Poignant portrait of pioneering female photographer given to National Media Museum

  • Published 12 February 2007

A rare daguerreotype depicting Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79) - one of the most important figures in the history of photography - has been given to the National Media Museum via The Art Fund.

The gift comes from Cameron’s great-great-grandchildren.

Julia Margaret Cameron was given a camera at the age of 48 by her daughter and son-in-law. She embraced photography with a passion bordering on obsession and in little more than a decade produced hundreds of searching portraits of some of the most eminent figures of the Victorian age, including Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Charles Darwin and Thomas Carlyle, along with distinctive portraits of her servants and friends. Her work is recognised today as being decades ahead of its time.

The image shows Cameron at the age of 29 – 20 years before her own photographic career began – with her 7 year old daughter, Julia Hay Cameron, on her knee. The identity of the photographer is unknown, but it is possible that the image was made in Calcutta as both mother and daughter were there until January 1845. ‘Little Julia’ then came back to England and mother and daughter did not see each other again for three years. Julia Hay was later to give her mother the camera that was to change her life.

Two inscriptions on the portrait's satin-lined case add to its poignancy – one by the daughter, ‘Feb 10th 1845. This for me to keep’, and then - possibly added by her mother at a later date - ‘Given to my Julia by her request – her own choice.’ Julia Hay Cameron died in childbirth in her early 30s, at which point the print appears to have been returned to her mother.

Daguerrotype images have incredibly fragile surfaces, and each daguerreotype is unique so it is particularly fortunate that the portrait survives. The daguerreotype was an early photographic process, introduced in 1839. Images can appear as either positive or negative, depending on how the light hits the surface.

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