Early photography pioneer Julia Margaret Cameron: art and chemistry

Early photography pioneer Julia Margaret Cameron: art and chemistry


What makes a truly great photograph? Is it the skill of the photographer or the
nature of the subject matter? Sometimes there are stories behind great pictures. And this one involves two pioneers who helped
shape the history of photography itself: Julia Margaret Cameron and Sir John Herschel. Cameron, the most significant female photographer
of the Victorian era, used her tenacious energy to persuade many celebrated figures to sit for her. Her distinctive and dramatic portraits included
the poets Robert Browning and Alfred Lord Tennyson, and the iconic image of scientist Charles Darwin. But it is another well-known figure of the
time, the esteemed astronomer Sir John Herschel who held
a particular significance for her. They had met in South Africa around 1835 when
Cameron was recuperating from illness and Herschel was studying
the stars of the Southern Hemisphere. Whatever initial connection they made turned
into a lasting bond, with Cameron describing Herschel as her mentor. Later, they both became godparents to each
other’s children. Cameron’s son, Henry, had ‘Herschel’ included
as one of his middle names. Cameron came from a wealthy family. She was
born and grew up in Calcutta, India. Her niece Julia Jackson was the mother of
the writer Virginia Woolf and the artist Vanessa Bell. Cameron’s portraits are considered some of the most remarkable and influential examples
from the nineteenth century. Her subject, John Herschel, had a wide range
of scientific and mathematical expertise. His knowledge was called upon by another
photographic innovator, William Henry Fox Talbot. Herschel suggested an improved chemical method
to stabilise or ‘fix’ the photographs, to stop them fading away –
and this method is still used today. While Cameron was living in Calcutta it was
Herschel who kept her up-to-date with the techniques of photography in a series of letters. He gave her nothing but praise when
she showed him her results. Herschel also proved an inspiration
to Charles Darwin. This book, one of Herschel’s writings on
natural philosophy, was singled out by Darwin as being particularly stimulating. “This work” he said, “stirred up
in me a burning zeal to add even the most humble contribution to the noble structure
of Natural Science.” When Darwin’s ship The Beagle landed in
Cape Town, he managed to secure an invitation to dine with Herschel. Darwin said of their encounter: “He did
not talk much. He was very shy and often had a distressed expression.” Here is that face, full of character, gazing into the distance. This picture was taken just four years before his death in 1871
at his home in Hawkhurst, Kent. Through the combination of Cameron’s artistry
and Herschel’s chemistry this portrait, like the story of their achievements,
will not easily fade away.

2 Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *