Jeff Rosen, Julia Margaret Cameron’s ‘Fancy Subjects’: Photographic Allegories of Victorian Identity and Empire

Jeff Rosen, Julia Margaret Cameron’s ‘Fancy Subjects’: Photographic Allegories of Victorian Identity and Empire (Manchester: Manchester University Press 2016) 336 pp. £20.00 Pb, £75.00 Hb. ISBN: 978-1-7849-9317-7

Victorian photography is en vogue. In 2015, to mark the bicentennial of Julia Margaret Cameron’s birth, the Victoria and Albert Museum reminded viewers of the innovation and power of Cameron’s photographs: her unconventional techniques and the beauty of her compositions. The National Portrait Gallery has recently hosted Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography: the first exhibition to examine the relationship between photographers Julia Margaret Cameron, Lewis Carroll, Lady Clementina Hawarden, and Oscar Rejlander. It showcases how these figures, according to the exhibition, 'formed a bridge between the art of the past and the art of the future.'1 Defying earlier conventions of stiff, dull portraiture, mid- to late-century Victorian photographers turned the medium into an art form.  These exhibitions focus largely on the imaginative work of Cameron and her transformation of the everyday into what she considered ‘fancy’ pictures. Amidst this context, Jeff Rosen offers a serious, revelatory assessment of Cameron’s allegorical works by situating them within their historical and imperial context.

Julia Margaret Cameron’s ‘Fancy Subjects’ rightly asserts that while Cameron – as a figure – has been heralded as a pioneer in studies of photography, gaps remain in our understanding of Cameron’s creative process. We still do not know 'why she pursued certain subjects and not others, and of what forces drove her ambitions' – that is, until now (4). Rosen’s reliance upon a range of archival evidence – copyright registries, surviving prints, correspondence, exhibition reviews, to name a few – is much to the book’s credit, and privileges Cameron’s working methods. He argues for the historical intent behind Cameron’s choice to create photographic allegories, 'as part of a sustained effort to represent the country’s national heritage and cultural identity'. (1) From the outset, Rosen addresses Cameron’s dual status as both plantation owner in Ceylon and Freshwater inhabitant. Most obviously, he addresses the 1860 support of Britain’s imperial power, but the delight of the book lies in its exploration of the differing ways in which Cameron 'embedded photographs with complex narratives about British colonial history'. (23)

Each chapter groups together several of Cameron’s allegories and portraits in the context of larger themes that she used to engage in cultural and political debates. The first chapter explores Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s 1788 sentimental novel Paul et Virginie and its influences upon one of Cameron’s first allegorical photographs, Paul and Virginia. Demonstrating, more broadly, Cameron and her husband Charles’ own interest in island homes – both on the Isle of Wight and the island of Ceylon – Rosen offers insight into resonances between biographical, historical, and artistic contexts. Incorporating correspondence between the couple, Rosen crafts an argument that relies on the Camerons’ own sense of imperialisms, their ownership of land, and the impact of the colonial context. Thus he is able to assert that Cameron’s Paul and Virginia draws 'its power from the romantic trope of the remote island home that was present in Saint-Pierre’s story and its connection to the allegories of homelessness, exile, and primitive innocence […] personified by the two children'. (41)

Each chapter maintains a similar breadth of research, incorporating a rich material and historical context that allows not only insight into Cameron’s process, but close readings of a wide variety of her photographic oeuvre. Chapter Two turns to her Fruits of the Spirit series, arguing for the seriousness and intensity of Cameron’s engagement with questions of theology. The series, Rosen argues, makes Cameron the first person to use photography to articulate 'a particular theology, a formal interpretation or point of view about the relationship of God and mankind' (66). Turning to Cameron’s Isle of Wight circle, Rosen demonstrates the centrality of religion in public discussion and debate, in particular focusing on the Freshwater visit of Benjamin Jowett, Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford and frequent visitor to Cameron’s neighbor: the Tennysons. Rosen argues that Cameron’s photographs, influenced by Jowett and the religious debates circulating in the 1860s, emphasized the human over the supernatural, and offered questions of morality as thematic subjects, which allowed for an infusion of a 'freedom of religious opinion'. (99)

In the same vein of intertextuality, Chapters Three and Four reassess Cameron’s largest body of work: Greek and Byronic subjects. Rosen convincingly argues for the overlooked inspiration of George Grote’s historical essays on ancient Greece, demonstrating the closeness between Grote and Cameron’s husband. Similarly, the fourth chapter focuses on photographs containing Byronic subjects, assessing the extent to which Cameron drew from Byron’s Romantic subject matter and political context in his poetry. As such, her photographs invoke the personal sacrifice and pain of exile, diaspora, and isolation, while representing 'the honour of national sacrifice, the duty of political resistance in the face of injustice, and the moral righteousness of defending personal liberation and political independence'. (187)

Chapter Five uses 'Negromania' to question nineteenth-century viewpoints of colonial conflict, and explores the 1865 Jamaican rebellion and the Abyssinian War of 1868 in relation to Cameron’s 1868 exhibition at London’s German Gallery. For comparison, Chapter Six takes up Cameron’s well-known project of photographic illustrations for Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1874). Here, Rosen argues that Cameron’s project balances Tennyson’s militarism as a means of 'national rejuvenation' by offering her own 'personification of moral guidance and restraint'. (262) The final chapter offers an exploration of the Camerons’ return to Ceylon and her photographic output with botanical painter Marianne North in 1877, employing the concept of hybridity.

In Rosen’s privileging of contextual material, we are given a closer glimpse into the sheer immensity of connections between the photographs and their intimate engagement with nineteenth-century religious, political, aesthetic, and cultural contexts. With such priority, Rosen privileges Cameron’s artistic intention – demonstrated by her working methods and her contextual surroundings – rather than an interest in her photographic medium. In other words, Rosen remains invested in a study of history and literature, rather than a history of photography. On the whole, however, he offers insight into Cameron’s art as aesthetic objects embedded within complex, and oftentimes uncomfortable, understandings of British national identity.

Heather Bozant Witcher, Saint Louis University


1 Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography, exhibition catalogue ed. Phillip Prodger. London: National Portrait Gallery 2018