Julia Margaret Cameron and the V&A
Five letters from Julia Margaret Cameron to Sir Henry Cole are held in the National Art Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Written between May 1865 and December 1872 they chronicle her dealings with the South Kensington Museum from the early years of her photographic career.
The letters cover a range of subjects, Cameron often thanking Cole for his support and assistance particularly in allowing her the use of rooms at the Museum as a photographic studio, detailing sitters, seeking advice on technical, artistic and practical matters, relating news of family and friends and of course enthusiastically promoting her new works.
Cameron and Cole moved in similar artistic and social circles and probably met through Sarah Prinsep's salon at Little Holland House. In May 1865 he recorded a portrait sitting with her there in his diary. Later that year he purchased a group of 80 prints, her first sale to a public institution and in September 1865 Mrs Cameron gave another 34 photographs to the Museum.
These early acquisitions form the basis of the V&A's collection of prints by Cameron, now numbering over 250 through subsequent purchases and gifts including a large group of works donated by Cole’s son, Alan S. Cole, in 1913.
Mrs Cameron’s photographs were exhibited at the South Kensington Museum in November 1865. This was the first and last time she exhibited in a museum in her lifetime.
Henry Cole's Diary
Extract from Henry Cole's diary, 19 May 1865
'To Mrs Cameron at Little Holland House to have my portrait taken in her style. A German girl held an umbrella over me. Mr Prinsep assisting, & the Irish Girls. Saw Watts who promised to complete his design by 1st June: Mr Bruces. Museum. Mr Brooke called & named some of his friends who wd be likely to give objects. Croquet with Hennie & C. '
Letters from Julia Margaret Cameron to Henry Cole
20 Saturday 1865
Little Holland House
May 20 Saturday
My Dear Mr Cole
I have real pleasure in telling you that Mr Watts thinks my photograph of you 'Extremely fine' I hope to tone & wash tonight after a day’s most arduous work I really fear even my energies down with the work of today All yesty(yesterday) I took studies of Lady Elcho & Lord Elcho said they were the finest things ever done in ART! The day before I took 12 portraits and the same day or rather night I toned & printed & I washed six dozen - therefore I write this word standing midst work. Thank your wife & tell her if I had had (illegible)(travelling?) time I should have enjoyed the kindly proposed soirée
I send you my portfolio I send you also the framed series for altho I desired Colnaghi to put a copy of every print in the portfolio I see some of my very best are missing Therefore I suppose he has sold & has no copy left I should be proud & pleased if this complete series could go into the South Kensington Museum & if you did not approve of this frame you could substitute another at yr. leisure
I leave on Monday by the 11am Train today I have Lord Elcho Lord Overstone Browning & several ladies all coming to sit & my strength is well nigh spent. I have a long loving letter for Annie this mail.
My kindest remberances to you yr wife & daughters & Believe me
most truly yours
Julia Margaret Cameron
Remember I must see you again and show you my work before I go. Mrs Prinsep says she joins me in the hope that you & Mrs Cole & your daughters will come to our shady garden here tomorrow afternoon
21 February 1866
Isle of Wight
My Dear Mr Cole
I write to ask you if you will be having any photographic soirée or meeting soon at which I may send to the Science & Art Dept. for you to 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. I hope it is no vain imagination of mine to say that the like have never been produced & never can be surpassed! I am waxing mad in my own conceit you will say -
All I beg is that you show this assertion to our dear Annie Thackeray & sister Minnie & ask them if they take my assurance upon trust! Seeing is believing & you shall see & the world shall see if you can create for me a great occasion! Because these wonderful photographs should come out all at once & take the world by surprise! They are quite ready quite ready - A new series of 12 & if you watch my oppors (opportunities) for me & acquaint me I will answer at once by sending you the supply.
Mr Thurston Thompson I hope will be delighted this time. Won’t the South Kensington Museum give me a crown! Not of diamond stones but those better diamond laurel leaves - or a medal or honorable (sic) mention if this series of photographs of mine surpasses all others -
Talk of roundness I have it in perfect perfection!
Yet these great successes have come like meteors out of anxious troubled times-! I have been for 8 weeks nursing poor Philip Worsley on his dying bed - & I have been with him a great part of every day & also a great part of the night. The heart of man cannot conceive a sight more pitiful that the outward evidence of the breaking up of his whole being but he has had a sister to nurse him whose devotion has surpassed in power & sustained energy anything I have ever seen. For 8 weeks she has never been to bed! She won’t sleep whilst I take my turn but only gets snatches of sleep by his side in her chair. Please tell my old friend Mr Bruce also yr. son Allan (sic) what I say of my 12 new pictures & show Lord Elcho this note of triumph if you see him - for I have been too anxious with this case to learn if they are in town -
Julia Margaret Cameron
Fresh Water Bay
Isle of Wight
P.S. You will give my love to your Wife I hope I still have in a parcel awaiting an oppt. (opportunity) the set of prints frm (from) my former photos that I reserved for your Wife - and please tell me if you have heard of the arrival of your married son & his Wife I hope she likes India better than she expected to do-
7 April 1868
Isle of Wight
7 April 68
My Dear Mr Cole
In the hurry of our departure from London yesterday morn (and the anxiety of getting my husband gently away without his sharing in the hurry) your parcel of Mr Pouncey’s work was put by mistake with our luggage. I now return it to you with all possible care & speed by this same post. Pray thank your son for so kindly bringing it. It is so beautifully & carefully done but I cannot say that I think the artistic character of photography is preserved. I should like to hear the opinion of Mr Watts & other artists on this subject. I think as you say for house decoration & for things seen from afar this process ought to have a brilliant success but for anything so delicate as a portrait the shining glazed surface destroys the pleasure by giving a sticking plaster look & I think that even in oil paintings any thick coating of varnish is a great injury to the effect. It is the dull quiet surface of a photograph however rich in tone & tint it may be, that constitutes I think the harmony of the work & therefore I have not answered Lord Dufferin’s letter to me; I did not wish to say I did not like Mr Pouncey’s plan of rendering portraits, but I could not say I did.
