Portraits to Dream In 

Julia Margaret Cameron, 'The Rosebud Garden of Girls', 1868

Two women photographers, more than a century apart, but with a similarly spiritual aesthetic, are paired up for the first time in a new National Portrait Gallery exhibition: Francesca Woodman and Julia Margaret Cameron Portraits to Dream In.

This dual exhibition features more than 160 rare vintage prints,  juxtaposing the ethereal images of a Victorian woman who pioneered a new approach to portrait photography, and a young American woman who captured enigmatic images of herself and her friends in the 1970s. Portraits to Dream In presents fresh research, rare vintage prints and previously unexhibited archival photographs by two of the most influential women in the history of photography. 

Julia Margaret Cameron  (1815-79), was born in 19th Century England into a wealthy family, and didn’t get involved in photography until 1863, when she was given a camera at the age of 48 and taught herself the art of portraiture. Cameron created some spell-binding portraits, which were often inspired by myths and legends such as the Legend of King Arthur and featured her friends and relations as pre-Raphaelite muses. She held her own in the male-dominated field of photography, working mainly in the UK and Sri Lanka, and creating imagery that still resonates today. Cameron’s work is still featured in photography textbooks and images such as Iago -study from an Italian Albumen Print (1867) has an enduring aura.

Julia Margaret Cameron ‘Iago -study from an Italian Albumen Print’ (1867).

At the start of the exhibition the first portraits that Cameron and Woodman declared they were happy with are displayed next to each other. Cameron’s Annie, my first success (1864) and Woodman’s self-portrait aged 13. Curator Magdalene Keaney kicks off the exhibition with this juxtaposition and goes on to explore Cameron and Woodman’s exploration of the muse, gender, self-representation and storytelling through the female gaze. 

Left to right: Julia Margaret Cameron ‘Annie, my first success’ (1864) and Francesca Woodman Self-portrait.

Francesca Woodman (1958-81) was born in Denver, Colorado, into an artistic family (her father was a photographer and painter, and her mother a ceramicist). A more precocious talent than Cameron a century early, Woodman became interested in photography as a teenager at boarding school and hand-printed her first self-portrait in 1972 at the tender age of 13. Then followed an intensely creative period of creating photographic images in America and Italy. Tragically hers was a short yet creative life, and she committed suicide at the age of 22.

Francesca Woodman

Woodman’s tragic denouement might be related to her exploration of spirituality and belief in Angels and otherworldly beings, a sensibility she had in common with Cameron. Images by both photographers featuring angels and cherubic children are featured in the exhibition. One of the most striking images is Woodman’s On Being an Angel, a self-portrait depicting her naked, arched body from above, with an other-wordly white light. In A hint of the Surreal, Woodman leaps toward a bright light in an empty room, arms outstretched with two pieces of white material symbolising angel wings. Cameron’s angels are inspired by classical mythology and Christian iconography, and feature cherubic children with angel wings. Both women referenced myths and legends in their work, demonstrated in the exhibition by striking images such as Woodman’s Lucy with Goose/ Leda and Swan, 1978, and Cameron’s Vivien and Merlin, 1874.

Francesca Woodman ‘LucyWithGoose/ Leda and Swan’, 1978

Curator Magdalene Keaney takes visitors on a journey through some of the most captivating images of Cameron and Woodman, with themes such as Picture Making, Nature and Femininity, Models and Muses, The Dream Space, Doubling, Angels and Other Otherworldly Beings, showing how despite being 100 years apart, each woman made an impact on the genre of photography.

Julia Margaret Cameron

Francesca Woodman and Julia Margaret Cameron
Portraits to Dream In 
is at the National Portrait Gallery until 16th June, 2024. 


Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.

Top 3 Stories