Julia Margaret Cameron and the V&A

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

Julia Margaret Cameron to Sir Henry Cole, 21 February 1866

Julia Margaret Cameron's first museum exhibition was held in 1865 at the South Kensington Museum, London (now the V&A). The Museum was the sole museum to exhibit Cameron's work in her lifetime, as well as the institution that collected her photographs most extensively in her day. In 1868, Cameron was given the use of two rooms at the Museum as a portrait studio, perhaps qualifying her as our first artist-in-residence.

Today our Cameron collection includes photographs acquired directly from the artist, others collected later from various sources, and letters written by Cameron to Sir Henry Cole (1808 – 82), the Museum's founding director and an early supporter of photography.

Five letters from Cameron to Cole are held in the National Art Library. Written between May 1865 and December 1872, they reveal her dealings with the Museum from the early years of her photographic career. Cameron often thanks Cole for his support and assistance – particularly in allowing her the use of rooms at the Museum as a photographic studio, as well as detailing sitters, seeking advice on technical, artistic and practical matters, relating news of family and friends and enthusiastically promoting her new works.

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Cameron and Cole moved in similar artistic and social circles, and probably met through Cameron's sister, at Little Holland House in Kensington. In May 1865 Cole recorded a portrait sitting with her there in his diary. The following month, he purchased a group of 63 prints, her first sale to a public institution. Further acquisitions followed in July and September 1865.

These early acquisitions form the basis of the our collection of prints by Cameron, now numbering over 900 through subsequent purchases and gifts including 19 works donated by Cole's son, Alan S. Cole, in 1913.

Read transcripts of the letters below:

May 20 Saturday [1865]

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 breaking 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 printed I toned & I washed six dozen – therefore I write this word standing midst work. Thank your Wife & tell her if I had had breathing 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 and 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 remembrances to you yr Wife & daughters & Believe me Most truly yours

Julia Margaret Cameron

Remember I must see you again and shew 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

Fresh Water Bay

Isle of Wight

Feb 21st [1866]

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 & 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 opport [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 rest 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 –

Yours Ever

Julia Margaret Cameron

Fresh Water Bay

Isle of Wight

IW 21766

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

Freshwater Bay

Isle of Wight

April 7th [18]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 zealously 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 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 shew you that thro your gracious loan of those two rooms I am likely now to acquire fortune as well as fame, for as I told you & 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

Fresh Water Bay

June 12th [18]69

I[sle] of W.[ight]

My Dear Mr Cole

I have so perpetually remembered all yr. helping kindness & ever friendly hand to me in the earlier 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* – next to the living speaking man must ever stand this Portrait of him, quite the most

*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]

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 & 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 & 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 & 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 my love to your wife and to Allan [sic] and to all yours ev. Julia Margaret Cameron

24 December 1872

30 Albermarle St

Dec 24 [1872]

My Dear Sir Henry Cole

Will you or your Son Allan [sic] take pity on my ignorance & 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

I asked for two & a half square metres I am very modest as to the number of Photographs I send When am I to send what is now ready – ? and where am I to send my Photographs? in what form too? in square 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 may have told you for five weeks I have been in one room. I am just emerging & 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

Dec 24 '72 Clarke’s Private Hotel 30 Albermarle St