I asked your son to exhibit to you the little gallery of my work in your museum which I left there for you to see that I had jealously made the most of your precious loan. Any time after the 20th of this month that is fixed for the sitting of Lord Granville, Mr Whitworth H.R.H. & other Royal sitters you my obtain for me I will come up & work with renewed energy at your Museum after the fortnight of refreshing change I shall have here. I hope Alan gave you a brown copy of your daughter Isabella’s picture Mr Spartali was a most glowing & enthusiastic admirer of my works with a very grateful note of thanks he gave me an order for 40 copies of his daughter’s pictures enclosing a cheque for[text crossed out] 20 guineas - Mr Dan Gurney an order for 24 - with a cheque for £12.10. Lord Essex will do the same & all this I tell you to show you that thro your generous loan of those two rooms I am likely now to acquire fortune as well as fame for as I told you and you gave me entire sympathy a woman with sons to educate cannot live on fame alone! I owe the start to you and I hope I shall win a good race & win a diadem as well as a laurel crown.
Yours always very truly
Julia Margaret Cameron
I find Annie & Minnie both very much better for this fresh pure air & in good spirits.
12 June 1869
12 June 69
I of W.
My Dear Mr Cole
I have so perpetually remembered all yr. helping kindness & ever friendly hand to me in the earliest years of my Art that I delight in now sending you four of my latest works as my grateful gift to you including the very latest of all, my last portrait of Alfred Tennyson (not yet published) which I think you will agree with me in feeling is a National Treasure of immense value* -
*I send a copy for the much loved Annie & Minnie which you will give them issue of for me won't you (note at top of page)
next to the living speaking man must ever stand this portrait of him, quite the most faithful & most noble Portrait of him existing - Surely this Portrait ought to be engraved for altho' I can secure thro' my own care the durability and permanence of my print I can alas do nothing to make durable the far more precious original negative. The chemicals supplied to me for this are beyond my power and prove fatally perishable. 45 of my most precious negatives this year have perished thro the fault of collodion or varnish supplied: both or either destroy the film that holds the picture - you will see in the Dream the commencement of this cruel calamity - also in the Guardian Angel - which has taken over 45 of my Gems - a honey comb crack extending over the picture appearing at any moment and beyond my power to arrest.
I went up to the photographic meeting & put this question before 50 or 60 men & every one of the most practised photographers gave me a different reason for this fatal accident to negatives all were in error as no reason explained why all the negatives of my first four years are as perfect as the day on which they were done - a change in the manufacture of varnish & collodian only explains the change to me - but I see two grand things to remember now First to print as actively as I can whilst my precious negative is yet good Secondly to try to get the portraits I have taken of our greatest men engraved
Mr Layard promised enthusiastically to help on my cause & my friends in photography think with a kind generous head what you can do for me – & will you? Are there no schools of art for which you can now send me orders - Is there no corner of the S.(outh) K(ensington) Museum where you can install me - You know I have my Gold Medal - but even now after five years of toil ardent patient persisting toil I have not yet by one hundred pounds recovered the money I have spent
(written along the side of a page) I won’t tire you more I called twice when I was in London for a fortnight beginning of last month With love to your wife and to Allan(sic) and to all yours ev. Julia Margaret Cameron
24 December 1872
30 Albermarle st
My Dear Sir Henry Cole
Will you or your son Allan (sic) take pity on my ignorance and instruct me speedily on these points I have taken great pains to have my latest and I think almost my best photographs ready and framed for the Vienna exhibition
I applied for a space months ago and I was told I should be duly informed of all particulars When am I to send what is now ready - ? *
*I asked for two + a half square metres I am very modest as to the number of photographs I send (note at top of page)
and where am I to send my photographs?
in what form too? in square(crossed out) packing cases -
Can I be saved expenses-
Does not that Princely Mr. Wallace extend his bounty to all works of art including photography.
I am ill as Annie Thackeray will (crossed out) may have told you for five weeks I have been in one room. I am just emerging and flying homewards so that I am eager for an answer and I know that your kindness needs no fanning into action yrs very truly Julia Margaret Cameron
Clarke’s Private Hotel 30 Albermarle St