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Libraries & Collections > MRBR > Exhibitions > Online Exhibitions > A Pen and a Press of Her Own

Woolf in the World: A Pen and a Press of Her Own
Virginia Woolf's Mother and Godmother

Dictionary of National BiographyOne of the few biographies of women in the Dictionary of National Biography is an article about the photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron, who was Virginia Woolf’s godmother. The entry for Cameron was written by Virginia Woolf’s mother, Julia Duckworth Stephen, who was the daughter of Cameron’s younger sister Maria (Mia) Pattle and Dr. John Jackson.

Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by Leslie Stephen. London: Smith, Elder, 1886. Volume 8.

Cameron took a series of photographs of Virginia Woolf’s mother from 1864 to 1875. Cameron is known for her soft focus; the portrait on display was taken after the tragic death of Julia Stephen’s first husband, Herbert Duckworth. Widowed at the age of twenty-four with three young children, Julia Duckworth Stephen fell into a long grieving period. It was during this time that Cameron took many of her portraits.

Julia Duckworth Stephen

In her introduction to Victorian Photographs of Famous Men & Fair Women, Virginia Woolf wrote about Julia Margaret Cameron: “She used to say that in her photography a hundred negatives were destroyed before she achieved one good result; her object being to overcome realism by diminishing just in the least degree the precision of the focus.” Art Victorian Photographs of Famous Men and Fair Womencritic, Roger Fry also contributed an introduction in the volume: “Mrs. Cameron was pre-eminently an artist.” She “had a wonderful perception of character as it is expressed in form, and of form as it is revealed or hidden by the incidence of light.” Plate 16 on display, of Virginia Woolf’s mother, according to Fry, “is a splendid success. The transitions of tone in the cheek and the delicate suggestions of reflected light, no less than the beautiful ‘drawing’ of the profile, are perfectly satisfying.” Other portraits in the volume include poets and scientists, such as Tennyson, Browning, Herschel, Darwin, and Hooker.

Julia Margaret Cameron. Victorian Photographs of Famous Men & Fair Women. With introductions by Virginia Woolf and Roger Fry. New York: Harcourt, 1926. Copy number 114 of 250. Presented by Henry L. Seaver.

Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College

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