre

Studies for Painting
Recto mount in ink by unknown hand at upper left corner

X.311 45145 Photographs by Mrs. Julia Margaret Cameron, c. 1864-75. “Il Penseroso.”
Museum label pasted to mount


Height: 25.2 cm image, Width: 20.2 cm image, Height: 33.5 cm mount, Width: 26.7 cm mount

Object history note

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–79) was one of the most important and innovative photographers of the 19th century. Her photographs were rule-breaking: purposely out of focus, and often including scratches, smudges and other traces of the artist’s process. Best known for her powerful portraits, she also posed her sitters – friends, family and servants – as characters from biblical, historical or allegorical stories.

Born in Calcutta on 11 June 1815, the fourth of seven sisters, her father was an East India Company official and her mother descended from French aristocracy. Educated mainly in France, Cameron returned to India in 1834.

In 1842, the British astronomer Sir John Herschel (1792 – 1871) introduced Cameron to photography, sending her examples of the new invention. They had met in 1836 while Cameron was convalescing from an illness in the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa. He remained a life-long friend and correspondent on technical photographic matters. That same year she met Charles Hay Cameron (1795–1880), 20 years her senior, a reformer of Indian law and education. They married in Calcutta in 1838 and she became a prominent hostess in colonial society. A decade later, the Camerons moved to England. By then they had four children; two more were born in England. Several of Cameron’s sisters were already living there, and had established literary, artistic and social connections. The Camerons eventually settled in Freshwater, on the Isle of Wight.

At the age of 48 Cameron received a camera as a gift from her daughter and son-in-law. It was accompanied by the words, ‘It may amuse you, Mother, to try to photograph during your solitude at Freshwater.’ Cameron had compiled albums and even printed photographs before, but her work as a photographer now began in earnest.

The Camerons lived at Freshwater until 1875, when they moved to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where Charles Cameron had purchased coffee and rubber plantations, managed under difficult agricultural and financial conditions by three of their sons. Cameron continued her photographic practice at her new home yet her output decreased significantly and only a small body of photographs from this time remains. After moving to Ceylon the Camerons made only one more visit to England in May 1878. Julia Margaret Cameron died after a brief illness in Ceylon in 1879.

Cameron’s relationship with the Victoria and Albert Museum dates to the earliest years of her photographic career. The first museum exhibition of Cameron's work was held in 1865 at the South Kensington Museum, London (now the V&A). The South Kensington Museum was not only the sole museum to exhibit Cameron’s work in her lifetime, but also the institution that collected her photographs most extensively in her day. In 1868 the Museum gave Cameron the use of two rooms as a portrait studio, perhaps qualifying her as its first artist-in-residence. Today the V&A’s Cameron collection includes photographs acquired directly from the artist, others collected later from various sources, and five letters from Cameron to Sir Henry Cole (1808–82), the Museum’s founding director and an early supporter of photography.

Descriptive line

Photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron, 'Il Penseroso' (sitter unknown), albumen print, 1864-5

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Julian Cox and Colin Ford, et al. Julia Margaret Cameron: the complete photographs. London : Thames and Hudson, 2003. Cat. no. 520, p. 273.
Weiss, Marta. Julia Margaret Cameron: Photographs to electrify you with delight and startle the world. London: MACK, 2015, p. 145.


Photographic paper


Albumen process

Subjects depicted



Portraits; Photographs; Allegory


Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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