When Camelot was caught on camera: Studying a controversial photographic depiction of Arthur in 19th-century England

By Eli Elshani and Alicia Rojas Costa

Eli Elshani is a student of English literature at Leiden University. His interests primarily include European cultural history as well as the history of experimental art. He worked as a research trainee on ‘Arthurian Revival Across the Ages’, a project exploring various adaptations of Arthurian legend from the 19th and the 21st century.   

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/eli-elshani-9573ab194

Alicia’s intro:

Alicia Rojas Costa is a current Master’s student of Arts and Culture (Art, Architecture, and Interior before 1800) at Leiden University. She graduated in Art History in 2021 at the Complutense University of Madrid. Her interests in art history are mainly focused on Late Medieval European Decorative Arts. She worked as a research trainee on ‘Arthurian Revival Across the Ages’, a project exploring various adaptations of Arthurian legend from the 19th and the 21st century.

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/alicia-rojas-costa-906b011b3

Fig. 1: Julia Margaret Cameron (ca. 1875), “King Arthur” (photograph). Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

The photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) was by far one of the most controversial artists of the Victorian era. Despite the fact that she worked alongside famous figures like Alfred Lord Tennyson, she was regarded as an amateurish photographer by many contemporary critics: her photos were often described as blurry, unfocused, and altogether unprofessional in their composition. Yet, rather than merely being the amateur her critics regarded her as, Cameron could also be considered an experimentalist, someone who sought to push the boundaries of her age and to go against well-established social and historical narratives. Nothing demonstrates this better than her series of photographs which she based on characters from Arthurian legend. By seeing how her photographic depiction of Arthur and his court differed from more conventional depictions of the myth, we wish to demonstrate how Cameron adapted Arthur in a way which was both artistically and technologically experimental.

King Arthur – pictured through the new lens

During the 19th century, the story of King Arthur was appropriated by a group of thinkers and artists who were all united by a longing to revive the past. An apparent loss of Classical idealism, spirituality and craftsmanship within art production were used as the perfect premise to return to an ideal form of medievalism which sought to recover the aesthetic and spiritual values of the Middle Ages. Within a cultural sphere which included art collectives such as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, an enigmatic figure emerged with an artistic project which was very unusual at the time: the British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879). Though she’s currently best-known for her portraits of famous figures such as Charles Darwin and Sir John Herschel, Cameron also used her photography for more creative purposes, drawing inspiration from the Bible, various works of literature and, eventually, Arthurian legend. In 1874, the poet Alfred Tennyson encouraged Cameron to illustrate his Idylls of the King, a series of narrative poems based on the stories of King Arthur. Cameron’s response to this request was a series of 25 tableaux vivants, all staged and produced inside her actual domestic space.

From the outset, Cameron’s project was a rarity in that it used the new technological form of photography for artistic purposes. Not only was she one of the first people to use the camera with the intent to reimagine reality rather than to capture it, but the very idea to combine the Arthurian myth with photography was an especially bold and unique choice at the time. Naturally, there had been plenty of paintings, illustrations and written works on Arthur, with such works ranging from the aforementioned Idylls of the King to a lesser-known romance narrative published in Victorian boys’ magazines like The Boy’s Standard or The Boy’s Leisure Hour. But what Julia Margaret Cameron was doing was very much unheard of in 19th-century England. Cameron was unique among her peers in this regard, as she grasped the potential of new modes of technology to transform even the most well-established myth in a way never before seen.

