Julia Margaret Cameron had her first one-woman show at Colnaghi in 1866. Andrew Solomon reviews her second.
Much has been made of the 150th anniversary of photography. That a round number of years has passed since the first of these magic images was produced has provided the opportunity for a nostalgic re-examination of the variety of functions photography served in a younger world than our own: one less well acquainted with the slick images of pornography and commercialism; one in which the representation of reality upon a card still seemed a business no less mysterious than the sacrament of communion. The Royal Academy mounted a cumbersome exhibition last autumn, dutifully showing every one of photography’s significant landmarks. Visiting the exhibition was a matter of encountering actual prints of all the photos that a broad-market publisher might include in a popular history of photography; the exhibition provided no new insight, rather it glowed with its own rigorous thoroughness.
Colnaghi’s exhibition of Julia Margaret Cameron, which opens in the middle of this month, is in some senses as obvious an undertaking as the RA exhibition; but it is one which has not already been undertaken too many times, and its focus on a single photographer gives it the quiet eloquence of apposite tribute. Colnaghi gave Julia Margaret Cameron her first one-woman show in 1866, and in fond memory of this event they are mounting another one-woman show recreating, in so far as they can, the atmosphere and the feeling of the original exhibition.
The show is interesting as a reflection on both Julia Margaret Cameron and Colnaghi. Through much of this century, the gallery enjoyed august status as one of the grand old galleries of London, conservative as the day is long, selling only the very best and finest work by recognised masters from the past. In the last fifteen years or so it has been in a state of decline, showing both good and bad work, and involving itself in purchases and sales that have seemed, from the outside, to be surprising. It has changed hands several times, many serious collectors have withdrawn their association with Colnaghi and the gallery was virtually blacklisted last year when, in the eyes of its many detractors, it essentially defrauded the National Gallery out of an important Altdorfer painting.
New ownership and new management have come in, and things are looking up. In this moment of reprieve, Colnaghi dwells not only on its successes earlier in this century, but also on its origins. In the Victorian era, it was at the centre of the London art world; Dickens, for example, would consult Colnaghi to find illustrators for his work. The gallery started off doing much of its business as a reproductions shop in the best tradition of the time, issuing large print editions after works by the great masters; Charles Lamb wrote that “you have nothing to do but to walk in Colnaghi’s, and buy a wilderness of Lionardos [sic].” The gallery’s interest in photography was originally an interest in a new reproductive technique, a way of issuing editions of classical subjects to the public. The simple idea of photographing works of art came later; photographers began by doing photographs after paintings, arranging models in imitation of the original composition.
Cameron’s achievement as a photographer was not wholly at odds with her achievement as a socialite; the literary and artistic lions of her day, whose friendship she sought on several occasions with less than becoming directness and energy, were often the subjects of her portraits. Their poetry and paintings provided subject and composition for her work. Their idealism no doubt formed her own; Julia Margaret Cameron was determined that photographer should be a high art, and not a matter of science and technology. She used a sliding box camera and large glass plates, which were coated and sensitised, and she contact-printed directly from the negatives, despite the availability of solar camera enlarging. This meant that her works were closer to their subject than were those of many of her contemporaries. She used a long lens and frequently photographed her subjects in soft focus: “When focusing and coming to something which, to my eye, was very beautiful, I stopped there instead of screwing on the lens to the more definite focus which all other photographers insist upon.” For this she was often criticised, sometimes, ridiculed, during her life.
She had several typical subject matters. Her portraits of her important friends are not only records of their appearance, but also portraits of their souls, their spirits, their divine presence. She was a great admirer of the paintings of G.F. Watts, and she tried to bring his foresight into her own portrait works. In her photographs of Tennyson, of Carlyle, of Darwin and of Watts himself, we find an expression of character which was outside the scope of other photographers of the period. Despite the constraint of a five-minute exposure, she managed to bring to her subjects all the sadness and uncertainty and spirituality that we associate with the best of modern photography; this Tennyson is a Tennyson one might know, the author of In Memoriam, and not, as in photos of the poet by others, a formulaic specimen of humankind with pronounced nose and unkempt hair.
She also took photographs based on religious scenes and on classic literature, which frequently took their composition from the paintings of the high Renaissance or of the pre-Raphaelites; the exhibition at Colnaghi will concentrate on these works, and will detail the correlations to various inspirations. So we are reminded that Cameron’s I Wait is drawn from Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, that Beatrice is closely tied to a work then supposed to be by Guido Reni, and that Call I Follow, I Follow/Let Me Die depends on Rossetti’s Arthur’s Tomb. For these scenes, Cameron used a variety of models, friends and household servants; her maid, Mary Hillier, shows up constantly as the Madonna. Small children are posed as cherubs and cupids with wings taken from birds, their faces suffused with mischievous pleasure as though they themselves had robbed the poulterer. Among Cameron’s greatest works are the illustrations she did for Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, which were issued as an edition in 1874. Her work has all the strangeness and mystery of medieval legend, and of the Victorian stratagem of measured distance from Gothic subjects. The idea that photography can be immured with emotion and with vision is nowhere more vivid than here. It is moving to encounter the individual works, but it is perhaps even more moving to see them brought together and to witness the triumph of the idea that the reproduction, by technical means, of what can be realised in three dimensions is no less stirring than what springs wholly imagined from the mind of the artist. In vaunting such a belief, Julia Margaret Cameron takes her place as a great modernist in league with her friend George Eliot, and a fitting antecedent to her niece Virginia Woolf.
Cameron photographed as an artist, but she also worked for money; the Indian properties her husband owned were in their decline in the later years of her marriage and the payment she received was of great use to her. The exhibition at Colnaghi reminds us both of her artistry and of her circumstances, and reflects well both on her and on the gallery. Writing of her own work near the end of her life, she said, “I longed to arrest all the beauty that came before me, and at length the longing has been satisfied.” This exhibition satisfies our easier longing to witness some measure of the beauty that has preceded us.