Celebrating the bicentenary of the haunting 19th century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, the V&A presents a stunning show of her most powerful and iconic work.
Julia Margaret Cameron is almost too good to be true. She was an aristocratic Calcutta-born Victorian eccentric, and impossibly well-connected, counting Charles Darwin, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning and John Everett Millais among her inner circle, and Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell as her nieces. She had a fiercely powerful imagination, and was obsessed by legend, literature and fairytale. Oh, and she just happens to be one of the most influential photographers of all time, despite not picking up a camera 'til the age of 48.
To celebrate 200 years since the artist's birth, the V&A have put on a wonderful show of her diaphanous, other-worldly portraits. Cameron's work was highly unconventional to the eyes of her contemporaries. Her pictures featured traces of the photographic process, like scratches and smudges and were often intentionally out-of-focus, too, which added to their dream-like quality. Cameron plucked her models from her immediate environs; friends' children, maids, nieces, companions. For her 'Fancy Pictures' (i.e Fantasy) she'd style her subjects as literary or legendary characters.
We adored Sappho, the portrait of her (long-suffering) maid Mary Hillier, styled as the ancient poet, who wrote of passionate lesbian love.
The 1865 portrait of Cameron's lifelong friend, the poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson was another fantastic moment. Commissioned by the poet for the frontispiece of his Arthurian cycle, Idylls of the King, Tennyson appears as some kind of medieval sage, wrapped in a cloak and clutching a leather-bound volume. The poet was said to adore this image; he called it his 'Dirty Monk' picture and it's not difficult to see why. Julia Jackson, mother of Bloomsbury Set empresses Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, appears throughout the exhibition. Jackson often appears as muse, sybil or saint, but the most striking images of her are non-specific, idealised forms. In one image, (above) she returns the camera's gaze with some weird power, Woolf would later write that her mother "bore about with her, she could not help knowing it, the torch of her beauty; she carried it erect into any room that she entered." But these images betray something richer and more profound than mere beauty.
The photographer was close to the the V&A's director Sir Henry Cole, back when it was called the South Kensington Museum, and the exhibition is structured around four letters from Cameron to Cole. We're able to journey through the various stages of her artistic development. We witness her early ambition and growing confidence, her anxieties about portraiture, and her struggles to master innovative photographic techniques.
More than anything, though, show is pure Victorian fantasy; on no account miss it.
|What||Julia Margaret Cameron, V&A|
|Where||V&A, South Kensington, Cromwell Road, London, SW7 2RL | MAP|
|Nearest tube||South Kensington (underground)|
28 Nov 15 – 21 Feb 16, 10.00 - 17.45 daily 10.00 - 22.00 Friday
|Website||Click here for more details|