Essays:

> Julia Margaret Cameron: two London bicentenary exhibitions

Anna McNay / Julia Margaret Cameron: two London bicentenary exhibitions

January 2016

Julia Margaret Cameron
Victoria and Albert Museum
28 November 2015 – 21 February 2016

and

Julia Margaret Cameron: Influence and Intimacy
Media Space, Science Museum
24 September 2015 – 28 March 2016

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The aspects of her photography for which Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79) is most celebrated are – and indeed always have been – those for which she is also most criticised, namely her imprecision, lack of focus, and deliberately vague, artistic subject matter. Regardless of one’s opinion on her style, however, Cameron’s impact on the development of the medium and its acceptance as an art form cannot be denied. She was the first photographer who took repeated advantage of the Copyright Bill of 1862, paying one shilling per picture to register some 505 of her photographs, and, in 1868, she became the first “artist in residence” at the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum), when its then director, Sir Henry Cole, allowed her to use two rooms as a studio. Her experimental techniques and penchant for scratching or drawing on to the negative, as well as her deliberate use of smudges and swirls, from applying an excess of collodion, render her resultant imagery poetic and alluring, far removed from documentary style. Indeed, Cameron herself acknowledged in a letter to her friend and mentor, Sir John Herschel, at the end of 1864: “My aspirations are to ennoble Photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real and Ideal and sacrificing nothing of the Truth by all possible devotion to Poetry and beauty.”

It was Herschel from whom Cameron first learned of photography in the early 1840s and, in the same year that she wrote the above letter, the first year of her photographic endeavours, she assembled for him an album as a token of her appreciation. Added to three years later, this album came to hold some 94 photographs, among them some of Cameron’s greatest portraits and religious studies. More than a century later, in 1975, the Reviewing Committee for the Export of Works of Art blocked an export application from the American collector Sam Wagstaff, who had bought the album at Sotheby’s for £52,000. A public appeal was launched to save the album for the nation. It was the first time in Britain that photographs had officially been classified as works of art, seeing Cameron’s wishes fulfilled. In 1987, the album was disbound for conservation purposes, making it possible for the contents to be displayed in full, and, to celebrate the bicentenary of her birth (2015), the Media Space at the Science Museum has put on just such a show. Across the road, the Victoria and Albert is simultaneously mounting a retrospective of more than 100 of her photographs from its own collection, organised chronologically around four letters from Cameron to Cole, rendering sections entitled: ‘First Success’, ‘Electrify and Startle’, ‘Fortune as well as Fame’, and ‘Her Mistakes or her Successes’. The latter exhibition also marks the 150th anniversary of Cameron’s first exhibition at the museum, held just two years into her career.

Cameron, the fourth and most flamboyant of seven sisters, was born and raised in Calcutta, moving to England with her legal reformer husband upon his retirement in 1848. It was, however, not until the age of 48, that Cameron began taking photographs, after receiving a camera on Christmas Eve, 1863. Her first lens had a short focal length and a fixed aperture of about f/6, making it almost impossible to focus her subjects at the distance she would position them at, but the hazy images suited Cameron’s often imaginary – or, at the very least, allegorical – subject matter. She was inspired by the poetry of her friends Tennyson, Keats and Milton, as well as by classical mythology and biblical stories, including those of St Agnes, the Five Wise and the Five Foolish Virgins, and Jacob and Rachel. Her women are demure, with downcast gazes and folded hands; her children cherubic, intimate and tender, as they hug and kiss one another innocently; her men, however, are brawny and more sharply focused with strong directional lighting. Thanks to her elevated social circles, her portrait work has been referred to as “a pantheon of eminent Victorians”. Cameron herself divided her early work into three categories: portraits, Madonna groups, and “fancy subjects for pictorial effect”. This first section of the V&A’s exhibition is by far the largest and shows how she learnt and developed her art.

Because of their shared interest in Italian subjects and early Renaissance painting, Cameron has often also been associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Although it disbanded a decade before she took up photography, she was certainly well acquainted with its paintings and alluded to them in much of her work. Nevertheless, she would not restrict herself to any particular artistic credo. She also drew some inspiration from sentimental genre painting popular with her Victorian contemporaries. Her aim was, indeed, to “electrify and startle”, and, in 1866, she wrote of her most recent work in a letter to Cole: “I hope it is no vain imagination of mine to say that the like have never been produced and never can be surpassed!”

Cameron’s favourite subject was her niece, Julia Jackson (and mother of Virginia Woolf), whose doe-eyed face is as instantaneously recognisable as the Italian male model with furrowed brow, strong cheekbones and long, light lashes who posed for Cameron’s iconic Iago (1867). Confirming the public dissemination and recognition of Cameron’s work and her subjects even during her lifetime, Tennyson, who sat for a portrait, used as the frontispiece to the 1874 edition of his Idylls of the King, illustrated with woodcuts made from Cameron’s photographs, wrote: “I can’t be anonymous anymore because of your confounded photographs”.

The Tennyson project was Cameron’s final major commission before leaving England for Ceylon, where she died, less than four years later. On her death, the Photographic News published the following tribute: “If Mrs Cameron’s pictures were not perfect, they exercised an influence that was much wanted… Mrs Cameron was an ardent believer in lack of sharpness, and if not universally in the right, she proved very plainly that pleasing pictures were to be produced of an unsharp character, if we may use the expression, and that sharpness of focus was not, as photographers believed, the acme of photographic work”. Certainly, her experimental techniques went on to influence generations of photographers to come and her ardent determination, self-belief and forthright self-promotion – “She could be highly despotic […] caustic and candid of tongue,” wrote Virginia Woolf in her book about her aunt – brought her acknowledgment at a time when, as a woman, she was often subject to misattribution (“Mr Cameron”) and condescending critique. Love her or hate her, these exhibitions, which together offer a deep insight into Cameron’s process and artistic aims, are well worth a visit.

 – text by Anna McNay