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


  • Object:


  • 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:

    Given by Alan S. Cole, 19 April 1913

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

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

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 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. One review admired Cameron’s soft rendering of ‘the pensive sweetness of the expression of the original picture’ while another mocked her for claiming to have photographed a historical figure ‘from the life’.

Physical description

A photograph of a woman (May Prinsep) from the shoulders up as a 3/4 profile. Her hair is loose and the top of her head is covered by a large turban.

Place of Origin

Isle of Wight (photographed)


1866 (photographed)


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

Materials and Techniques

Albumen print from wet collodion glass negative


height: 35.8 cm image, width: 28.8 cm image

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, 'Beatrice' (sitter May Prinsep), albumen print, 1866

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

Cat. no. 407, p. 244
Cox, Julian and Colin Ford, with contributions by Joanne Lukitsh and Philippa Wright. Julia Margaret Cameron: The Complete Photographs. London: Thames & Hudson, in association with The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles and The National Museum of Photography, Film & Television, Bradford, 2003. ISBN: 0-500-54265-1
Weiss, Marta. Julia Margaret Cameron: Photographs to electrify you with delight and startle the world. London: MACK, 2015, p. 157.

Labels and date

Object Type

This photograph was produced by Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) as a work of fine art to be shown in the context of a museum or gallery. It was not intended for mass reproduction, or as a portrait of the sitter, but as an artistic expression in its own right.


Although posed as a tragic heroine from sixteenth-century Rome, the model Mary Emily (May) Prinsep (1853-1931) was the adopted daughter of Julia Margaret Cameron's brother-in-law. As well as posing for several of Cameron's photographs (Cameron considered her particularly well-suited to Italian subjects), May Prinsep also sat for the painter and sculptor George Frederick Watts. (1817-1904).

Subjects Depicted

The 'Beatrice' represented is not the heroine of Dante's writings painted by Cameron's contemporaries, including Dante Gabrielle Rosetti (1828-1882), but Beatrice Cenci, a sixteen year old who in 1599 was hanged for her role in the murder of her father, who had raped and abused her. This subject was popularised during the nineteenth-century by a poetic drama by Percy Bysshe Shelley called 'The Cenci', amongst other literary works. Here Cameron has transposed the composition from a painting of 'La Cenci' previously attributed to Guido Reni. She would have known this painting from reproductions of Italian art circulated by The Arundel Society, of which she was a member.
Like the painter, Cameron treats the subject sympathetically, and poses her model with titled head and sad, resigned expression. However, the closer focus on the head heightens the moral drama of a subject that would have appeared both noble and dangerous to contemporary audiences.

In her pioneering photography Julia Margaret Cameron pursued the Aesthetic ideal of 'art for art's sake', in which beauty is the only real purpose of art. Here she shows her niece, May Prinsep, as Beatrice Cenci, who was hanged in Rome in 1599 for killing her cruel father. Beatrice became a romantic heroine when her story was taken up by Percy Bysshe Shelley in his play 'The Cenci' (1819). By concentrating on the model's head and melancholy expression, Cameron suggests that the subject's beauty is intensified by her sad plight. []
Julia Margaret Cameron: A Bicentenary Exhibition


Cameron based the pose, drapery, and sad expression of her model on a painting attributed to Guido Reni. The subject is the 16th-century Italian noblewoman Beatrice Cenci who was executed for arranging the murder of her abusive father. One review admired Cameron’s soft rendering of ‘the pensive sweetness of the expression of the original picture’ while another mocked her for claiming to have photographed a historical figure ‘from the life’.

Given by Alan S. Cole, 1913
Museum no. 945-1913

[18 November 2014 – 25 September 2016]

Production Note

Another print of this was inscribed by Mrs Cameron: 'Study of the Beatrice Cenci from May Prinsep' (the photographer's niece).


Photographic paper


Albumen process

Subjects depicted

Beauty; Tragedy


Photographs; Portraits


Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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