Julia Margaret Cameron’s ‘fancy subjects’

Photographic allegories of Victorian identity and empire

By Jeffrey Rosen

Julia Margaret Cameron’s ‘fancy subjects’


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Book Information

  • Format: Hardcover
  • ISBN: 978-1-7849-9317-7
  • Pages: 336
  • Publisher: Manchester University Press
  • Price: £75.00
  • Published Date: January 2016
  • BIC Category: History & Archaeology, c 1500 onwards to present day, 19th century, c 1800 to c 1899, Individual artists, art monographs, HISTORY / Europe / Great Britain, PHOTOGRAPHY / Subjects & Themes / Historical, PHOTOGRAPHY / Individual Photographers / Monographs, Literature & literary studies / Literature: history & criticism, Humanities / Colonialism & imperialism, Humanities / Modern history to 20th century: c 1700 to c 1900, The arts / Photography & photographs, The arts / History of art & design styles: c 1800 to c 1900, Art History, History, Photography & photographs, Individual photographers, History of art, PHOTOGRAPHY / History


Julia Margaret Cameron's 'fancy subjects' is the first study of Cameron's allegorical photographs and the first to examine the intellectual connections of this imagery to British culture and politics of the 1860s and 1870s. In these photographs, Cameron depicted passages from classical mythology, the Old and New Testament, and historical and contemporary literature. She costumed her friends, domestic help, and village children in dramatic poses, turning them into goddesses and nymphs, biblical kings and medieval knights; she photographed young women in the style of the Elgin marbles, making sculpture come alive, and re-imagined scenes depicted in the poetry of Byron and Tennyson. Cameron chose allegory as her primary artistic device because it allowed her to use popular iconography to convey a latent or secondary meaning. In her photographs, a primary meaning is first conveyed by the title of the image; then, social and political ideas that the artist implanted in the image begin to emerge, contributing to and commenting on the contemporary cultural, religious and political debates of the time. Cameron used the term 'fancy subjects' to embed these moral, intellectual and political narratives in her photographs. This book reconnects her to the prominent minds in her circle who influenced her thinking, including Benjamin Jowett, George Grote and Henry Taylor, and demonstrates her awareness and responsiveness to popular graphic art, including textiles and wall paper, book illustrations and engravings from period folios, cartoons from Punch and line drawings from the Illustrated London News, cabinet photographs and autotype prints.


'Much more than a standard history, Rosen's expansive text locates, quite forensically, what is perhaps one of the most important functions of Cameron's fancies for viewers today: to trace outward, from her immediate personal, literary, and visual communities, a nexus of contentious religious, colonial and nationalist debates that helped shape, not just Cameron and her work, but the Victorian psyche itself.'
Katherine Parhar, Independent Scholar, Visual Culture in Britain, 2016

'Rosen's well-illustrated study represents a valuable resource for scholars and critics alike, and I have already recommended it to my own students. In addition to its appeal to those working on Cameron and her contemporaries, the book contains rich material for those intrigued by the visual cultural history of the nineteenth century more generally.' - Lindsay Smith, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK, Early Popular Visual Culture

'Rosen has provided an astonishingly interdisciplinary, thoroughly researched study of Cameron's intellectual range and her technical and exhibitionary practices. He coordinates material and philosophical content discursively to raise intriguing ambiguities and to problematize common assumptions about Cameron. In doing so, Rosen reveals Cameron as a deeply intellectually engaged photographer whose works not only embodied but also shaped the philosophical cross-currents of her day.'
Julie Codell, History of Photography (Taylor & Francis) December 2016

'The overworked persona of Cameron-a cartoonish figure of Freshwater fame, eccentric, domineering, least-beautiful of the Pattle sisters, forever chasing down Tennyson and his guests with her camera, forcing her servants to participate in long sessions of posing so that the household had to live off eggs and bacon-is put firmly to the side in Jeff Rosen's painstaking, revelatory, and serious assessment of the allegorical photographs. What matters to Rosen, and, it turns out, to the photographs themselves, is history: the political exigencies of the ten-year span in which these images were made, and in which their maker intended them to make sense.'
Jennifer Green-Lewis of George Washington University

'Jeff Rosen offers a serious, revelatory assessment of Cameron's allegorical works by situating them within their historical and imperial context... 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'.
Heather Bozant Witcher, Saint Louis University, British Society for Literature and Science


Jeff Rosen is Vice President for Accreditation Relations at the Higher Learning Commission


Introduction: Taking Cameron's 'fancy subjects' seriously
1. Saint-Pierre's exiles: myths of origins and heritage
2. Jowett's scriptures: the moral life and the state
3. Grote's Hellenism: Victorian Parnassus on the Isle of Wight
4. Byron's 'Beauties': national heroines and defenders of liberty
5. Overstone's 'Negromania': justness and justice at home and abroad
6. Tennyson's nationalism: epic and lyric in Idylls of the King
7. North's gardens: redemption and the return to origins

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