The Julia Margaret Cameron exhibition at the V&A opened yesterday, and since I was meeting up with a friend in the museum café, I suggested that we pay it a visit, as she is also interested in Cameron’s work. The first thing we noticed on approaching the entrance to the free exhibition was the installation outside allowing you to take Victorian-style pictures. I’m not convinced my photo looks particularly authentic – the glittery pink bag strap is a bit of a giveaway – but I think this will be really popular with exhibition-goers. You can share your pictures on social media using the hashtag #VictorianMe.
The free exhibition, held in one room on the first floor, marks the bicentenary of Cameron’s birth, and is made up of over 100 photographs from the Museum’s collection. The V&A, then the South Kensington Museum, was the only museum to exhibit Cameron’s work during her lifetime: the founding director, Sir Henry Cole, presented her work in 1865. In 1868, the Museum offered Cameron the use of two rooms as a studio.
The photographs exhibited include portraits of the great and the good – among them Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Charles Darwin – and Cameron’s own servants and family members, many of whom were posed as biblical, historical or allegorical characters.
Julia Margaret Cameron’s style was unique for the time, and wasn’t always appreciated. I personally love the out-of-focus technique she employed, which give her pictures an ethereal, dreamlike quality, which is unique in Victorian photography. Many contemporary critics were less than complimentary. One of the things that surprised me was seeing how confident Cameron grew as her career developed: in her letters she describes her own work as innovative and groundbreaking. On reflection, this lack of modesty probably helped her promote and establish herself in an industry dominated by men.
The most interesting thing about the exhibition, for me, was the inclusion of some “imperfect” works that Cameron herself did not want exhibited or sold. These show the issues that Cameron had in creating her work, including cracks in the images and damage to the negatives. Critics may have seen Cameron’s work as clumsy and flawed, but she had high standards of her own, knew what she wanted and how to achieve it, and was able to turn her mistakes to her advantage.
The exhibition runs until 21 February next year. While you’re in South Kensington it is also worth visiting the Science Museum’s exhibition, Julia Margaret Cameron: Influence and Intimacy, which I have also written about.