‘All possible devotion to poetry and beauty’

Inspired by the exhibition of Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs at the Victoria & Albert Museum at the moment, I’ve been thinking about how different art forms might reflect poetry in different ways. Cameron wrote that:

My aspirations are to ennoble Photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real & Ideal & sacrificing nothing of Truth by all possible devotion to poetry and beauty.

Of course, I think Cameron is referring to ‘poetry’ as a general term; after all, it’s a term often used loosely, suggesting a lyrical beauty which is perhaps a fit subject for poetry. But Cameron’s ambitions were to produce this effect often through reference to specific poems, too. The exhibition indicates the range of her social circle; her sitters included Tennyson, Darwin, Browning and a number of Victorian luminaries from the scientific to the poetic. It is with poetry that she seems to have a specific relationship, though: many of her photographs have a  title which relates to a poem, such as her beautiful Il Penseroso images, drawn from Milton’s eponymous poem. These are moments of stillness, one of which – the most nun-like – is accompanied by the lines ‘Come pensive nun devout and pure, Sober, stedfast and demure’. This moment of devotion and depiction of innocence tells us something about Cameron’s interaction with Milton’s poem, which is subtitled ‘The Serious Man’. It is not this man in deep thought which attracts her, but the ‘Goddess’ of Melancholy, who appears as a nun and inspires the man, that she depicts. It’s possible Cameron also had in mind Blake’s image of Melancholy from his L’Allegro/Il Penseroso series – and of course Handel also captured Milton’s exploration of exalted moods.

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For Cameron, then, photography is as much an art as any other, and she was determined to make the world see this at a time when it was still very much an emerging medium. She is clearly inspired by modes of painting, and takes as her subject very painterly topics as well as an artistic approach (very obviously influenced, in many ways, by her mentor and friend George Frederic Watts as well as other Pre-Raphaelite artists).

She is interested in historical styles and approaches, not just in the costumes and attitudes of her models, but in structure, subject and approach. I find this particularly fascinating given the emerging medium in which she was working, but of course how better to establish a new form as ‘High Art’ than to reference established works? Watts wrote to Cameron that ‘what would not do in a painting will not do in a Photograph’, suggesting the aligned approaches of both art forms. And, of course, Cameron shared many interests with the Pre-Raphaelites, in the poses and types of models she used, in her interest in the past, and most particularly in her literary subjects. Like the PRB, she was clearly particularly drawn to Tennyson’s poems, and the V&A exhibition includes some of her images which illustrate Idylls of the King, his Arthurian epic.

What Cameron offers are tableaux, with models carefully posed and appropriately dressed in medieval-style clothing. To look at these one cannot help but think that she worked with a painter’s eye, and yet she is very much a photographer: the depth of light and dark, in ‘Vivian and Merlin’, for example, wouldn’t work in a painting, but provides a mystical air to the photograph. There is also often a more casual and slightly less posed feeling in some of the pictures, allowing the viewer to believe for a moment that these might have been real. She chooses moments of high drama – sometimes tinged with Victorian sentimentality, I think – but which suggest to viewers something of the essence of the poems, and the myths on which they are based.

Cameron wrote:

I longed to arrest all beauty that came before me, and at length the longing has been satisfied.

Like the Pre-Raphaelites, with the desire to ‘record’ what they saw faithfully, yet with their own unique perspective apparent in every brush-stroke, Cameron creates her own reality of beauty and records it with her camera. It owes as much to poetry as to art, and what she creates was the first of its kind.

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