Archive for Julia Margaret Cameron

Anna Atkins, Mistress of Blueprint Manor

Posted in Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography, Science with tags , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2010 by Liz Hager


The difficulty of making accurate drawings of objects as minute as many of the Algae and Confera, has induced me to avail myself of Sir John Herschel’s beautiful process of Cyanotype, to obtain impressions of the plants themselves, which I have much pleasure in offering to my botanical friends.
—Anna Atkins, October 1843

Anna Atkins, Alaria esculenta (from British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions),  1843-53
(New York Public Library)

In August 1839 at the meeting of the French Academy of Sciences in Paris Louis Daguerre debuted his eponymous photographic process. To the French public of that time, his “drawing by light” method was nothing short of miraculous; as if by magic, a singular image appeared on a chemically-prepared copper plate after its exposure to light in a camera.

Daguerre’s announcement dealt William Henry Fox Talbot a severe personal blow, for Talbot had discovered his own way to burn photographic images on to paper as a result of  experimentations begun in 1833.

Louis Daguerre, Arrangement of Fossil Shells, 1837-39
(Musée des arts et métiers, Paris)

Talbot would often bypass the camera by simply laying objects on top of the paper and exposing it to sunlight. The first exposure of these “photogenic drawings” (or “photograms” as they known today) resulted in a negative image, so Talbot simply laid the paper negative over a new sheet of sensitized paper to produce the corresponding positive image.

William Henry Fox Talbot, Leaf, ca 1840
Photogenic drawing
(©The Estate of William Henry Fox Talbot)

Unlike Daguerre, Talbot had kept his discoveries largely private.” Although the announcement forced Talbot to make his findings public through patent application, nonetheless, the Frenchman secured a place in history as “the father of photography.”  Ironically, it was Talbot’s wet-chemical, paper-based process that would create the basic framework for all subsequent photography until the digital age.

Despite initial disappointment, Talbot would have his own victory. His dream that photography allow “every man to be his own printer and publisher” was realized through Anna Atkins’s publication of the 12-part British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, the first book be illustrated by the photographic medium. The work proved that an individual could print near-perfect reproductions, while preserving precise details of the subject matter.

Anna Atkins, Chordaria flagelliformis
(from British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions),  1843-53
(New York Public Library)

In many ways Anna Atkins (1799-1871) was typical of a certain early Victorian gentlewomen. In an era when refined women like Atkins were not encouraged to participate professionally in science, they nonetheless became skillful amateur helpmates of their fathers, husbands or other male friends. Attitudes toward the seashore were changing greatly—the notion of the ocean’s edge as a territory marked by piracy, smuggling and wreckage was beginning to disappear and the concept of  the “beach,” a recreational area populated by the leisure-seeking masses, was still decades away. Though Darwin had yet to publish his Origin of Species (1859), public interest in natural world was high. Marine debris was a source of curiosity. As botany was the one science in which it was permissible for women to involve themselves, many, like Anna Atkins, spent hours at the seashore collecting specimens, not just for their scientific value but as aesthetic and collectibles objects.

Unknown Photographer, Anna Atkins,1861
Albumen print

Atkins was a knowledgeable amateur botanist and superb botanical illustrator to boot. She was enthusiastically supported by her widower father, John George Children, who was, among other things, Keeper of the Department of Natural History Modern Curiosities at the British Museum. Thus, Atkins had extraordinary access to botanical knowledge of the day. By the late 1830s, she had already illustrated her father’s translation of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s Genera of Shells. At his urging, she set out to provide the visual companion to William Harvey’s pioneering but un-illustrated 1841 Manual of British Algae. It was not for lack of drawing ability that she turned to photographic processes in this effort.

Anna Atkins, Equisetum sylvaticum
from Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Ferns, 1853

Atkins’ father chaired the Royal Society meeting at which Talbot first disclosed the details of his “photogenic drawing.” Subsequently Atkins and her father received many tutorials on the method. Thus, it would have been only natural that she employ Talbot’s approach (if not his actual method) on her project; after all, arranging specimens on sheets of glass and letting the interaction of light and chemistry do the rest would have been far less time consuming than hand drawing the 400 plates.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Sir John Herschel with Cap, 1867.
Cameron considered Herschel “my first Teacher.”

