Illustrations to Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, and Other Poems

Item author: Julia Margaret Cameron
Item date: 1875
Grant Value: £12,000 [B.H. Breslauer Foundation Fund]
Item cost: £45,000
Item date acquired: 2018
Item institution: St Andrews University
Town/City: St Andrews
County: Fife

Idylls of the King is one of the most famous 19th-century collaborations between a poet and a photographer and a rare and invaluable source for the study of Tennyson's poetry and of Victorian culture.

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) is one of the most celebrated women in the history of photography, known for her innovative work when photography was still in its infancy. Her photographs were rule-breaking: purposely out of focus, and often including smudges, scratches and other traces of the artist's process.  Best known for her powerful portraits, Cameron described her photographic subjects in the categories 'Portraits', 'Madonna groups', and 'Fancy Subjects for Pictorial Effect'.  Cameron was criticised for her unconventional techniques, but also celebrated for the beauty of her compositions and her conviction that photography was an art form.  Photography was still in its infancy when in 1863 Cameron, aged 48, was given a sliding-box camera and began to explore the form.

Cameron’s close friendship with Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson (1809-1892) resulted in the Poet Laureate choosing her services as a photographer to illustrate the proposed ‘People’s’ edition of Idylls of the King in 1874. The pair both lived in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight, Cameron moving there in 1860 having visited Tennyson's estate on the island.  Responding that both knew that “it is immortality to me to be bound up with you,” Cameron accepted.  In the event, only three of her photographs were used, and those were from woodcut copies.  Tennyson encouraged her to fund the publication of two large-format albums with the full-size photographs tipped in and excerpts from his poems lithographed from her handwriting.  The first volume appeared in December 1874 and Cameron anticipated great success, hoping for a review in the London Times, but achieving comment only in the Morning Post and Anthony’s Photographic Bulletin. Despite this setback, Volume II went ahead and was published in 1875.  Our copy is Volume II, which contains thirteen albumen prints including a frontispiece portrait of Tennyson and text for the poems all printed in a facsimile of Cameron’s hand.

Our copy belonged to Dr Rolf S. Schultze (1902–67), Kodak’s research librarian and curator of the Kodak Museum in the 1950s and 1960s, and later the honorary librarian for the Royal Photographic Society in London.

The acquisition of Idylls of the King greatly strengthens the University's reputation as an important centre for the study of the history of photography and enhances our collection of photographically-illustrated books. It also augments our already substantial holdings of Tennyson editions, which include first editions of Poems, Chiefly Lyrical, In Memoriam, and Idylls of the King.  The book has already been accessed by academics and there are exciting plans for using the book in research and teaching projects.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson dressed as 'The Dirty Monk'.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson dressed as 'The Dirty Monk'.
'Maud'.
'Maud'. Albumen prints by Julia Margaret Cameron. Courtesy of the University of St Andrews.