Friday 10 July 2015

Review: Julia Margaret Cameron by Marta Weiss

A highlight of this year will undoubtedly be the Victoria and Albert Museum's upcoming bicentennial exhibition of Julia Margaret Cameron's work, coming in the autumn.  If you can't wait until then, you will be delighted to know that you can buy the catalogue now, splendidly entitled Julia Margaret Cameron: Photographs to electrify you with delight and startle the world...

@ Victoria & Albert Museum Courtesy MACK
The story of the exhibition and the catalogue is not only that of Cameron's excellent photography but the relationship it holds with the V&A.  It is not only 200 years since Cameron's birth but also 150 years since her first museum exhibition, held at the South Kensington Museum (the V&A) in 1865.  The museum was founded in 1852 using profits from the 1851 Great Exhibition and was intended to educate and inspire British artists, designers and manufacturers, first in Marlborough House, then after 1857 in South Kensington.  The South Kensington Museum was the only museum to exhibit Julia Margaret Cameron in her lifetime but also the museum that most extensively collected her work.  Further to this in 1868, Henry Cole, the museum's director, gave Cameron two rooms to use as a studio, making her the first artist in residence.  This is the story of an artist and a collection, explored through letters, diaries and exploration of her art.

Annie (1864)
@ Victoria & Albert Museum Courtesy MACK 
The book is wonderful, not only because of the information it contains but because of the design of it.  The book is split between an opening essay explaining Cameron's craft and her relationship with the V&A and other photographers, through to her plates which stretch almost a hundred pages.  There is then a catalogue of all the Cameron works in the V&A (which is an unexpected godsend for researchers) together with how they were acquired, then finally to Cameron's letters to Cole both in actual image and transcription.

After the Manner of the Elgin Marbles (1867)
@ Victoria & Albert Museum Courtesy MACK
The plates are split into Portraits, Madonna Groups and Fancy Subjects for Pictorial Effect, then sections entitled 'Electrify and Startle', 'Fortune as well as Fame', her work on Tennyson's Idylls of the King and finally 'Her Mistakes Were Her Successes', reflecting different aspects of her craft both in the way she would have described the photographs and in our modern appreciation of her experiments and happy accidents.  Although she had a concern with earning money, which is usually overlooked when discussing her work, she does not seem to have compromised her vision or tempered her relentless pursuit of things and people that filled her work with passion.

One surprise of the catalogue is an otherwise little known photograph by Oscar Rejlander taken during his stay in Freshwater in 1863.  This photograph of Mary Ryan and Mary Kellaway, two maids at Dimbola, was already well known...

Maids Drawing Water at Freshwater (1863-4) Oscar Rejlander
...the following had not been recognised as the same scene but from the other direction, with the house at the photographer's house.  Now backgrounding the two maids is a glazed house, the 'glass house' of Julia Margaret Cameron's Annals of My Glass House which she was to make her studio.

The Idylls of the Village or The Idols of the Village (1863)
Oscar Rejlander with possible collaboration with Julia Margaret Cameron
When I received the catalogue I was immediately struck by the beautiful design of it.  The cover is matt and free of text, just the beautiful photograph of Julia Stephen, mounted like a photograph.  The ink throughout is sepia and there is a change in paper quality between the essays and appendix and the plates, making it easy to navigate quickly from section to section.  Appendix 1 which contains thumbnail pictures of all the V&A collection of her pictures is ridiculously helpful to me as I compile a biography of Mary Hillier and I appreciated the fact that the catalogue is generally presented as a tool for study as well as a thing of beauty. Marta Weiss at the V&A and MACK are to be congratulated on an innovative and classy catalogue that examines Julia Margaret Cameron as not only a photographer but also a business woman and passionate artist.  It does writer, publisher and subject credit.

Beatrice (1866)
@ Victoria & Albert Museum Courtesy MACK
For further details on the catalogue see MACK website (here) or the V&A shop (here).
Details for the exhibition which runs from 28th November can be found here.


  1. Henry Cole was a very forward thinking man.

  2. He was indeed. Like all descriptions of people's relationships with Julia, it is both entertaining and inspiring. Fascinating stuff.

    Thanks for the comments.


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