Atkins’ neighbor in Kent, Sir John Herschel (1792-1871), greatly influenced the project. Herschel, the only son of the distinguished British astronomer William Herschel, was a well-known astronomer in his own right. By the time of Daguerre’s announcement, he too had been independently experimenting with various photographic processes for several years.

Sir John Herschel, Lady with a Harp, 1842
(Museum of the History of Science, University of Oxford)

Herschel had met Talbot a decade previously. With Daguerre’s discovery Sir John suggested Talbot come to his estate to view the latter’s own photographic discoveries.  Herschel ended up making many contributions to the emerging medium, the most important of which was something Talbot probably saw on the day he visited: the use of sodium thiosulfate  or “hyposulphite of soda” (“hypo” for short) to permanently “fix” (i.e. stabilize) photographs.  (Later, Herschel would be the first to coin the terms “positive,” “negative,” “snap-shot” and  to regularly use “photograph” to describe the prints.)

Anna Atkins, Himanthalia lorea
(from British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions),  1843-53

Perhaps the astronomer’s most influential discovery occurred in late 1842, when he realized that, when exposed to UV light (i.e. sun) a paper soaked a with a complex iron salt solution durably captured a blue “negative” image, once the salts had been rinsed away. For obvious reasons, Herschel named these prints Cyanotypes, or more colloquially, blueprints.

Anna Atkins, Papaver orientale
(from Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns, 1854-1861
(Victoria & Albert Museum)

Ironically, Herschel had little interest in producing images; he was more engaged with understanding the nature of light. His neighbor Anna Atkins, on the other hand, put his process to good use. She made 13 known versions of British Algae and, following its completion, went on to produce two other volumes—British and Foreign Ferns and, in conjunction with Anna Austen Dixon (relative of writer Jane), British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns. She was responsible for thousands of Cyanotypes.

Anna Atkins, Anatomized Leaves
from Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns), 1854-1861

Atkins’ previous work reveals an illustrator driven more by artistic than scientific considerations. She may have chosen to use the Cyanotype process because its ethereal blue prints perfectly suggested the watery depths in which her algae specimens had lived.  It’s equally likely, given prevailing sentiments about nature,  that in the “photogenic” process Atkins found the truest way to replicate a plant just as nature had made it, edges, wrinkles and folds perfectly rendered. Her blue prints—taken from the plants themselves—were in a sense, the purest botanical drawings, drawn not by the hand of wo/man, but by light under the direction of nature.

Anna Atkins, Titlepage of British Ferns, ca. 1852
(Victoria & Albert Museum)

Wider Connections

Alternative Photographysource for alternative photographic processes
Geoffrey Batchen—William Henry Fox Talbot
“In the Darkroom: Photographic Processes Before the Digital Age”—r
eview of National Gallery exhibition
Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840-1860

Eminent Victorians: Julia Margaret Cameron and Virginia Woolf

Posted in Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , , on June 23, 2008 by Liz Hager


(Top) Julia Margaret Cameron, Julia Jackson, albumen print, ca. 1867; (Bottom) George Charles Beresford, Virginia Woolf, platinum print, 1902.

While on the subject of Julia Cameron. .  . (see Alice of the Pure Unclouded Brow) I couldn’t help noticing the many portraits of a contemporary of Alice Liddell, a pure pre-Raphaelite beauty, Julia Prinsep Jackson (top).  Julia Jackson was one of Cameron’s favorite sitters; she happened also to be her neice, daughter of Cameron’s sister Maria.   Julia Jackson (1846-1895) married Sir Leslie Stephen (writer and critic) and they begat Virginia (1882-1941), who later married Leonard Woolf, as well as artist Vanessa, who would be a founding member of The Omega Group. V. Stephens looks were distinctive—the long narrow face and those bug-y eyes!— and the portrait above of her has been pretty widely circulated. Still, I was surprised to learn of Virginia’s connection to Cameron.  Julia Stephens died when Virginia was just 13,  and this event was to haunt the writer for many years.

