Pioneering pictures: ’Julia Margaret Cameron’ at the V&A

Red wall with old framed photographs
To coincide with the 200th anniversary of Julia Margaret Cameron's birth, the V&A celebrates her pioneering achievements with a new exhibition of her most important work
(Image credit: TBC)

London’s V&A is celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cameron by hauling out more than 100 of her photographs from its collection.

The V&A was the only museum to present her work while she was still alive and had a unique relationship with Cameron. She received her first camera as a gift in 1863 when she was 48 but was instantly fascinated by the possibilities of the new technology. Within two years she was selling her work and donating her photography to what was then the South Kensington Museum. In 1868, the museum offered her two rooms to use as a photography studio and she became a de facto artist in residence.

In 16 years Cameron produced 1,200 photographs – no easy feat when photography still required huge wooden boxes and splashing about with nasty chemicals (though, being a lady of means, however wilfully bohemian, she had staff). In that time, Cameron re-defined portrait photography, as much as it had been defined – taking intimate portraits of notables in her circle, including Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, Thomas Carlyle, Charles Darwin, Anthony Trollope, the astronomer Sir John Herschel, who may or may not have first used the term ‘photography’, and Julia Jackson, her niece and Virginia Woolf’s mother. She also recreated biblical, Shakespearean, mythical and historical scenarios, which have perhaps aged less well.

Cameron had not just a remarkable sense for composition but was hugely experimental, shooting intentionally out of focus and leaving scratches and smudges on her prints for affect. Her most famous portrait, Iago – a tight-in head shot of a popular Italian painter’s model – is startlingly modern, and not just because of his high-cheekbones, rock star hair and stubble. The exhibition also includes an illuminating selection of letters to the V&A’s founding director Henry Cole, as well as Cole’s diary from 1865.

The exhibition is part of a series of events celebrating Cameron’s bicentenary, that also includes 'Julia Margaret Cameron: Influence and Intimacy' at the Science Museum’s Media Space.

Large red room with framed photos lining the walls

In 1868, the V&A (then the South Kensington Museum) offered her two rooms to use as a studio. From there, photographer and museum built a lifelong working partnership

(Image credit: TBC)

Side by side old portraits of men

Thanks to Cameron's elevated societal position (she was a lady of means) famous sitters were relatively accessible. Pictured left: Henry Cole, c.1868. Courtesy the Royal Society of Art, London. Right: Charles Darwin, 1868, printed 1875. Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London

(Image credit: TBC)

Side by side old photos of men

Cameron accepted irregularities in her photography, giving her works an earthy, extremely contemporary feel. Pictured left: Whisper of the Muse, 1865. Right: William Michael Rossetti, 1865. Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London

(Image credit: TBC)

Side by side old portraits of a man & woman in decorative clothing

Pictured left: The Passing of King Arthur, 1874. Right: Sappho, 1865. Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London

(Image credit: TBC)

Portrait of a woman, & portrait of 2 children

Cameron also photographed family members, such as her niece Julia Jackson (pictured left) in 1867. Right: Paul and Virginia, 1864. Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London

(Image credit: TBC)

2 portraits of young girls

Pictured left: Annie, 1864. Right: Circe, 1865. Courtesy Victora & Albert Museum, London

(Image credit: TBC)


'Julia Margaret Cameron' is on view at the V&A until 21 February 2016. For more information, visit the V&A's website 


Victoria & Albert Museum
Cromwell Road
London, SW7 2RL