200th birthday of Julia Margaret Cameron celebrated with major exhibition
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200th birthday of Julia Margaret Cameron celebrated with major exhibition

Charles Darwin, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1868 Victoria and Albert Museum

London's Victoria and Albert museum is to hold a major exhibition of the work of Julia Margaret Cameron to mark the bicentenary of her birth. The show will include more than 100 prints from the museum's own extensive collection of her images, some of which she gave the museum in its former existence as the South Kensington Museum.

Cameron, one of the most important female photographers in the form's history, would have been 200 years old on June 11th this year, and the exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum will be part of a series of exhibitions around the UK to celebrate her work. Further shows will be held at the Media Space gallery at the Science Museum and in Dimbola Lodge on the Isle of Wight, which was one of her homes.

Cameron came rather late to photography, in 1863 when she was 48 years old. Although she had probably already used cameras before, she got her first as a gift from her daughter and son-in-law, Julia and Charles Norman, and she regarded this as the beginning of her photographic adventure.

The camera was intended to help Cameron occupy herself while her husband Charles was away tending the family coffee plantations in Dimbula, Ceylon. It came with a note that said 'It may amuse you, Mother, to try to photograph during your solitude in Freshwater'. Freshwater Bay is a small seaside village on the Isle of Wight where the Camerons lived at the time, in Dimbola Lodge, and where the majority of Julia's photography took place.

With connections in the world of art, drama and science, Cameron had access to a great number of luminaries of the day, and is said to have insisted on dressing up and photographing visitors to the house, locals and servants. As well as portraits she enjoyed Pre-Raphaelite-style tableaux scenes depicting historical, religious or fictional figures – with the sitters in costume and forced to remain still for long periods while her low sensitivity wet collodion plates exposed. She coated her own plates and processed the results in a converted hen house in her garden. Her lack of 'appropriate respect' for focus earned her criticism from the photographic establishment, but she broadly ignored that and went on to be successful and recognized for her unique style.

The exhibition, Julia Margaret Cameron, will run from November 28 2015 until February 21 2016, and is supported by The Bern Schwartz Family Foundation. Entry to the V&A is free. For more information see the Victoria and Albert museum website.

Press release:

To mark the bicentenary of the birth of Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879), one of the most important and innovative photographers of the 19th century, the V&A will showcase more than 100 of her photographs from the Museum's collection. The exhibition will offer a retrospective of Cameron's work and examine her relationship with the V&A's founding director, Sir Henry Cole, who in 1865 presented her first museum exhibition and the only one during her lifetime.

Cameron is one of the most celebrated women in the history of photography. She began her photographic career when she received her first camera as a gift from her daughter at the age of 48, and quickly and energetically devoted herself to the art of photography. Within two years she had sold and given her photographs to the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) and in 1868, the Museum granted her the use of two rooms as a portrait studio, likely making her the Museum's first ‘artist-in-residence'.

150 years after first exhibiting her work, the V&A will present highlights of Cameron's output, including original prints acquired directly from the artist and a selection of her letters to Henry Cole.  Cole's 1865 diary, in which he records going ‘to Mrs Cameron's…to have my portrait photographed in her style' will be on view, along with the only surviving Cameron portrait of Cole. The exhibition will also include the first photograph to be identified of Cameron's studio. Entitled Idylls of the Village, or Idols of the Village, it was made in about 1863 by Oscar Gustaf Rejlander, possibly in collaboration with Cameron, and depicts two women drawing water from a well in front of the ‘glazed fowl-house' Cameron turned into her studio. The print has been newly identified and has never before been exhibited.

Best known for her powerful portraits, Cameron also posed her sitters – friends, family and servants – as characters from biblical, historical or allegorical stories. The exhibition will feature a variety of photographic subjects, which Cameron described as ‘Portraits', ‘Madonna groups', and ‘Fancy Subjects for Pictorial Effect'. These range from  Annie, a close-up of a child's face that Cameron called her ‘first success', to striking portraits of members of Cameron's intellectual and artistic circle such as poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson, scientist Charles Darwin and Julia Jackson, Cameron's niece and mother of Virginia Woolf. Also on display will be Renaissance-inspired religious arrangements and illustrations to Tennyson's epic Arthurian poem, Idylls of the King.

Julia Margaret Cameron will be structured around four letters from Cameron to Cole, each demonstrating a different aspect of her development as an artist: her early ambition; her growing artistic confidence and innovation; her concerns as a portraitist and desire to earn money from photography; and her struggles with technical aspects of photography. This final section will offer insight into Cameron's working methods – an arduous process which involved handling potentially hazardous chemicals. It will include a group of her most experimental photographs, recently discovered to have once belonged to her friend and artistic advisor, the painter and sculptor G.F. Watts. Cameron's photographs were highly innovative: intentionally out-of-focus, and often including scratches, smudges and other traces of her process. In her lifetime, Cameron was criticised for her unconventional techniques, but also appreciated for the beauty of her compositions and her conviction that photography was an art form.

The exhibition is part of a nationwide celebration of Julia Margaret Cameron's work during her bicentenary year, including the exhibition Julia Margaret Cameron: Influence and Intimacy at the Science Museum's Media Space, which displays prints given by Cameron to the astronomer Sir John Herschel, and a series of exhibitions and events at Cameron's former home, Dimbola Museum and Galleries, on the Isle of Wight.