Victorian Studies 43.3 (2001) 499-501
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Julia Margaret Cameron's Women
There are easily a dozen books available on Julia Margaret Cameron. A review of Julia Margaret Cameron's Women, then, must begin by asking whether we need one more, and, if we do, how this one is different from other lush and lavish sepia-toned extravaganzas. This book is simultaneously an exhibition catalogue, a coffee-table book, and a serious piece of scholarship. How well-suited is it to these various uses? Can they coexist harmoniously in one volume?
This is a large and well-made book, constructed of particularly lovely paper, itself reminiscent of the nineteenth century. Its illustrations, both the numerous duotone thumbnails placed within the essays and the sixty-three full-page five-color plates at the book's heart, are extraordinary reproductions, serving both informational and aesthetic ends. The unusual choice of a five-color press to reproduce monochromatic images is commendable. The prints convey the full range of tones possible in albumen printing; the rich browns and inky near-blacks ring especially true.
Julia Margaret Cameron's Women is as extravagant with its text as it is with its illustrations. In addition to Sylvia Wolf's thorough and ambitious core essay, it contains a brief Preface by Art Institute of Chicago Director and President, James N. Wood, which reminds us that this book is an exhibition catalogue, and thereby a reflection of the assemblage of singular and vintage objects that was its source. This is followed by "an appreciation" of Cameron by Phyllis Rose that combines an overview of women's lives in Victorian England with Rose's personal responses to Cameron's life and work. Following Wolf's tour de force is Debra Mancoff's substantially researched and closely read treatment of Cameron's illustrations to Alfred Tennyson's "Idylls of the King" (1859-85). The texts that follow the plates include Wolf's pithy analysis of a single piece of Cameron ephemera, a sales catalogue from 1868, that lists 181 titles with various prices and boasts annotations in Cameron's hand. The sales catalogue is reproduced in facsimile at what is apparently close to true scale. There is also an extensive biographical listing of nineteen [End Page 499] of Cameron's female sitters, by Stephanie Lipscomb, a well-constructed Index, an exhibition checklist, and an Appendix by Mancoff and Wolf of detailed notes and citations for twenty of Cameron's lesser-known literary and mythological subjects, from Alathea to Zoe. The almost overwhelming amount of information unearthed, organized, and presented in this book is unusual in a work that is also so strongly driven by the visual.
Rose's best-known book is Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages (1983), a series of essays on Victorian literary couples emphasizing their inner lives and characterized by a somewhat breathless voyeurism. In her treatment of Cameron, Rose similarly ignores a great deal of her subject's external world in favor of speculation on her thoughts, beliefs, and motives. Rose extrapolates from the facts of Cameron's life and the facial expressions of her sitters a version of Victorian womanhood that is fraught with melodrama, untimely death, sickness, and disaster. This view of Victorian times, though not uncommon today, is probably not the way these women thought of themselves. Rose's insistence on direct correspondences between her time and Cameron's is misleading and sometimes annoying, as when she blithely describes the Isle of Wight as "nineteenth century England's equivalent of Martha's Vineyard" (13). More troubling is her effusive conflation of the ambiguous facial expressions of staged portraits with the emotions of real individuals.
Wolf's curatorial essay is a solid and grounding antidote to Rose's flights of fancy. She justifies her arbitrary slice from the artist's oeuvre because Cameron depicted women differently from men--not generally as named and powerful individuals...