She might have been the world’s first celebrity snapper, but did Julia Margaret Cameron really see what was right under her nose, asks Waldemar Januszczak
Everything else about Cameron seems to me to be problematic. Now I have slunk through the gauntlet of mad stares of all those fiercely biblical Victorian prophets she specialised in, edged past her weird parade of mildly sexualised Victorian tots and resisted the fatal siren calls of her wild-haired teenage death-maidens, I find myself absolutely in two minds about most of her achievements. Cameron’s career, I suggest, provides recurring proof of the thinness of the line separating genius from absurdity.
She was born in Calcutta in 1815, a curious hybrid of the British empire. Her family, the Pattles, were old colonial hands rumoured, nudge nudge, to have less than the full nine litres of English blood in them. Pattle bears such an obvious resemblance to Patel, doesn’t it? Julia Margaret was the fourth of no fewer than 10 children. She met Charles Hay Cameron, a colonial lawyer, while holidaying in Cape Town when she was 21. He was exactly twice her age, bearded, biblical and already the father of two illegitimate children. She went on to have six more kids by him, and then, for good measure, adopted five others. It is hardly surprising that a considerable chunk of her belated photographic output was devoted to children. Much of the rest was focused on bearded old men.
By a fateful coincidence, on that same holiday in Cape Town, she also encountered a British scientist called Sir John Herschel, who had just grown interested in a new invention for fixing images of the visible world on paper, which he, I now read, was the first to call “photography”. Cameron was amazingly fortunate to meet him when she did. How else could this backward colonial housewife have found herself so abruptly at the cutting edge of iconographic development? After a long creative pre- amble spent mostly in Ceylon, bearing children, she returned to England and became the famous Julia Margaret Cameron.
There have, in the past, been two chief reasons to laud her contribution. The first and most obvious is the cascade of affecting portraits she produced of some of the most eminent names of the mid-Victorian era. In England, she found herself at the centre of what has been dubbed “the Victorian Bloomsbury”. Everyone who was anyone in the arts passed through her salon. If Cameron had not been around when she was, the national bank of likenesses of Victorian worthies would have been robbed of scores of its most useful images to insert into text-books and position on title pages. Just think what would have happened to, say, Tennyson’s sunken reputation if that omnipresent Cameron likeness of him looking like a mad hermit who hadn’t washed his hair for a year had not been around to refloat our interest occasionally? It doesn’t bear thinking about.
The second chief reason for lauding her achievements is more elusive. A case can be made for her being the first notable woman artist to emerge in Britain. There were a few female painters before her, but they were, like that late-17th-century churner-out of feeble restoration portraits, Mary Beale, pitifully untalented and determined to make it as surrogate males, despite their sex rather than because of it. Cameron wasn’t like that. Her emergence, and the energetic burst of a career that followed, were achieved along new feminine lines. She arrived at photography at a time when the medium was young and flexible enough to be shaped. And her social situation was such that she enjoyed all the freedom she needed to attempt this shaping. For the first time in Britain, an unmistakably feminine sensibility was unleashed on the visual arts. We are used to it now. But slap in the middle of the Victorian era, it was pioneering stuff.
Or, rather, that is what it seemed to be. The facts in the case of Julia Margaret Cameron certainly sound progressive. And by choosing to open its tribute to her with a huge, flickering video blow-up of her portrait of a young Italian who looks exactly like that handsome chef who runs Locanda Locatelli and who has been popping up on the BBC, the National Portrait Gallery is obviously determined to emphasise her modernity. Alas, the handsome Italian male model is a one-off in the show and seriously unrepresentative of her wider output.
The deeper truth is that this gloomy march past of Cameron’s best-known images, unveiled in quasi-darkness in a notably low-lit selection, feels profoundly and doomily regressive. Instead of pointing forwards, out of the Victorian era, to a bright and feisty feminine future, her photography devotes almost all of its foggy emotional energy to an unfocused longing for a mock-ancient past.
Cameron has three main subjects: bearded patriarchs, droopy virgins, posturing kids. What is interesting is that all three have a different section of the phoney past allotted to them. With the droopy virgins, the inaction is inevitably set in Lancelot Land, a grotesquely monotonous Middle Ages, populated only by pale and lonely damsels in distress, every one of whom, judging by their pallor, is at death’s door. It was said of Cameron that so obsessed was she with beauty that she hired her parlour maids for their looks. Forced into floppy robes, the poor girls gather unsmilingly in gardens, where they stare past us glumly, a thousand cursed Joan of Arcs, caught with their hair down, the whole lot of them destined for the stake. Christ, what a wan and miserable bunch.
The bearded patriarchs fare little better. They may be some of the most celebrated Victorians on record — Tennyson, Darwin, Carlyle, Watts — but Cameron has turned the lot of them into emoting Santa Clauses. So similar are they in beard, fierceness and aura of genius that several remain indistinguishable to the naked modern eye. It’s a curious paradox. She has in her hands the latest instrument of truth. Yet she uses it to propagate an inanely melodramatic pack of lies about the heroic status of the men of her times. It is not the genius of Carlyle or Darwin I doubt, it’s her image of them as mad-eyed biblical prophets driven by forces larger than them.
But it is the kids who are traduced most worryingly. Plucked out of real life as the offspring of friends and visitors, banished to an unlikely classical never-world, they have their clothes whipped off them and lie around on cushions pretending to be Cupid or, worse, the baby Jesus. It’s all errant nonsense. The smell of paedophilia that swirls about this show emanates not from Cameron herself, but from the audience she would have found for this work — the aforementioned bearded patriarchs.
What Cameron is doing is easy to understand. She is attempting to mimic in photography what the painters of her time, the pre-Raphaelites, whom she photographed so usefully, were attempting on their canvases. Cameron owed her creative freedom to the terrifying array of bearded old men in whose circles she moved. Yet the uneasy feeling left by this selection is that it was the bearded old men who were calling the tunes in the end, not her. Which is why so many of the tunes are so creepy.