*Two* Women to Know: Julia Margaret Cameron & Mary Hillier

From the first moment, I handled my lens with a tender ardour. — Julia Margaret Cameron

(Mary Hillier as Sappho, image via Metropolitan Museum of Art)


When Julia Margaret Cameron picked up photography at age 48, she didn't know the "little hobby" would become her life's legacy. The early camera, and particularly her penchant for its soft-focus portraits, widened her social circle considerably. Soon she was salon-ing with the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, her neighbor on the Isle of Wight; his celebrated cadre of literary friends; famous actors, actresses and noblemen, who paid handsomely for their own Cameron portraits; and among all of these sat Mary Hillier, Cameron's one-time maid and favorite subject.

Mary herself had grown up in poverty on the Isle of Wight, coming to work at the Cameron House when she was just a teenager. Julia loved her ethereal style and near-medieval looks. Soon, Mary posed for many of her mistress's best known works: as ancient Greek figures like Sappho and Athena; as abstract personifications of "Peace" and "Agape," drenched in light and draped in silk; and most frequently, as a Madonna figure, starring in Julia's "Mary Mother," "The Angel in the Tomb" and "Madonna Resting in Hope."

In 1879, Julia Margaret Cameron died, just 15 years after holding her first camera. "I longed to arrest all beauty before me, and at length the longing has been satisfied," she said on her deathbed. Mary's history ends there. All we know is she died where she was born, in the same small village outside the Cameron House.

Today, galleries and museums around the globe host exhibitions to honor Julia Margaret Cameron. Art students study her work and set their own lenses to mimic Cameron's soft-focus magic. And so in the end, Mary's face has traveled far beyond her mistress's house.

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