When Julia Margaret Cameron began taking pictures in 1863, she was already 48 years old, and the mother of six children. Nevertheless, she found time to turn parts of her grand house on the Isle of Wight into premises suitable for her new diversion, requisitioning the coal-bunker for a darkroom, and a glazed hen house for her studio.
What happened next is rather magical. Against the odds, and in defiance of Victorian social conventions, this forthright, chaotically eccentric woman turned herself into a pioneer of early photography, breaking rules of focus and composition, and sending the (chiefly male) artistic establishment into an absolute frenzy in the process.
It’s now 200 years since Cameron was born in Calcutta, where her father was posted as an East India official – and two exhibitions, conveniently across the road from each other at the Science Museum and the V&A, seek to replenish our appreciation for her particular achievement.
Even today, her photographs, which prioritise emotional depth over technical perfection, remain instantly recognisable: allegorical tableaux; groupings of Madonna and child; and portraits which favour thrilling highlights and shadows rather than overall consistency of focus. Many would not look out of place on a wall of modern-day works.
Although it seems odd to have spread the survey over two venues, the museums have worked in tandem, and, barring a handful of overlaps, offer two interestingly distinct framings of Cameron’s story.
The Science Museum holds her handwritten autobiography, her enormous lens (the only piece of her equipment known to have survived) and an album she compiled in 1866 and given to her friend, the scientist and philosopher Sir John Herschel. The V&A, meanwhile, present the holdings they acquired during Cameron’s lifetime, thanks to her close friendship with the museum’s founding director, Sir Henry Cole. Excerpts from his diary introduce each section of their show, whose ruby-red walls bring forth brilliantly the gold-flushed tone of Cameron’s albumen prints.
There are no new discoveries – all of the imagery, at both venues, has long been in the public domain, and much of it feels very familiar. But it is still a treat to view such fragile works in the flesh, where Cameron’s bold virtuosity really begins to dazzle.
One forgets, until a show like this brings it back into focus, just how physical and tiresome the process was back then – given the bulky wooden equipment and hazardous syrup solutions made from complicated combinations of ether, acid and cyanide. To make just one photograph, Cameron and her assistants had to pull nine buckets of water from the well.
Even so, she was devoted to the medium, and over her 16-year career, during which she produced 1,200 photographs, her sitters included some of the most famous in Victorian England – the poet Tennyson, artist GF Watts, actress Ellen Terry, scientist Charles Darwin.
She also used professional models, choosing those with a beauty atypical for, but ahead of, her time – the picture “Iago” is exemplary portraiture, one of the close-ups she favoured which allow our gaze to travel lovingly over her Italian subject’s worn yet shiny skin, the structure of eye-socket and cheekbone, a grease-coated wavy hairline, a velvet collar.
The story flourishes best when the curators bring in Cameron’s own observations about her work, via diaries and letters. Her hand gives a fascinating clue to her character – a huge, looping script that canters across the page with little punctuation and much exclamation.
In fact it is the woman, as much as her considerable legacy, that the shows bring into relief: the unruly, eager artist who admitted to running around the house with joy when she made her first successful photograph. “My aspirations are to ennoble Photography and to secure it the character and uses of High Art,” she wrote, in an 1864 letter to Herschel. Her prose was characteristically gushy. But, to judge by the attention now coming her way, she achieved her aim.