Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Review: Julia Margaret Cameron at the V&A

As you might have noticed, 2015 marks the bicentenary of the birth of Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879), but it also marks 150 years since Cameron's first and only (at least in her lifetime) museum exhibition of her works.  This exhibition in 1865 was held at the South Kensington Museum (the previous name of the Victoria and Albert) under the watch of Henry Cole, the founding director.  This new exhibition is not just a celebration of Cameron's extraordinary vision and talent, but also her unique relationship with Cole and the museum.

150 years after that first exhibition the V&A have drawn together a selection of Cameron's work from their collection, including prints bought directly from the artist.  These are split into sections delineated by Cameron herself into 'Portraits', 'Madonna Groups' and 'Fancy Subjects for Pictorial Effect', each section accompanied by a letter from Cameron to Henry Cole or from Coles' diary.

The resplendent red walled gallery
One of the letters between Cole and Cameron
The pictures are grouped with great thought and tell the story of Cameron's burgeoning talent, ambition, and growing business sense and confidence. Starting with her possible collaborations with Oscar Rejlander, the exhibition extends Cameron's photographic career beyond the traditional boundary of the famous birthday present camera.

Idylls of the Village or Idols of the Village (c.1863)
Oscar Rejlander (in collaboration with Julia Margaret Cameron)
Annie, My First Success is the starting point for Cameron's work and then there are streams of beautiful pictures, hung individually or in startling and satisfying groups, as in the 'Madonna Wall'...

A splendid wall of Mary Hillier...

What the exhibition highlights is Cameron's unique ability to form strong and equal relationships with the men in her life.  From Henry Taylor who adorns many of her images, Rejlander and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, friends and collaborators, to Cole and the V&A who allowed her space in the museum to be an artist in residence.
The Dream (1869) Julia Margaret Cameron
There is a whole section on Cameron's 'mistakes' - pictures with cracks, swirls, smears and general signs of the process and the perils of the work.  The Dream for example has two blackened finger smears on the lower right side and Mary Hillier's headscarf shows a pattern of crackling in the glaze. These flaws, when seen together, show an experimental, bold approach to the work, the sign of a woman who did not let anything limit her vision or exploration of her art. The exhibition is a fitting and full tribute to a woman who pushed the boundaries of what was expected and what was perceived as possible and suitable, in both her professional life and her art.
Finally, a piece of fun for visitors is the Victorian photo station where you can have your picture taken in the style of Julia Margaret Cameron, swirls and all...
Well, of course I did...
The exhibition is free entry and runs from 28th November 2015 to the 21 February 2016. Further information on the exhibition can be found on the V&A website here.
A catalogue is available to accompany the exhibition, which I reviewed here.


  1. That's a fantabulous portrait Kirsty. Wish I lived a bit closer to the V&A. One of my favourite museums.

  2. Thank you very much. It is a very beautiful place indeed!

  3. Wasn't it wonderful! I think this was the same one that came to us in Australia, from the dates it looks like it came to you afterwards! I felt so privileged to see it! And seeing the mistake ones was a wonderful glimpse, too! Thank goodness they were kept!

  4. Great blog as per usual. Wouldn't this amazing photographer be a great subject for a movie!

  5. Laura, I absolutely agree, the 'mistakes' were fascinating, all those scratches and cracks. Remarkable work.

    Denise, funny you should say that as I have heard of at least two in the works...

    Thanks for your comments!


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx