The Julia Margaret Cameron Symposium held on 20th January 2016 consisted of eight ten minute papers by scholars who have written about Cameron, curated exhibitions of her work, or are examining her influence upon other photographers and considering the impact of her intellectual connections, as well as opening up conversations about her colonial work in Ceylon and challenging our own views on colonialism more generally. The Bodleian Library (specifically the Weston library) was chosen as a site for the symposium due to the small but significant collection of Cameron works owned by Oxford University.
In total, there are over a million photographs in the Oxfam archive held within the Bodleian collection and there is an album of over one hundred prints by Cameron which Cameron compiled for her great friend Sir Henry Taylor, as well as letters and her ‘Idylls of the King’. These items were bequeathed by Henry Taylor and these Cameron works were on display in the Blackwell Hall, in the Weston Library from 8th January until the 24th January. I presume the delicacy of some of the objects meant the display was not able to be on for longer (the items were protected under glass protected by a velvet cover).
The first paper by Nichole Fazio-Veigel considered the one hundred photos in the Bodleian collection, eighteen of which are of Sir Henry Taylor. Fazio-Veigel discussed the works which depict Taylor and Hershew as being both heroic and typological in design.
This photo of Annie Philpot was taken within one month of Cameron receiving her first camera and was described by as her ‘first success’ (it is currently on display in the V&A exhibition of Cameron’s work). Cameron wrote: ‘I was in a transport of delight. I ran all over the house to search for gifts for the child. I felt as if she entirely had made the picture.’ The choice of subject, the daughter of a local family, is typical of the type of model Cameron often used. Taylor described Cameron as being a ‘contemplative poet’ and this first successful image is indicative of the type of poetry we find in her portfolio generally.
Fazio-Veigel described G.F. Watts as Cameron’s mentor and critic, and referred to Watt’s letter about receiving examples of Cameron’s work. He wrote ‘Please do not send me valuable mounted copies … send me any … defective unmounted impressions, I shall be able to judge just as well & shall be just as much charmed with success & shall not feel that I am taking money from you.’ The image of Annie Philpot is one of approximately sixty seven in the V&A’s collection that was recently discovered to have belonged to Watts.
The notion of defect is one which plagues Cameron and much discussion is had around her idea that warts, marks, blurs, and flaws were definers and map markers. The V & A describes these marks thus:
Many are unique, which suggests that Cameron was not fully satisfied with them. Some may seem ‘defective’ but others are enhanced by their flaws. All of them contribute to our understanding of Cameron’s working process and the photographs that did meet her standards. 
Fazio-Veigel referred to these marks, blotches, and blurs as being part of Cameron’s (mostly) intended aesthetic and described them as adding both layers of meaning within the photos and also in creating what Fazio-Veigel described as an ‘Aesthetic of Sorrow’. These layers of meaning are illustrated in works such as King David, with Taylor as the model, which has the ‘true heroic’ within it. The ‘composite portrait’ of the ‘Idylls of the King’ was also described by Fazio-Veigel as ‘true heroic’ and ‘true sublime’ and was presented as a means of defining ‘Aesthetic of Sorrow’. The regret and the music within such images is palpable, as Tennyson wrote: ‘We not know why, we not know why we moan’. Ironically Tennyson was not supportive of Cameron’s laboured images she produced for the ‘Idylls’, which Cameron later published herself regardless.
As well as being an inspiration, Tennyson was also photographed by Cameron (the so called ‘Dirty Monk’ photo). His poem ‘Maud’, which Tennyson described as his ‘finest poem’ was captured by Cameron; Cameron’s use of the passion flower in Maud being illustrative of Fazio-Veigel’s understanding of her typological symbolism. The key point from this talk was in recognising Cameron’s ability to combine the real and the ideal.
The second paper was from Colin Ford CBE, the photographic curator who has written The Cameron Collection: An Album of Photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron (London: National Portrait Gallery Press, 1975) and more recently Julia Margaret Cameron: 19th Century Photographer of Genius (London: National Portrait Gallery Press, 2003). Ford’s talk was more of a free range walk through his knowledge with attention given to his favourite works, e.g. the Herschel image (1867, V&A).
Ford discussed the Herschel album (1864), a sequence of ninety four images which are on display at the Science Museum and was considered by Cameron to be her finest work to date. Ford described how Cameron’s work was impressively and most favourably, in my opinion, compared to Giotto and Botticelli, particularly works such as Madonna and Two Children (1864). This may explain why Rossetti owned forty five of her works, and even described one as being like a ‘Leonardo’.
