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

Il Penseroso

  • Object:

    Photograph

  • Place of origin:

    London (photographed)

  • Date:

    May 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:

    45146

  • Gallery location:

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

Julia Margaret Cameron’s first photographic subjects were family and friends. These early portraits reveal how she experimented with dramatic lighting and close-up compositions, features that would become her signature style.

In May 1865 Cameron used her sister’s London home, Little Holland House, as her photographic headquarters. Her sister Sara Prinsep, together with her husband Thoby, had established a cultural salon there, centred around the artist George Frederic Watts. Cameron photographed numerous members of their circle on the lawn. These included artists, writers, collectors and Henry Cole, the director of the South Kensington Museum.

Here Lady Talbot appears not as herself, but as Melancholy, the personification of pensive sadness that John Milton evoked in his poem ‘Il Penseroso’. Draped in a shawl that hides her everyday clothing, she holds her hands in a dramatic gesture. Cameron inscribed this print with two lines from the poem, ‘Come pensive Nun, devout and pure, / Sober, stedfast, and demure’.

Julia Margaret Cameron’s earliest photographic subjects were family and friends, many of whom were eminent literary figures. These early portraits reveal how she experimented with dramatic lighting and close-up compositions, features that would become her signature style.

In May 1865 Cameron used her sister’s London home, Little Holland House, as her photographic headquarters. Her sister Sara Prinsep, together with her husband Thoby, had established a cultural salon there centred around the artist George Frederic Watts, who lived with them. Cameron photographed numerous members of their circle on the lawn. These included artists, writers and collectors and Henry Cole, the director of the South Kensington Museum.

Here Lady Adelaide Talbot appears not as herself, but as Melancholy, the personification of pensive sadness, that John Milton evoked in his poem Il Penseroso (about 1631). Draped in a shawl that hides her everyday clothing, her hands form a V on her chest, in a theatrical gesture. Cameron inscribed this print with two lines from the poem, ‘Come pensive Nun, devout and pure, / Sober, stedfast, and demure’.

Physical description

Half-lenght portrait of a woman dressed as a nun (Lady Adelaide Talbot) with hands folded across her chest, looking down. Branches of a tree on the background

Place of Origin

London (photographed)

Date

May 1865 (photographed)

Artist/maker

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

Materials and Techniques

Albumen print from wet collodion glass negative

Marks and inscriptions

'Come pensive nun devout and pure, Sober, stedfast and demure
Recto mount in brown ink by JMC at lower centre

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

(Talbot, Lady Adelaide / Portrait of).
Recto mount in black in in unknown hand at lower right corner

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

X.311 45146 Photographs by Mrs. Julia Margaret Cameron, c. 1864-75. "Come pensive nun devout and pure, Sober, stedfest ans demure." / (Lady Adelaide Talbot).
Museum label pasted to mount

Dimensions

Height: 25.2 cm image, Width: 20.2 cm image, Height: 33.5 cm sheet, Width: 26.5 cm sheet

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 Lady Adelaide Talbot), albumen print, 1865

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. 494, p. 266.
Weiss, Marta. Julia Margaret Cameron: Photographs to electrify you with delight and startle the world. London: MACK, 2015, p. 61.

Labels and date

Julia Margaret Cameron
Victoria and Albert Museum

Il Penseroso

1865

Here Lady Talbot appears not as herself, but as Melancholy, the personification of pensive sadness that John Milton evoked in his poem ‘Il Penseroso’. Draped in a shawl that hides her everyday clothing, she holds her hands in a dramatic gesture. Cameron inscribed this print with two lines from the poem, ‘Come pensive Nun, devout and pure, / Sober, stedfast, and demure’.

Given by or purchased from Julia Margaret Cameron, September 1865
V&A: 45146
[28 November 2015 - 21 February 2016]

Production Note

This photograph was probably taken at Little Holland House, Kensington, which was Julia Margaret Cameron's sister's (Sara Prinsep) house.

Materials

Photographic paper

Techniques

Albumen process

Subjects depicted

Melancholy; Nuns

Categories

Photographs; Portraits; Allegory

Collection

Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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