The female gaze

Julia Margaret Cameron's Women

Sylvia Wolf <em>Yale University Press, 243pp, £35</em>

Nearly five years ago Charlton Heston made a pilgrimage to Freshwater on the Isle of Wight. The local council had refused planning permission for the house of Julia Margaret Cameron, one of the pioneers of photography, to be opened as a museum. "It is staggering," he said, stepping from his open-top Bentley. "In America they would have made this a national museum. This side of Jane Austen, I cannot think of any woman who made it so big in the arts."

The episode in all its theatricality would almost certainly have delighted Cameron. Heston is a fitting descendant of the Victorian male celebrities she photographed - Darwin, Carlyle, the astronomer Sir John Herschel and Tennyson - and for which she is best known. But it is her female portraits that make up the majority of her work, and Sylvia Wolf's excellent Julia Margaret Cameron's Women is the first volume to give serious attention to these.

A devout Christian and devoted wife of 40 years who also raised 11 children, Cameron understood the qualities Victorian Britain expected of women. These had been famously articulated by Coventry Patmore in his four-part poem "The Angel in the House" (1862) as a combination of innocence, devotion and an infinite capacity to nurture. But the way in which Cameron used the camera, from the moment she was given one in 1863, demonstrated a sensibility well able to question, command and acknowledge paradox and complexity; more akin to George Eliot than Honoria, the poem's heroine. At the age of 48, she moved from parenthood to photography.

From the beginning Cameron went against photographic fashion. As well as larger portraits, cartes de visite were immensely popular by the mid-1860s - 3.5 x 2.25-inch prints mounted on card. As the writer Anne Isabella Thackeray described them, "people like clear, hard outlines, and have a fancy to see themselves and their friends as if through opera-glasses, all complete, with the buttons, nicely defined".

Cameron refuted the details of daily life: "When focusing and coming to something which, to my eye, was very beautiful, I stopped there instead of screwing on the lens to a more definite focus." Mary Hillier, her maid, along with other locals, modelled in the studio converted from a hen coop as often as socially superior subjects. Class was mere circumstance to Cameron; as with the pre-Raphaelites she was interested in a different kind of "truth". She frequently filled much of the frame with the model's head and shoulders, literally concerned to get in close. Light and shadow play over pale skin; hair lies loose, something normally reserved for the bedchamber; there is intimacy, sometimes powerful sensuality. You are encouraged to look, admire; and yet simultaneously to pause, too, where you find melancholy, loss, ambivalence about such attention.

What is evident in the construction and expression of these portraits is underscored by their titles. Unlike the male sitters, only a few female subjects are named; more often they take on mythical or historic roles. The story of "Beatrice", for example, of which Cameron made at least five interpretations, is one of sexual abuse and patricide. "Christabel", likewise, is a tale of loss of innocence and duplicity. Cameron's madonnas are little more than children themselves.

She portrayed a world in which death did the work that divorce does a century later - five of the children Cameron brought up were orphaned relatives. The age of consent for women was 12 and sex was inevitably mixed up with death through pregnancy and the perils of childbirth. The details of fascinating lives escape round the edges of the photographs in this book - Cameron herself, born in India, educated in France, later to return to Ceylon; the actress Ellen Terry, married at 16 to the 47-year-old painter G F Watts; Mary Ryan, the daughter of an Irish beggar, raised by Cameron, married by a man who fell in love with Cameron's image of her, became Lady Cotton. Prosperous Victorian Britain was in full swing, the 1851 Great Exhibition had shown that, but its very success had thrown up a multitude of doubts and questionings. The English translation of The Communist Manifesto started circulating in 1850; nine years later Darwin's Origin of Species was published; in 1869 T H Huxley coined the term "agnosticism".

The wayward Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell were related to Cameron. Their mother, Julia Jackson, was Cameron's niece, a famous beauty and the model for a series of intense portraits that follow her from youth, through marriage and widowhood. As Mrs Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, Woolf described her: "One wanted 50 pairs of eyes to see with . . . Fifty pairs of eyes were not enough to get round that one woman with."

The writer Sir Henry Taylor described Cameron as one "who lives upon superlatives as her daily bread" and Woolf, likewise, was inclined gently to mock her great-aunt. In fact, as someone who saw herself as an artist from the outset, who promoted her work through the prestigious Colnaghi Gallery and ensured its place in the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A), she was among the first to tread a path down which a chain of women would follow. Heston was not far wrong - practising for little more than a decade, only 25 years after photography had been invented, this wife of a coffee planter worked a minor revolution.

This article first appeared in the 22 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Goodbye to all that boiled cabbage