Posted by: emmacwatkins1 | December 2, 2021

Julia Margaret Cameron, Virginia Woolf, and Vanessa Bell

In a course I took last spring called “Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group,” I learned for the first time how artistically connected — both in terms of professional networking and also in terms of similar artistic subject matter — Virginia Woolf and her family were. Julia Margaret Cameron, the notable Victorian era photographer, was Virginia Woolf’s great aunt. Woolf’s family also had many other writers, though many of them wrote nonfiction — like her father, who was the first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography.  

Focusing on Cameron, it is worth noting that Cameron and Woolf both became known for depicting domestic, mostly feminine scenes — Cameron in her photography, Woolf in her writing. Pictures like “Blessing and Blessed,” “La Madonna Esattata/Fervent in Prayer,” and “Holy Family,” emphasize Cameron’s fascination with posing mothers and children, or “Altered Madonnas,” in the words of Carol Mavor. But Woolf and Cameron were not the only artists in their family interested in depicting mothers and children: Vanessa Bell, a modernist painter and Virginia Woolf’s sister, was also interested in these relationships and included them in one of her most notable paintings. 

Photo courtesy of WikiArt 


Studland Beach has been compared to Cameron’s works by art historian Lisa Tickner in her article “Studland Beach, Domesticity, and ‘Significant Form.’” Tickner writes, “For Bell the essential quality in a true work of art is ‘significant form,’ … that common property that combination of lines and colors, of forms and relations of forms that produces aesthetic emotion.” Essentially, she defines significant form as the emotional response to a work of art. In portraits of mothers and children, no matter the medium, this emotional response may come from how the viewer interprets the relationship between the figures in the artwork. Studland Beach is much more abstract than Cameron’s photographs and provides both more and less room for interpretation based on how little viewers can see of the actual features of the painting’s figures. On the other hand, where we get vivid colors from Bell, Cameron’s photographs are shades of sepia, black, and white — allowing for more flexibility when interpreting the mood of the photographs.

Both of these examples depict mothers and children, but in very different ways. The powerful gaze of Cameron’s depiction of the mother contrasts strikingly with the faceless figures of Bell’s painting. The contrast in how the two artists depict emotions — one through photographic staging and facial expression, and one through color and more abstract painting staging — shows the changing perceptions of interiority and feeling from the Victorian era to the Modern period, and also show the similar artistic inclinations of Julia Margaret Cameron and her great-niece Vanessa Bell.


  1. Hi Emma,

    I really enjoyed reading your post and the contrast you drawn between the two chosen images. I was particularly fascinated by the second image and think it’s really interesting how the image is open to the viewer’s interpretation of motherhood and the relationship between the figures. This particularly stands out against the previous image, which espouses more incontestable ideas on motherhood, showing us a transition over these time periods!

  2. Thanks for sharing, Emma! I enjoyed this post as it connects two classes. Nothing is ever as isolated as it may seem!

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