Virginia and her mother were skeins in a familial and social web of the sort that has bound English aristocrats together for centuries—

Julia Jackson’s first marriage was to Herbert Duckworth, a barrister, who died tragically a few years into their marriage. Duckworth might have been a descendent of William the Conquerer, but that illustrious lineage wouldn’t have passed to Virginia, as he was not her father. Interestingly, his descendants are related to Princess Diana. Not to be outdone, however, Virginia was descended on her mother’s side from a page in Marie Antoinette’s court.

Julia Jackson also posed for Edward Burne-Jones, the pre-eminent pre-Raphaelite painter; we know that she was the model for the head of the virgin in  his Adoration of the Magi.

Sir Leslie Stephens’ (Virginia’s father) was a widower when he met Julia Jackson Duckworth. His first wife was the daughter of author William Makepeace Thackeray (Vanity Fair).

In 1926, Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) wrote an introduction to Julia Margaret Cameron’s (her great-aunt) posthumously-published Victorian Photographs of Famous Men & Fair Women.

Alice of the Pure Unclouded Brow

Posted in Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2008 by Liz Hager

Charles Dodgson, Alice Liddell

Charles Dodgson, Alice Lydell, 1859;

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898 ) was a prominent member of Victorian society, who possessed a ministry degree and a lectureship in mathematics at Oxford.  He was described by many as a natural storyteller; from a young age, he wrote poetry and short stories. Long before he published  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as Lewis Carroll, however, Dodgson had taken up photography as a serious hobby. From 1856 to 1880, he created something on the order of 3000 studio and landscape photographs (although less than a third have survived). In his 20s, Dodgson developed a close and lasting relationship with members of the pre-Raphaelites, particularly Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Alice Liddell as AletheaJulia Morgan, Alice-as-Alethea, 1872

(Both above) Julia Margaret Cameron, Alice Liddell as Alethea, ca. 1872

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) was born in India, educated in France and married to a jurist 20 years her senior. They lived in India until 1848, when Charles Hay Cameron retired, at which time they moved to London.  In 1863, when she was 40, Cameron’s daughter gave her a camera, thus facilitating the birth of her career as a photographer, predominantly of portraits (eminent and ordinary Victorians) and allegorical tableaux. She was greatly influenced by the pre-Raphaelites—the romanticized themes of her allegories are plucked pretty directly from Rossetti et al.’s playbook.   Many of their circle sat for her, including Dodgson. Cameron was more interested in evoking an emotional aura than in photographic accuracy, and this resulted in deliberately gauzy, out-of-focus images. Diaries record that Dodgson wasn’t so keen on her technique. He thought she was sloppy.

Alice Liddell (Lydell) brought them together, at least briefly, artistically. Alice Liddell was one of eight children of Dr. Henry Liddell and the middle of three daughters. In 1856 Liddell assumed his position as the new Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, and it was soon after that the family became acquainted with Charles Dodgson. He began taking the older children on afternoon boating excursions, during which he’d relate fanciful stories to pass the time.  Alice joined the outings slightly later. It was on one such outing with Alice and her sisters in 1862 that Dodgson related the tale which would later become his most famous book.

About this time Dodgson began using Alice regularly as a portrait subject for his photographs. Dodgson made hundreds of works featuring young girls, a lot of them nude. There have been ample rumors and refutations that Dodgson was a pedophile and assertions that these portraits constitute pornography.  From the sweet fetching expression Dodgson coaxed out of little Alice, you can certainly imagine how fond he was of her; you might be inclined to believe he was in love with her.   (Was this the look that inspired the opening lines of poetry— “Child with a pure unclouded brow and dreaming eyes of wonder!”— in Through the Looking Glass?). That fetching look would make an older Alice the perfect pre-Raphaelite model for Cameron’s later photographic allegory of Alethea, Greek goddess of truth. It’s a beautiful, haunting picture.

Is there truth in the rumors? Go ask Alice.

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