|Thomas Carlyle, 1867, albumen print, 33.7 x 24.5 cm|
“From the first moment I handled my lens with a tender ardour, and it has become to me as a living thing, with a voice and memory and creative vigour."
– Julia Margaret Cameron, The Annals of My Glass House, 1874
Julia Margaret Cameron’s dynamic portrait of Thomas Carlyle utilises ambiguity in technique to compelling affect in a portrait made up almost of only smudges and smears on the collodion glass surface streaked with the application of the light-sensitive coating. Yet the image portrays all the more feeling for this, his eyes, similarly to Herschel’s, vacant in contemplation – “staring eagerly into emptiness" - as Carol MacKay puts it, his bright white hair framing his profile, his head filling the frame, arresting the viewers’ attention.
As with many of Cameron’s portraits the subject is given little context with a deep black surrounding the figure. Movement is evident in what must have been an exposure of several minutes, yet this only adds to the pure energy of the portrait.
As Roger Fry points out, comparing Cameron to more recent portraitists, “The slight movements of the sitter gave a certain breadth and envelopment to the form and prevented those too instantaneous expressions which in modern photography so often have an air of caricature.”
Cameron has not captured so much a likeness or a moment, as a manifestation of genius. Carlyle wrote that sitting for this portrait was an “inferno” and this is certainly evident in the resulting portrait, while Cameron described him paradoxically in her Annals as “almost the embodiment of a prayer,” recognising a transcendence which is present in this haunting image.