Not all critics were kind though, and G.B. Shaw wrote in The Star in 1889, described the angels as having ‘palpably paper wings….[and] childish trivialities’. Roger Fry declared ‘they must all be judged a failure’ although he made an exception for Rosebud Garden of Girls (1868). For Cameron though, her ‘favourite picture’ was The Kiss of Peace on the back of which she inscribed the words ‘from life’, a key to unlocking the construction of many of Cameron’s images.
Herschel, described by Cameron as ‘my first teacher’, seems to have embraced the life-like qualities within her work. Although he referred to himself as wizened, there are numerous images of him and they show a real man, an old man, with wild hair. Her presentation of Herschel, himself an eminent scientist, was not your typical portrait and it is known she even ruffled and messed his hair up to make him more unkempt. Herschel appears as an enigmatic figure, a wise sage, an Old Testament prophet. It is this sense of life which made Cameron refuse to retouch images, and even made her keep works where the plate had cracked, e.g. her famous image of Thomas Carlyle.
The photos of Carlyle and of Herschel are inventive, and Cameron’s use of light is key to this. The direct head on gaze of these images is arresting, and the darkened backgrounds serve to bring out the individuals’ features more poetically. Herschel described his own favourite piece, Mountain Nymph, as ‘your own high relief’ proclaiming that ‘your eye can best detect…all that is done and all that is yet to do’.
The third talk discussed similar notions of impreciseness and blurring, or as Cameron said ‘What is focus and who has a right to say what focus is the legitimate focus?’ This pursuit of ‘truth’ not in terms of precision or accuracy and technical perfection, reveals something of the character of each sitter. This nebulous out of focus quality provides a truth none the less although Cameron herself said ‘It is up to you to make it real’. Cameron’s works have a haptic quality, her figures are so close that you become entangled within them. Their closeness and high-relief creates a Leonardo-esque intimacy. A modern day military comparison was made with the intimacy of Robert Capa’s D-Day photograph, who said “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”: no doubt a sentiment which Cameron would have shared.
We must not over emphasise these qualities though, at least not without understanding the technology and the process of learning which Cameron underwent. The F6 camera has only one aperture and Cameron’s first attempts were very keen on understanding the tools of her trade and of creating focus. Modifying and toying with focus seems to have come later and is treated differently depending on the subject, thereby suggesting there is design and not fault or inability or incompetence. For example her images of men appear as heroic through her use of lighting, in particular her attention to chiaroscuro. For her female subjects, the detail is often greater and the subjects correspond more with Pre-Raphaelite ideals.
The locations for her studio seem to support this reading, her glass house studio being one site and her ‘amateur theatre’ being a likely second studio. This room had beams and windows and thus each room being different was able to create starkly different, intentionally so, effects.
Cameron proclaimed that ‘Artists like my work because I don’t retouch’ and this honesty may well be what gives the photos the sense of being a painting. Cameron would certainly have known the Old Masters through the Arundel Society’s engravings. But with Watts as her mentor, she would also have been conscious of modern day trends. Watts’ own soft focus aesthetic no doubt one influence. While embracing and seeking Watts’ advice and criticism, Cameron was quick to diminish any ideas that she was influenced by Sir David Wilkie Wynfield: ‘I have had one lesson in photography’ from him she firmly stated. The discussion about Cameron’s use of focus is one which plagued both her reception then, and now, and continues to impact discussions on her work. I would add that having seen the exhibitions at both the Science Museum and the V&A that I am now of the opinion some of these criticisms are valid. These flaws can, not always but definitely sometimes, seriously diminish the quality of a finished photograph. I would even say the Carlyle photo loses some of its impact on close inspection. This of course may be down to our highly sophisticated expectations of colour, of pixel, of ease of photography which we have these days, rather than a thorough understanding of the complex and convoluted process of glass plate photography and all the endless chemicals and substances involved. Cameron’s hands were permanently stained from the process. It has been suggested more recently that because she did not wash her negatives enough, that the flaws became embedded. I am not qualified to comment on this though I can appreciate both the likelihood of such a technical error and of the extreme difficulty with which Cameron went to in order to achieve the fantastic works she did.
Marta Weiss was the next speaker and also the curator of the V&A exhibition and author of the catalogue. Her talk, entitled, What was Henry Cole Thinking?, focused on some of the works within the V&A collection. Cameron rather brazenly sent a portfolio of her works to Cole (the founding director of the museum) saying she’d be ‘delighted’ if they would enter the collection. Cameron was no wallflower.
