Vivien and Merlin
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Arty Fact

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What do you get when the poet Lord Alfred Tennyson, often said to be one of the three most famous people in England (along with Queen Victoria and Gladstone), asks genius photographer Julia Margaret Cameron to make her final project the illustration of his soon-to-be legendary book of poetry, The Idylls of the King

Well, you know you’re going to get something great--the Poet Laureate Tennyson, wouldn’t have asked Cameron to illustrate his poems if he hadn’t recognized how talented and imaginative she was. For starters, we get one hundred eighty incredible photos like this one. But even more importantly, we get the badass heroine Vivien portrayed by a model that Cameron described herself as “having a beauty evident to everyone.” And then, you get the end product: 40,000 copies of Tennyson’s book sold in a single week in the year 1859. Merlin and Vivien was just one of one hundred eighty photos Cameron took of family, friends, and acquaintances in the process of illustrating Tennyson’s book, and it was the final project she ever completed.

The photo illustrates a specific scene from Tennyson’s book of poetry, The Idylls of the King. The book was a set of poems recounting stories related to King Arthur’s court. Tennyson’s version of the stories made clear political comment on England and its demise as a country at the time. This photo specifically illustrates a moment when the heroine of the story (or villain to King Arthur’s court), Vivien, tries to trick the wizard Merlin. Vivien, on behalf of Mark of Cornwall (Sir Launcelot’s enemy), attempts to trick Merlin into revealing one of his greatest spells; a spell by which the conjurer could turn their enemy invisible to everyone else. She tries to seduce him, and they fall into a back and forth whereby she follows him across a lake, into a forest, and beneath a tree, begging him to teach her the spell. He tries to fend her off by telling her his boring old childhood stories. (Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure my grandpa uses this same approach on me...) But, Merlin eventually grows tired, collapses beneath an oak tree, and gives her the secret to the spell.

Cameron almost always preferred to shoot friends, family, and acquaintances over hired models. Over the years she shot a parlor maid as the Madonna, her husband as Merlin (in this photo), her husband again as King Lear, a neighbor’s child as the infant Christ, and the same child with swan’s wings attached as both Cupid and an angel from Raphael’s Sistine Madonna. Her husband Charles, who bears an astounding semblance to Merlin, was known for laughing uncontrollably during her shoots and ruining a number of her shots in the process. In preparation for this shot, Cameron even brought an oak tree in and had a gardener set it up in the background. An onlooker described the experience of watching the shoot, saying, “It was more than mortal could stand to see the oak beginning gently to vibrate, and know that the extraordinary phenomenon was produced by the suppressed chuckling of Merlin.”




  1. "Alfred, Lord Tennyson." Poetry Foundation. Accessed July 12, 2019.
  2. "Idylls of the King." Merlin and Vivien. Accessed July 12, 2019.
  3. “Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–1879)” Accessed July 12, 2019.
  4. Lane, Anthony, and Anthony Lane. "Names And Faces." The New Yorker. July 09, 2019. Accessed July 12, 2019.
  5. Pechman, Alexandra. "The Beauty of the Heroine: Julia Margaret Cameron and the Poetic Portrait." The Paris Review. August 27, 2013. Accessed July 12, 2019.
  6. Thurman, Judith. "Angels and Instincts." The New Yorker. June 20, 2017. Accessed July 12, 2019.
  7. “Vivien and Merlin, 1874.” . Accessed July 12, 2019.