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The Minstrel Group

  • Object:

    Photograph

  • Place of origin:

    Isle of Wight (photographed)

  • Date:

    1866 (photographed)

  • Artist/Maker:

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

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Albumen print from wet collodion glass negative

  • Credit Line:

    The Royal Photographic Society Collection at the V&A, acquired with the generous assistance of the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Art Fund

  • Museum number:

    RPS.780-2017

  • Gallery location:

    Prints & Drawings Study Room, level F, case XRP, shelf 92

In late 1865 Julia Margaret Cameron began using a larger camera, which held a 15 x 12-inch glass negative. Early the next year she wrote to Henry Cole, founding director of the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A), with great enthusiasm – but little modesty – about the new turn she had taken in her work. She continued to make narrative and allegorical tableaux, which were larger and bolder than her previous efforts.

Cameron inscribed some copies of this photograph with lines from Christina Rossetti’s 1862 poem Advent, ‘We sing a slow contented song / and knock at Paradise.’ The subject matter of the poem is religious, but Cameron emphasises the musical association. The central minstrel, or travelling musician, is dressed in Italian peasant costume and holds a mandolin.

Cameron's friend and mentor, the painter G.F. Watts, wrote to Cameron, ‘Please do not send me valuable mounted copies … send me any … defective unmounted impressions, I shall be able to judge just as well & shall be just as much charmed with success & shall not feel that I am taking money from you.’ This photograph is one of approximately 67 in the V&A's collection that was recently discovered to have belonged to him. Many are unique, which suggests that Cameron was not fully satisfied with them. Some may seem ‘defective’ but others are enhanced by their flaws. All of them contribute to our understanding of Cameron’s working process and the photographs that did meet her standards.

Physical description

A photographh of a young woman with two children (Mary Ryan, Kate Keown and Elizabeth Keown) in theatrical costume. Kate Keown holds a stringed instrument.

Place of Origin

Isle of Wight (photographed)

Date

1866 (photographed)

Artist/maker

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

Materials and Techniques

Albumen print from wet collodion glass negative

Dimensions

Height: 453 mm mount, Width: 372 mm 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, collected later from various sources and letters from Cameron to Sir Henry Cole (1808–82), the Museum’s founding director and an early supporter of photography.

This photograph is part of the Royal Photographic Society Collection at the V&A which also includes fragments of Cameron's original autobiographical manuscript for Annals of My Glass House.

Descriptive line

Photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron, 'The Minstrel Group' (Mary Ryan, Kate Keown, Elizabeth Keown), albumen print, 1866

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

Ford, Colin and Cox, Julian. Julia Margaret Cameron: The Complete Photographs. London: Thames and Hudson, 2003. Cat. no. 1099, p.450, ill.
From Infancy to the Green Years[in Russian] Moscow: State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, 2010. ISBN: 978-5-901124-73-4

Materials

Photographic paper

Techniques

Albumen process; Photography

Subjects depicted

Domestics; Child; Devotion; Poetry; Musicians

Categories

Photographs; Portraits; The Royal Photographic Society; RPS Digitisation Project

Collection

Royal Photographic Society Collection

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