Circe was one of the works which entered into the collection in 1865, when the museum was the South Kensington Museum. Circe, an enchantress from ancient Greek mythology who appears in Homer’s Odyssey, is depicted with grapes on her head to symbolise the magic potion she uses to transform Odysseus’ sailors into swine in order to prevent Odysseus from leaving her island. Cameron inscribed the mount of this photograph with a quotation from Milton: ‘Who knows not Circe / daughter of the Sun’.
This work is a useful example of the criticism Cameron was up against, her desire for truth, one trait which photography itself was deemed able to offer, was considered to be at odds with such imaginary or mythological subjects. This subject, later depicted more than once by Waterhouse, seems to imitate a painting and it is these type of works which the V&A has in their collection. The self-categorised ‘Madonna Groups’ and the ‘Fancy Subjects for Pictorial Effect’ are the greatest in number within the collection.
In 1866, ‘I write to ask you if you will… exhibit at the South Kensington Museum a set of Prints of my late series of Photographs that I intend should electrify you with delight and startle the world’. Never backwards in coming forward, Cameron was duly obliged and her works were exhibited at the V&A, and in 1868, the Museum also granted her the use of two rooms as a portrait studio. The current exhibition is designed to celebrate Cameron’s work, and presents highlights of original prints, as well as letters to Cole.
The next talk was entitled Coburn’s Cameron’s. In 1930, a huge donation of photographs were given to the Royal Photographic Society: ninety of which were by Cameron. Coburn described Cameron as a ‘great woman…she made worthy pictures of them all’ referring to Carlyle, Browning and Tennyson. Coburn’s validation and perceptive eye is significant in collecting works such as The Vectian Venus and also images such as a group of Kalutara Peasants and Two Young Women. Coburn is also of interest for his photographs of Dimbola taken when he was invited there by Kynynmound in 1913.
Emilia Terracciano presented the penultimate talk entitled Portraits of Bondage. This talk was fascinating as it focused not on the Pre-Raphaelite-esque works but those of Ceylon. Cameron’s understanding and intimacy with different landscapes and nationalities should not be underestimated, she herself was born in Calcutta in 1815 at a time when the British East India Company was still at its zenith, although she returned to England for schooling. Further time was spent in Calcutta at the age of eighteen. She married Charles Hay Cameron whom she had met in Cape Town in 1836, and spent the next twelve years living in Calcutta at Rockhill estates.
Cameron went to Ceylon in her sixties (1875) and continued her photography there, although the pressures of getting chemicals made a difficult task nearly impossible. The resulting photographs raise many questions surrounding our understanding and response to colonial identities and consumption and placement of the ‘other’. These works are an integral and much underrated part of Cameron’s achievement, some pieces even transforming subjects such as the Renaissance pieta into a colonial and exotic world.
The women in these works are different, and some photographs even have a skeletal rendering. Cameron’s works inspire a certain sympathy but it is mixed with pride, such as the Two Girls with Pots, and the image of woman (Woman, 1875) wearing a fine piece of jewellery. Interestingly Cameron does not title these works as she did her Madonnas and Fancy pictures. This is itself communicates much about the relationships and dialogues between those who owned tea plantations and those who worked on them. It is interesting to compare the work by Pierre Mignard, Duchess of Portsmouth (1682, National Gallery) with Cameron’s Girl (with pearls) taken in Ceylon (1875). The use of the jewellery and the slave are much revealing.
The final talk was by the imminently retiring Elizabeth Edwards and picked up on Terracciano’s ideas and thoughts about colonial identities. Edwards asked how we write photographic histories. Why is the colonial written out of photographic history? Naming is part of colonial discourse and with that in mind, Edward deliberately uses the term Ceylon (not Sri Lanka). Terracciano mentioned Cameron does not entitle her Ceylon works which further amplified Edwards’ ideas. The effects of empire are all pervasive but difficult to locate.
The ethnographic categories are ours, they are are our way of making ‘selective traditions’, of creating a circular heuristic. Are Cameron’s Ceylonese ‘other’? Are they closer to English sitters than they, or us, care to think? There is a cross cultural constriction which is designed to help maintain distance, such as in Mignard’s painting. The relationships between the indexical and the ethnographic are an issue. The colonials are posed or rather being reposed. They are made to conform to our ideas, they are not worthy of titles.
Edwards stated she felt more distance to the colonial sitters in the Science Museum exhibition, than to the English sitters. But on what grounds? Edwards’ overriding message was that we need to change our modes of analysis.
Letters between Watts and Cameron can be found here.