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Photograph - A Study of the Cenci
  • A Study of the Cenci
    Cameron, Julia Margaret, born 1815 - died 1879
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A Study of the Cenci

  • Object:

    Photograph

  • Place of origin:

    Isle of Wight (photographed)

  • Date:

    1870 (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.1084:2-2017

  • Gallery location:

    Prints & Drawings Study Room, level F, case XRP, shelf 103

In late 1865, Julia Margaret Cameron began using a larger camera. It held a 15 x 12 inch glass negative, rather than the 12 x 10 inch negative of her first camera. Early the next year she wrote to Henry Cole with great enthusiasm – but little modesty – about the new turn she had taken in her work.

Cameron initiated a series of large-scale, closeup heads that fulfilled her photographic vision. She saw them as a rejection of ‘mere conventional topographic photography – map-making and skeleton rendering of feature and form’ in favour of a less precise but more emotionally penetrating form of portraiture. Cameron also continued to make narrative and allegorical tableaux, which were larger and bolder than her previous efforts.

Cameron initiated a series of large-scale, close-up heads. These fulfilled her photographic vision, a rejection of ‘mere conventional topographic photography – map-making and skeleton rendering of feature and form’ in favour of a less precise but more emotionally penetrating form of portraiture. Cameron also continued to make narrative and allegorical tableaux, which were larger and bolder than her previous efforts.

Cameron based the model’s pose, drapery and sad expression on a painting attributed to Guido Reni that was famous at the time. The subject is the 16th-century Italian noblewoman Beatrice Cenci, executed for arranging the murder of her abusive father.

Physical description

A photograph of a woman (May Prinsep) posing as Beatrice Cenci, wearing a turban looking over her left shoulder. Another photograph is mounted on the reverse of the mount.

Place of Origin

Isle of Wight (photographed)

Date

1870 (photographed)

Artist/maker

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

Materials and Techniques

Albumen print from wet collodion glass negative

Dimensions

Height: 490 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, 'A Study of the Cenci' (sitter May Prinsep), albumen print, 1870

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. 409, p.246, ill.
Weiss, Marta. Julia Margaret Cameron: Photographs to electrify you with delight and startle the world. London: MACK, 2015, p. 160.

Materials

Photographic paper

Techniques

Albumen process; Photography

Subjects depicted

Roman history; Woman

Categories

Photographs; Portraits; The Royal Photographic Society

Collection

Royal Photographic Society Collection

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