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Alfred Tennyson

  • Object:

    Photograph

  • Place of origin:

    England (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 Window & Grove, 1963

  • Museum number:

    1143-1963

  • Gallery location:

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

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.

When Cameron photographed her intellectual heroes, such as Tennyson, her aim was to record ‘the greatness of the inner as well as the features of the outer man’. Another motive was to earn money from prints, since her family’s finances were precarious. Within her first year as a photographer she began exhibiting and selling through the London gallery Colnaghi’s. She used autographs to increase the value of some portraits.

Tennyson dubbed this portrait the ‘Dirty Monk’. He said he preferred it to any other photograph of himself, except one by Mayall, a well-established studio photographer. Cameron was insulted by the comparison and likened it to comparing an ‘ideal heroic bust’ to a waxwork from Madame Tussaud’s.

Physical description

A photograph of a bearded man (Alfred Tennyson) shown in 3/4 view, in a dark cloak, holding a book in his left hand.

Place of Origin

England (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

Dimensions

height: 25.2 cm image, width: 20.1 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, 'Alfred Tennyson' ('The Dirty Monk'), albumen print, May 1865

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

Cat. no. 796, p. 354
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. 67.

Labels and date

Julia Margaret Cameron
Victoria and Albert Museum

Alfred Tennyson

1865

Tennyson dubbed this portrait the ‘Dirty Monk’. He said he preferred it to any other photograph of himself, except one by Mayall, a well-established studio photographer. Cameron was insulted by the comparison and likened it to comparing an ‘ideal heroic bust’ to a waxwork from Madame Tussaud’s.

Given by Window & Grove, 1963
V&A: 1143-1963 [28 November 2015 - 21 February 2016]
Julia Margaret Cameron: A Bicentenary Exhibition

Alfred Tennyson
1865

Tennyson dubbed this portrait the ‘Dirty Monk’. He said he preferred it to any other photograph of himself except one by Mayall, a well-established studio photographer. Cameron called the comparison ‘too comical’ and likened it to comparing a waxwork from Madame Tussaud’s with an ‘ideal heroic bust’ by the sculptor Thomas Woolner.

Given by Window & Grove, 1963
Museum no. 1143-1963
[18 November 2014 – 25 September 2016]

Materials

Photographic paper

Techniques

Albumen process

Subjects depicted

Portraits; Poets; Monks

Categories

Photographs; Portraits; A Year of Objects: October, Death of Alfred Lord Tennyson

Collection

Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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