‘Electrifying’ the Public with ‘Delight’: Exhibitions of Julia Margaret Cameron’s Photographs

'May Day', Julia Margaret Cameron, 1866, albumen print from wet collodion glass negative. Museum no.933-1913. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

‘May Day’, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1866, © Victoria and Albert Museum (no. 933-1913).

‘Julia Margaret Cameron’, V&A Museum (28 Nov-21 Feb 2016) and ‘Julia Margaret Cameron: Influence and Intimacy’, Science Museum (24 Sept-28 March 2016)

Famed photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) wrote in 1866 that with her photography she hoped to ‘Electrify you with delight and startle the world’. Two recent exhibitions present the opportunity to explore her success in achieving this aim. As famed then as she is now, her trademark was in her deliberate rule-breaking of nineteenth-century photographic conventions: her albumen printed, sepia tinged photographs were often out of focus, with scratched marks and etchings such as moons, the occasional fingerprint or pressed fern, and a dramatic use of lighting.

Charles Darwin, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1868, © V&A Museum (no.14-1939).

Charles Darwin, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1868, © V&A Museum (no.14-1939).

These two exhibitions have worked alongside each other to commemorate the bicentenary of Cameron’s birth. The V&A also marked 150 years since her first museum exhibition, which was held in 1865 at the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A). Cameron is best known for her captivating portraits of figures such as Charles Darwin but also her portraiture of those at home: family, friends, and servants, whom she dressed up to represent characters from biblical, historical, and allegorical stories; as depicted above in ‘May Day’.

Her oeuvre was especially pertinent at a time when Victorian society was engaged in the process of determining whether photography constituted art or science. Cameron’s juxtaposition of photographing famed male artistic and literary ‘geniuses’, alongside her selection of beautiful young women whom she adorned with flowers, provokes interesting questions about Cameron’s own conceptualisations of morality and gender roles. Her name was often to be found in the Victorian press, occasionally misspelled as ‘Mr Cameron’, where critics debated her merits and often criticised her modern, experimental style.

Cameron’s artistic career began at 48 when she received a camera as a present from her daughter and son-in-law, when she was based at Freshwater, in the Isle of Wight. In a letter accompanying the camera, her daughter wrote: ‘It may amuse you, Mother, to try to photograph during your solitude at Freshwater’. Evidently pleased with her gift, two years later Cameron had sold a number of her photographs to the South Kensington Museum, where they were exhibited to a curious public. Cameron’s late start to her career, and her role as an upper-middle-class woman, did little to stop her quick rise to fame as an artist at the centre of the development of innovative photographic processes and artistic style.

The V&A exhibition ‘Julia Margaret Cameron’ showcased over 100 of Cameron’s photographs from the museum’s collections. The gallery had crimson-painted walls, which provides the perfect backdrop when gazing at Cameron’s timelessly evocative prints. The exhibition was organised around 5 letters that represented her career and friendship with the V&A’s founding director, Sir Henry Cole. This narrative frame helped the visitor to understand the chronology and impact of her career alongside the support she gained from her friendship with Cole (and also with the painter G.F. Watts).

‘Julia Margaret Cameron’ succeeded in showing the physical labour behind photography (to make one photograph Cameron and her servants had to pull nine buckets of water from the well) as well as the arduous exposure time. Cameron’s wish for commercial success (and financial reward) in her letters to Cole was also explored. This frank correspondence helped to dispel frequently over-exaggerated perceptions of Victorian middle-class women as too societally constrained to discuss financial matters.

Mrs. Herbert Duckworth, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1866, © V&A Museum (no.31-1939).

Mrs. Herbert Duckworth, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1866, © V&A Museum (no.31-1939).

Cameron’s photographs provide a powerful connection with the past; the straight-on gaze of a 24 year old widow titled ‘Mrs Herbert Duckworth’ is particularly haunting.

Her prints evoked paintings in their style, in some cases obviously composed in emulation of religious art, in others deconstructed, intimate, and startling in their economy of representation: the stripped-back style of her portrayals of contemplative figures strikingly prefigures the work of twentieth-century photographers, in particular Diane Arbus and Francesca Woodman.

The Science Museum exhibition, ‘Julia Margaret Cameron: Influence and Intimacy’, focuses its energies around an album Cameron compiled in 1866 for John Herschel. Here can be found a surviving camera lens, alongside a carved wooden album within which she placed her prints. A high point is the 8 photographs taken in the British colony, Ceylon, where Cameron and her husband returned to their coffee plantation in the 1870s. Cameron photographed local residents, alongside her servants, capturing rare insights into daily life.

Both exhibitions effectively explore the impact of her own life on her art: in particular her religious beliefs, her privileged artistic networks forged through her membership of the bourgeois middle-classes, alongside her sadness about her separation from her children.

Broader contextualisation of Cameron’s role would have been helpful at both exhibitions. Those less knowledgeable of the period may be left wondering whether her style of photography was unique or common. There is little reference to other early female photographers such as Anna Atkins who used photography to illustrate her botany books or Lady Clementina Hawarden who converted the first floor of her South Kensington home into a studio where she photographed her daughters. Even a brief mention of these women would have helped to place Cameron within her historical world more effectively.

Zoë Thomas, PhD Student and Bedford Centre Administrator