Foregrounding the women that Camelot forgot

Fig. 2: Julia Margaret Cameron (ca. 1875), “Lancelot and Elaine” (photograph). Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Far from seeking to transform the myth on an exclusively formal level, Cameron used her photographic reimagining of Arthur to lend a voice to the women of Camelot. In addition to exploring the boundaries of Victorian photography, Cameron’s work was also unusual in that it often focused on female characters who traditionally occupied a secondary role in the Arthurian myths. One such character is Elaine, the maiden of the castle of Astolat who dies because of her unrequited love for Sir Lancelot. Figure 2 above shows a scene in which a cloaked and bearded man – who likely represents Death rather than Sir Lancelot – watches over Elaine after her passing. Elaine is completely clad in white, making her appear saintlike and turning her into the primary point of focus in an otherwise dark and murky environment. Though Sir Lancelot is normally closely associated with Elaine’s fate, the knight is entirely absent here. Instead, the picture appears as a monument to Elaine’s life and eventual passing, focusing on her purity and innocence above all. Altogether, the picture makes it clear that in Cameron’s works, even a relatively minor character like Elaine is specially memorialized in an audience with death; one where she is made to stand out nevertheless.

Incidentally, Elaine’s passing is far from the only scene where female characters are foregrounded over male ones. In the most notable case, Julia Margaret Cameron has applied this same philosophy to none other than King Arthur himself, namely in the image called “The Passing of Arthur” (Fig. 4). If one wants to see where the titular subject of this photo is, they would probably need to strain their eyes to do so, as the Arthur in this image barely has any visual presence. His face is almost hidden, and behind him three queens stand as personifications of his legacy. It is these three characters that are most visually prominent in the whole image, and their caring attitude towards a recently deceased Arthur is arguably the main thematic focus in Cameron’s picture. Similar to “Lancelot and Elaine”, the minimization of Arthur’s presence strongly emphasizes the role and influence of the women in Arthurian legend.

Fig. 4: Julia Margaret Cameron (ca. 1875), “The Passing of King Arthur” (photograph). Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Lastly, a final example shows how Cameron offers a humane interpretation on the notorious love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere (Fig. 5) which, according to Tennyson’s Idylls, resulted in the fall of Arthur’s kingdom. Subsequently, the Idylls ended with Guinevere repenting for her act of adultery and spending three more years in a monastery before passing away. The way that Guinevere is treated in the Idylls points to the idea that what the queen did was quite clearly wrong, and that she acted irresponsibly and in the spur of the moment. However, when looking at “The Parting of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere”, the audience gets to see a more vulnerable and nuanced side of Guinevere’s relationship, one that invokes a sense of genuine tenderness, tragedy and love. The picture imbues the affair with a sublime quality which is conveyed without restraint or hesitation. The bond between these parting lovers appears unshakeable to such a degree that it momentarily salvages Guinevere from her infamy as a “ruined woman”, and instead presents a side of her which is autonomous and agentive. Ultimately, Cameron’s picture grants Guinevere a voice with which to defend herself, thereby marking the image as Cameron’s most ambitious attempt at empowerment.

Fig. 5: Julia Margaret Cameron (ca. 1875), “The Parting of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere” (photograph). Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

In conclusion, the examples in this article have served to demonstrate how Julia Margaret Cameron experimented with the Arthurian myth in a way that was practically unheard of in the 19th century. When comparing Cameron’s depiction of male and female Arthurian characters to how they’re presented in the works of some of her contemporaries, one sees that Cameron was not afraid to humanize the women of Arthurian legend and, in many cases, to give them precedence over Arthur and his knights in the scenes she depicted. What also becomes clear from this article is that King Arthur serves as a blank slate upon which any artist can project their concepts and ideas, whether we’re talking about Julia Margaret Cameron, Alfred Lord Tennyson, or simply about a lesser-known illustrator of an Arthurian story for working-class youths. In this case, King Arthur serves as a tool for a type of experimentation which was both emancipatory and technologically bold, and which few have managed to replicate since.

Further reading:

“V&A · Julia Margaret Cameron”. Victoria and Albert Museum. https://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/julia-margaret-cameron.

Lukitsh, Joanne. Cameron: Her Work and Career. Rochester, N.Y.: International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, 1986.

“Cameron, Julia Margaret | Robbins Library Digital Projects”. https://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/creator/julia-margaret-cameron .