As an artwork and an image, this haunting photograph might seem incongruous with a conference prompted by the 150th anniversary of Prince Albert’s death. Taken nearly fifteen years after Albert’s death, the photograph seems far removed in time and subject-matter from the culture and society of industrialised Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century. Yet when Claire and I saw the image it seemed curiously appropriate. When divorced from the Arthurian narrative of Elaine’s death, the image shows four people staring at what appears to be a corpse. As in many of Cameron’s photographs, the scene is dramatically foreshortened. Viewers are forced to confront the corpse in front of us, before we look at the gathered figures and think about the narrative they represent. They are cloaked in an array of rich outfits, but the body itself is laid out on an unassuming, undecorated bier. Elaine is dressed in what appears to be a plain white night gown, her hair untended and slightly unkempt. This photograph is as much about our own response to the recumbent figure in front of us, as it is about the literary narrative it represents.
Ultimately, we were struck by the many questions that the photograph provoked, from the processes behind its production, to the costumes, figures, and the narrative they embody. Most important were the questions that surround the recumbent figure, posed as a corpse. Is it an object of sympathy, for the gathered figures and for us as viewers? What would mourners in the Victorian period have thought of this photograph as an image, and how might they have engaged with it as an object? Does the photographic medium have a different power to the painted one? How does this image work within the tradition of actual post-mortem photography? We hope that these will be among the many questions raised by the materials of mourning on 3 December.
To read more about Julia Margaret Cameron and see more of her work, visit the V&A website.