Julia Margaret Cameron photographed many eminent intellectuals who belonged to her circle of family and friends. She had to wait long and patiently, however, for the chance to capture the historian Thomas Carlyle with her lens. Carlyle, famous for writing On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, sat for Cameron only once, and during the sitting she made two photographs: this frontal portrait and a profile view.
Carlyle's face is cast in deep shadow. The dramatic lighting, which both illuminates and obscures his face, gives the portrait an emotional intensity. Carlyle was an intellectual hero to Cameron. Believing she had successfully captured him in a heroic posture, Cameron inscribed some prints of this image with the caption: "Carlyle like a rough block of Michelangelo's sculpture." This powerful, head-on view reveals a strength and intensity of character that mirrors the straightforward, sometimes antagonistic discourses in his writing.