Julia Margaret Cameron in Ghent Author: Colin David Clapson

Victoria and Albert Museum, London - Mary Hillier, 1864-6
Fri 13/03/2015 - 10:13 Colin David Clapson A landmark exhibition of the work of the English photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) opens at the Ghent Museum of Fine Arts on Saturday. Cameron is one of the pioneers of the photographic art and the exhibition staged in conjunction with the London V&A Museum includes 200 photographs from the V&A collection.

It was at 48, in middle age, that Julia Margaret Cameron was first introduced to photography by the British scientist John Hershal. What followed was a burst of activity during which Cameron attempted to create art using a technique that was still in its infancy. The results are on show in Ghent until 14 June 2015.

Though born in Calcutta, India, of mixed French and English parentage Cameron became part of a small circle of English artists centred on Little Holland House, the London home of her sister. Members of the circle included Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning and the art critic William Michael Rosetti, the brother of the artist Dante Gabriel Rosetti. All feature in photographs on show in Ghent.

Cameron discovered photography when the medium was in full development. She concentrated on portraiture drawing on an intellectual circle of painters, writers, scientists and decision-makers including Charles Darwin, whose portrait too is present in Ghent. Other photographs are more artistic and staged. Here Cameron draws on inspiration from the Bible, classical mythology and literature, always providing the art with a markedly feminine spiritual sensibility. Many of the subjects are also women and children. Cameron's photographs portray women not just as seductresses and mistresses, as in the work of her fellow artists, but also as caring mothers and grandmothers with children and grandchildren. Costumes and accessories often come from the dressing-up box. As you will see in Ghent Renaissance artists too including Raphael and Michelangelo provided inspiration, though Cameron retains a quintessential English quality.

Victoria and Albert Museum, London - Sint Cecilia, naar de stijl van Rafaël

St Cecilia, after the manner of Raphael Albumen print from wet collodion glass negative (1865)

It's no surprise that the exhibition is being staged in conjunction with the London V&A. The museum's first director Sir Henry Cole was a close friend of Julia Margaret Cameron and their correspondence lies on the basis of the various sections that make up the exhibition. "Cole ensured that Cameron became Artist-in-Residence at what was then still the South Kensington Museum” explains Catherine de Zegher, the curator of the Ghent Museum of Fine Arts: "She was the very first Artist-in-Residence in any museum anywhere in the world."

Thanks to Cole Cameron was able to use two rooms as her artist's photographic studio in the V&A. The museum bought and accepted work from the artist, while also exhibiting her art close to the museum's impressive collection of paintings. Cameron, who was born in Calcutta and whose husband ran a somewhat unsuccessful coffee plantation in Ceylon saw photography as a means of making money that her family could live on. She was one of the first to have her photos registered under the new copyright legislation.

The Camerons moved to Ceylon in 1875 after which Julia Cameron's photographic work diminishes. She dies four years later.

Catherine Pütz, the V&A's Head of Touring Exhibitions explains: "The present exhibition was first shown in Moscow and may be seen in London from November to February. It is also visiting the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Australia as well as museums in Madrid and Japan. The V&A has a tradition of working with the Ghent Museum of Fine Arts and its curator Catherine de Zegher. You may remember the successful Constable exhibition a few years ago."

Cameron's work was first exhibited in Belgium at the Exposition de l'art photographique anglais at the Cercle Artistique et Littéraire in Brussels in 1892. The present exhibition marks the bicentenary of the artist's birth and the 150th anniversary of her first exhibition.

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879): Pioneer of Photography runs in the Ghent Museum of Fine Arts until 14 June 2015.

Victoria and Albert Museum, London - Julia Jackson, 1867

Julia Jackson, Albumen print from wet collodion glass negative, 1867

Victoria and Albert Museum, London - Florence Fisher, 1872

Florence Fisher, Albumen print from wet collodion glass negative, 1872

Victoria and Albert Museum, London - De engel aan het graf, 1869-70

The Angel at the Sepulchre, Albumen print from wet collodion glass negative, 1869–70

Victoria and Albert Museum, London - Julia Jackson, 1867

Julia Jackson, Albumen print from wet collodion glass negative, 1867