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


  • Object:


  • Place of origin:

    Isle of Wight (photographed)

  • Date:

    1865 (photographed)

  • Artist/Maker:

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

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Albumen print from wet collodion glass negative

  • Credit Line:

    Purchased from Julia Margaret Cameron, 17 June 1865

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

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

Julia Margaret Cameron looked to painting and sculpture as inspiration for her allegorical and narrative photographs. Some works were photographic interpretations of paintings by artists such as Raphael and Michelangelo. Others aspired more generally to create ‘Pictorial Effect’.

Cameron’s harshest critics attacked her for using the supposedly truthful medium of photography to depict imaginary subject matter. Some suggested that at best her photographs could serve as studies for painters. The South Kensington Museum mainly acquired ‘Madonnas’ and ‘Fancy Subjects’, and, according to one contemporary critic, ‘awarded them a prominent place close to the picture collections, where they [hung] in their pride alone.’

This was the first of Cameron’s two studies of her maid Mary Hillier as Sappho, the ancient Greek poet who wrote of passionate love between women. Hillier holds a prop that stands in for a lyre, a musical instrument symbolic of lyric poetry, with which Sappho is often depicted.

Physical description

Half-length portrait of a woman (Mary Hillier) wearing an embroidered dress and jewellery looking to her right.

Place of Origin

Isle of Wight (photographed)


1865 (photographed)


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

Materials and Techniques

Albumen print from wet collodion glass negative

Marks and inscriptions

Recto mount in pencil in unknown hand at lower centre

showing Mary Hillier (1847-1936)
Recto mount in pencil by in unknown hand at lower left corner

Recto mount in pencil in unknown hand at lower right corner

X.311 44753 Photographs by Mrs. Julia Margaret Cameron, c. 1864-75. "Sappho." (Miss Mary Hillier.)
Museum label pasted to mount


Height: 258 mm image, Width: 212 mm image, Height: 387 mm sheet, Width: 295 mm 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, 'Sappho' (sitter Mary Hillier), 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. 252
Weiss, Marta. Julia Margaret Cameron: Photographs to electrify you with delight and startle the world. London: MACK, 2015, p. 149.

Labels and date

Julia Margaret Cameron
Victoria and Albert Museum



Cameron made two studies of her maid Mary Hillier as Sappho, the ancient Greek poet who wrote of passionate love between women. Hillier holds a prop that stands in for a lyre, a musical instrument symbolic of lyric poetry, with which Sappho is often depicted.

Purchased from Julia Margaret Cameron, June 1865
V&A: 44753 [28 November 2015 – 21 February 2016]


Photographic paper


Albumen process

Subjects depicted

Mythology; Greek Goddesses


Photographs; Portraits; Myths & Legends


Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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