Julia Margaret Cameron's ethereal photographs were born out of a gift from her daughter and son-in-law in 1863. The camera was meant to amuse her, but she soon began to take photography as a serious pursuit. Her portraits are often close up, with a soft glow, and often with props that evoke a theatrical performance. She was making art in the style of the Pre-Raphaelites at a time when most photographers were simply doing studio portraits for profit.
In these two images, from 1874 and 1875, Cameron's subjects are holding a piccolo-sized five-string banjo. The banjo is piccolo-sized (smaller than a regular banjo), fretless, and the skin head is attached with tacks, rather than tightening hardware that became more common in the 1880s and 1890s.
The banjo is thought of as a quintessentially American instrument, but it first sprang into American pop culture in the 1840s as black-face minstrel performers took the African instrument on stage, using it to simultaneously mock and idolize African culture. Not long after the craze overtook the U.S., minstrel performers brought their music to England. The "Father of Minstrelsy" Joel Walker Sweeney first performed in London in 1843, and was so successful that he continued to perform all over England, and groups of minstrel players that were forming in the U.S. went on tour across Britain.
By the 1860s, the British had their own minstrelsy tradition, with Englishmen forming their own troops and even publishing banjo instructional methods.
The U.S. had a tradition of banjo playing among free and enslaved African Americans long before the minstrel show. Sweeney said he learned from slaves on his father's plantation, and while some of the traditional American banjo music of today comes from minstrel show music, there is also a tradition that comes from the African American music that predated minstrelsy or happened concurrent with the minstrel era. But no such tradition existed in England, so the banjo remained something for the stage and parlor, and Cameron's use of the banjo as a prop reflects this.
For more information on Julia Margaret Cameron, visit the Victoria and Albert Museum's website or the page for the recent exhibit of Cameron's work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For more information on the banjo in England during this time, read the article by Bob Winans and Elias Kaufman in American Music here.
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