In 1874, Julia Margaret Cameron was asked by her friend and neighbor Alfred, Lord Tennyson to illustrate a new edition of his Idylls of the King, a recasting of the Arthurian legend in which the poet laureate projected the downfall of Victorian society. Compared to earlier editions illustrated by Gustave Doré and by Pre-Raphaelite artists, Cameron's folio, with twelve large original photographs and a frontispiece portrait of Tennyson himself, was decidedly extravagant. Cameron lavished great care on this, her last project, making 180 exposures of her family and friends posed as living embodiments of the moralizing episodes.
Here we see the photographer's husband, Henry Hay Cameron, posed as Tennyson's Merlin-"an old darling," according to Cameron-the magician whose purity was the wellspring of his power, and an unidentified girl playing the harlot Vivien, who enchants him. Mr. Cameron, very much in character as Tennyson's Merlin, stands before "the hollow oak" (carried in from Tennyson's property), "lost to life and use, and name and fame." The picture succeeds through the language of gesture: Vivien's turning, pointing attitude (which Cameron aptly termed "piquante") and Merlin's dreamlike trance make this the image incarnate of the casting of a spell.