Friday, 27 November 2015

Review: Julia Margaret Cameron at the Science Museum

Second review of the week comes from the other exhibition in London celebrating the bicentenary of Julia Margaret Cameron.  After I had finished at the press launch at the V&A, Miss Holman and I hot-footed it down the tunnel to the Science Museum and look who was waiting for us...

Hello Handsome!
Julia Margaret Cameron: Influence and Intimacy at the Science Museum is really the story of two men and their importance in the story of the photographer.  Well, maybe three if you count Iago, the posterboy and a unique selling point of the exhibition as the National Photography Collection at the Science Museum Group is the only place you'll find him. I remember seeing the photograph in person for the first time at the National Portrait Gallery's 2003 exhibition and I couldn't believe how modern he looked and the shock is still the same years later. I named a character in my latest book after him (the image is also known as 'Angelo') because those cheekbones alone are worth a trip to London.  Moving on.

Inside the exhibition
After the voluptuous red of the V&A's gallery, the stark white Virgin Media gallery is a shock, but a no less beautiful space for display.  The heart of the exhibition is the Herschel Album, a collection of 94 images presented by the photographer to her mentor and friend Sir John Herschel in 1864-1867.

Sir John Herschel  Julia Margaret Cameron
The Herschel Album contains many of the most famous images of her friends and muses (often the same thing), including Alfred, Lord Tennyson, George Frederick Watts, Thomas Carlyle and her maids, Mary Hillier, Mary Ryan and Mary Kellaway, together with the local children and other visitors. Although when seen in quick succession, the V&A and the Science Museum contain many of the same photographs, each image contains infinite tiny changes, slight pose differences, lighting changes and process differences to make them seem completely different collections. You are also looking at a collection picked by Cameron for the man who inspired and influenced her.  When she put this collection together this was the pinnacle of her art as she saw it.
 
Julia Margaret Cameron and Julia Hay Cameron (1845) Unknown Photographer
 
Together with the collection are some personal items, including this early daguerreotype of Cameron and her daughter, tiny in its own precious case, possibly taken before the family came to England.  Also on show are her lens, massive in scale, and her handwritten autobiography that became Annals of My Glass House (which you can download free here).
 
A Group of Kalutara Peasants (1875) Julia Margaret Cameron
 
There is a wall of the precious few Sri Lankan pictures we have, infused with shade and hot light, and the artist's unquenchable fascination for the human face and its infinite varieties.  It's interesting to compare the gaze of the young girl in the centre of the group of Kalutara peasants with the equally challenging stare of Julia Jackson.  Both have the confidence of beauty and Cameron sees both as works of timeless art.
 
Case of photographs of Cameron, her notes and lens
I said this was the story of two men and the other is of course Colin Ford.  It was through Colin's hard work that the album was saved for the nation in 1975.  It was the first photographic item to be placed under an export ban and proved a landmark in classifying photography as art, which is in agreement with Julia Margaret Cameron's own aspiration and opinion of her photographs.
 
The Herschel Album
Anyone who studies Julia Margaret Cameron's work will know Colin's massive contribution to our understanding and appreciation of the woman and her art. His books are essential reading and his role in saving the album is arguably the catalyst that has brought us to the point where we stand a good chance of getting Cameron on the back of a bank note.
 
Iago, Study from an Italian (1867) Julia Margaret Cameron
Neither exhibition in South Kensington is a simple delight in Cameron's work although both can be taken as just that.  Just as the V&A told the story of the relationship between an unconventional artist and a national museum, this is the story of how and why we love Julia Margaret Cameron in 2015.  If Colin Ford had not saved the Herschel Album in 1975, who knows if we would see Cameron as the national treaure, the trailblazer and pioneer she patently is.  Dimbola Lodge might not have been saved and another female artist might have been less accessible to us, in so many ways. This is an important exhibition to remind us that art is about love and appreciation, for beauty and those who create it.
 
Julia Margaret Cameron: Influence and Intimacy is on at the Science Museum, South Kensington until 28th March 2016 and is free to visit.  There is unfortunately no catalogue to accompany it, but back in 1975, Colin Ford published a book about the Herschel Album which I thoroughly recommend.  It's under £20 on Amazon and Abebooks and well worth the investment (for example, see here for the listing on Amazon UK).

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