This image of Ellen Terry (1847-1928) is one of the few known photographs of a female celebrity by Julia Margaret Cameron. Terry, the popular child actress of the British stage, was sixteen years old when Cameron made this image. This photograph was most likely taken just after she married the eccentric painter, George Frederick Watts (1817-1904), who was thirty years her senior. They spent their honeymoon in the village of Freshwater on the Isle of Wight where Cameron resided.
Cameron’s portrait echoes Watt’s study of Terry titled Choosing (1864, National Portrait Gallery, London). As in the painting, Terry is shown in profile with her eyes closed, an ethereal beauty in a melancholic dream state. In this guise, Terry embodies the Pre-Raphaelite ideal of womanhood rather than appearing as the wild boisterous teenager she was known to be. The round (“tondo”) format of this photograph was popular among Pre-Raphaelite artists.
Cameron titled another print of this image Sadness (see 84.XZ.186.52), which may suggest the realization of a mismatched marriage. Terry’s anxiety is plainly evident—she leans against an interior wall and tugs nervously at her necklace. The lighting is notably subdued, leaving her face shadowed in doubt. In The Story of My Life (1909), Terry recalls how demanding Watts was, calling upon her to sit for hours as a model and giving her strict orders not to speak in front of distinguished guests in his studio.
This particular version was printed eleven years after Cameron first made the portrait. In order to distribute this image commercially, the Autotype Company of London rephotographed the original negative after the damage had been repaired. The company then made new prints using the durable, non-fading carbon print process. Thus, this version is in reverse compared to Sadness. Terry’s enduring popularity is displayed by the numerous photographs taken of her over the years. Along with the two portraits by Cameron, the Getty owns three more of Terry by other photographers. (see 84.XM.165.4, 84.XD.879.288, and 84.XD.879.289)
Adapted from Julian Cox. Julia Margaret Cameron, In Focus: Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1996), 12. ©1996 The J. Paul Getty Museum; with additions by Carolyn Peter, J. Paul Getty Museum, Department of Photographs, 2019.