Wednesday 3 January 2024

Book Review: Julia Margaret Cameron - A Poetry of Photography

 Happy New Year everyone and I trust you have all recovered from your Christmas jollities and the suchlike.  I was very fortunate to receive a lovely Christmas present from Father Christmas (and the lovely people at Bodleian Library Publishing, merci beaucoup) of a brand spanking new volume on Julia Margaret Cameron's photography.  Now, as you know, I love a bit of JMC and have gone as far as to write a book about her, and so am always interested to see what everyone else is writing, plus any book on Julia is going to be a joy to look at, so I was very excited when the whacking great big parcel arrived...

Oxford holds a sizable collection of Julia's photographs - over 100 of which appear in this book, which has been written in conjunction with that collection from the Bodleian and the Ashmolean, together with other works of art that place her work in context.  This book by Nichole J Fazio explores how Julia blurred the line between photography and poetry in her pursuit of the visual poetic, her response to the verses of others and her creation of a visual language of her own.

The Kiss of Peace (1869)

Julia herself wrote and translated poetry and had a great love of the works of others.  Her devotion to Tennyson as both a friend and an artist created some of her best works, but it is rare that we look at her visual work as poetry.  Arguably, her poetry is better without words, or certainly has a timeless quality that an awful lot of  poetry can lack. In her visual poems, Julia was experimental, not always successful, unconcerned with the rules of visual art and sometimes spectacularly iconic in ways that still resonate with us today and seem inexplicably modern. Such is the pleasure of her work - somehow, she expresses an emotion she feels yet over 150 years later we can see our own emotions in that same image, even if it is not quite what she intended.

Maud (1875)

The book is split into two distinct sections - the essays and the plates, all delivered on beautiful quality paper (these things matter).  In the essays, we explore Julia, how she fitted (or didn't fit) into the movement of nineteenth century, male-dominated photography, and how her intentions differed from those of the other practitioners.  One thing I have always been fascinated with is when portraits veer from the intended outcome - Julia has many examples; there might be two images of Henry Taylor, one is a portrait and one is something like 'King David' but both are so similar, so when does a portrait stop or start being a portrait? 

A Study of King David (1866)

I really enjoyed the chapter on G F Watts who I think we should acknowledge as a lynch-pin in nineteenth century British art as he knew everyone (truly the Kevin Bacon of Victorian art) and his relationship with Julia is a complex one which I have always felt Julia does not get enough credit for. I also like the alignment of her work with Symbolism and its early place in Britain.

George Frederic Watts RA (1865)

I think her sequence for Idylls of the King contains some of her best and worst work, or rather her most timeless and most dated pieces. I've always felt there is a sharp contrast between a picture like Maud (1875) and 'So like a shatter'd column lay the King' (1875), one meditative and aesthetic, the other theatrical and decidedly am-dram. I think they show the struggle for Julia between the dramatic 'narrative' art and the more 'art for art sake' style of her photography, not to mention her manipulation (intentional or otherwise) of the photographic form with variable focus, scratches, smudges, all changing the outcome of the image.

'So like a shatter'd column lay the King' (1875)

This is a book about Julia's work, rather than a biography, and a look at how that work fits within the artistic and poetic framework of her time. There is an attempt to see her development as a photographer/poet/artist, the pinnacle being the Idylls cycle but with so many striking images it sometimes is hard to see a development in a way - Julia is brilliant at all points in her career, but also very Victorian at points, very religious and very overdramatic, all of which are charges that could be levelled at Julia herself (and many Victorian artists and poets). Her poetic work is amazing but it would be easy to underestimate the power and differentness of her portraits of her friends. I am always struck by her beard-portraits and how the men look at ease, despite the long exposure times. Sometimes it is almost as if they don't know she is there, which would be impossible for many reasons.

The Dream (1869)

This is a cracking book, and a great way to start 2024.  It's a heavy, beautifully illustrated and thoughtful book, proving a background and framework to consider these increasingly familiar photographs. All aspects of her work are here from the gentle religious pieces, the famous men and women, the children and the ever-present Tennysonian verses. I appreciated the multiple photographs on the same subject, for example it is interesting seeing The Whisper of the Muse in its different versions.  I very much hope that Julia Margaret Cameron is finally finding her place as an innovator and (for want of a better word) influencer in art in the mid-nineteenth century. Not enough is written about her influence on other artists, concentrating instead on those that influenced her, yet it is impossible to look through such a beautiful book as this and not see the difference she made to the conversation. I can only hope more exhibitions are to come.

Julia Margaret Cameron: A Poetry of Photography by Nichole J Fazio is available now from the Bodleian Shop and all splendid book sellers.