Julia Margaret Cameron: The Muses

Of all the Victorian celebrities that Julia photographed in her sadly short but productive practice as a photographer, it is two young women who really qualify for the title of Julia’s muses. Not least because they were the inspiration for some of the greatest art and literature of the 19th century. I’m talking about Alice Liddell and Marie Spartali.


Julia Margaret Cameron: Ceres (Alice Liddell) 1872. Alice was the subject of many photographs taken in 1872, when she was a fully-fledged young woman aged twenty. Ten years earlier she had embarked for a picnic by rowing boat on the river Isis, near Oxford, with her sisters Edith and Lorina, escorted by two young clergymen, Robinson Duckworth and Charles Dodgson, who were lecturers at her father’s college. During this picnic, while Duckworth rowed the boat Dodgson elaborated upon a story he had told the girls before – the story of Alice and her adventures underground. Here, as a beautiful but rather sombre young woman of twenty, Julia casts her as Ceres, the Goddess of Fertility.

Alice, aged 20, looks at the lens, and at us, with a sombre, slightly haughty, appraising expression, as if challenging Julia to pay due service to her beauty and presumedly her world-wide fame as the inspiration of Charles Dodgson’s Alice in Wonderland.


Julia Margaret Cameron: Mnomosyne – Marie Spartali 1868 Spartali had a cottage near Shanklin, on the other side of the Isle of Wight (some 18 miles distant from Dimbola), and seem,s to have been a frequent visitor to Freshwater and a sitter for Julia on several occasions. Spartali had been an inspiration and a muse for the most famous Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was known to Julia through her sister’s Little Holland House salon. Spartali had a breath-taking beauty according to contemporary commentator Algernon Swinburne (who had an Island house at Bonchurch), and the portraits that Rossetti made of her give a more complete synthesis of the visual and imaginative impact that she had.

It’s interesting that Julia recognises Spartali as a great muse, titling this portrait Mnemosyne – the Mother of the Nine Muses…


Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Marie Spartali 1864 This beautiful pastel drawing by Rossetti, made when Marie was 20 years old, shows some of the impact that Spartali had on the Pre-Raphaelite circle.


Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Mnemosyne 1881. I think that Rossetti uses Spartali as the model for his Mnemosyne over a decade after Julia’s in itself inspirational photograph.


Julia Margaret Cameron: Pomona 1872 Akin to Ceres, Pomona was the Roman Goddess of Fruitfulness, but Alice Pleasance Liddell looks just as sombre, even though she is embowered in Julia’s garden.


Julia Margaret Cameron: St Agnes 1872. St Agnes is the Christian saint of chastity (and gardeners), and Alice looks slightly more content with this more virtuous title. Of course, we know that Julia often titled her photographs well after printing and mounting them, so Alice probably did not know who she was posing as…


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