Lady Elcho as the Cumaean Sibyl thumbnail 1
Lady Elcho as the Cumaean Sibyl thumbnail 2
Image of Gallery in South Kensington
Not currently on display at the V&A
On short term loan out for exhibition

Lady Elcho as the Cumaean Sibyl

Photograph
September 1865 (photographed)
Artist/Maker
Place of origin

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.

After photographing Lady Elcho at Little Holland House, Cameron boasted to Henry Cole that Lord Elcho thought the portraits ‘the finest things ever done in Art!’ The sitter’s distant stare suits her role as a sibyl, or classical prophetess.


Object details

Categories
Object type
TitleLady Elcho as the Cumaean Sibyl (assigned by artist)
Materials and techniques
Albumen print from wet collodion glass negative
Brief description
Photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron, 'Lady Elcho as the Cumaean Sibyl', albumen print, 1865
Physical description
A photograph of a woman (Lady Elcho) seated with her hands clasped on her knee. She is shown seated in profile wearing a cloak and head covering with an embroidered border.
Dimensions
  • Height: 235mm
  • Width: 200mm
  • Mount height: 340mm
  • Mount width: 260mm
  • Mount height: 580mm
  • Mount width: 380mm
Style
Marks and inscriptions
  • 'From Life / Wemyss, Countess of / Julia Margaret Cameron'
  • 'SCIENCE & ART DEPARTMENT, NATIONAL LIBRARY'
Gallery label
Julia Margaret Cameron Victoria and Albert Museum Lady Elcho as the Cumaean Sibyl 1865 After photographing Lady Elcho at Little Holland House, Cameron boasted to Henry Cole that Lord Elcho thought the portraits ‘the finest things ever done in Art!’ The sitter’s distant stare suits her role as a sibyl, or classical prophetess. Given by or purchased from Julia Margaret Cameron, September 1865 V&A: 45139 (28 November 2014 – 21 February 2016)
Credit line
Given by or Purchased from Julia Margaret Cameron, 27 September 1865
Object history
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.
Subjects depicted
Summary
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.

After photographing Lady Elcho at Little Holland House, Cameron boasted to Henry Cole that Lord Elcho thought the portraits ‘the finest things ever done in Art!’ The sitter’s distant stare suits her role as a sibyl, or classical prophetess.
Bibliographic references
  • 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 Cat. 217, p. 198
  • Weiss, Marta. Julia Margaret Cameron: Photographs to electrify you with delight and startle the world. London: MACK, 2015, p. 56.
Collection
Accession number
45139

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Record createdJuly 1, 2009
Record URL
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