Among the treasures included in the recent transfer of the Royal Photographic Society Collection (RPS) to the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) from the National Science and Media Museum (NSMM), is a large collection of works by Julia Margaret Cameron, one of the most important and innovative photographers of the 19th century. As Research Assistant to curator Marta Weiss on the V&A’s 2015 travelling exhibition: Julia Margaret Cameron, I developed a special interest in Cameron’s work, focusing on her unique relationship with the V&A, the first museum to collect and exhibit her work beginning in 1865.
The research had me digging into the V&A’s 19th century archives, interrogating original documents, including letters, diaries and institutional records for clues relating to the V&A’s acquisition and exhibition of Cameron’s work. Of particular import, was the discovery that a group of Cameron photographs once belonged to her mentor, the artist George Frederic Watts (1817-1904), which added to the scholarship regarding Cameron’s ‘rule-breaking’ techniques. By the time the 2015 exhibition opened, I had developed a ‘special power’ to decipher Cameron’s distinctive loopy handwriting employed in her letters to the V&A’s founding Director, Henry Cole, and I was able to trace the acquisition history of each of the 256 Cameron works in the V&A Collection, many acquired directly from Cameron.
The RPS Collection is vast, encompassing exquisite vintage prints, the world’s first negative, unique daguerreotypes and early colour photographs, as well as important albums, books, cameras and the archives of major photographers. It is of major international significance and includes both historic and contemporary photographs. Its history begins in 1853 with the founding of the Photographic Society of London (it became Royal in 1894, and later moved to Bath in 1980 before it transferred to the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford, which became the NSMM). My work as part of the Factory Project, a group of cataloguers tasked with getting information about the V&A’s Word and Image Department collection online and available to a wider public, focuses on photographs. The 19th century is of special interest to me. When the RPS Collection arrived, I was the first to put my hand up for the Cameron assignment.
One of the first tasks in cataloguing the new arrivals was to come up with an accurate accounting of the number of Cameron photographs included in the transfer. While seemingly straightforward, it proved more difficult than expected. With each new counting, another photograph would be discovered, often found affixed to the back of a mounted photograph. Because the photographs came from various sources, there was no consistency in mounting and each mount offered new surprises. One group of photographs is mounted on both sides of unbound pages from an album. Attached to another mount, framing a portrait of G.F. Watts, is an original letter to Cameron .
Once counted, a cataloguing template needed to be conceived. Cameron is one of the most widely studied and requested photographers in the V&A Collection, and we struggled with balancing the need to get the records available to the public in a timely manner with the scope of the information that existed for each photograph. What is often referred to as the ‘materiality’ of the photographs (the annotations, mountings, their storage, their location and groupings within an archive) is a PhD in itself! Limits needed to be defined in order to get the records made and make the images available to the public online, often the first point of entry for the researcher.
In discussions with curators and the cataloguing team, a list of mandatory information was developed. In addition to the basic information, the importance of identifying multiple copies of prints from the same negative was also deemed important. This information allows scholars to not only make comparisons in technique, format and medium (albumen prints versus carbon prints for example, variations in format or even among prints using the same technique), but also to identify Cameron’s production and marketing strategies and to track the dissemination of her work. To document and link copies produced from the same negative, I relied upon the catalogue raisonné compiled by Julian Cox and Colin Ford (Thames & Hudson, 2003). As part of the cataloguing process, every Cameron photograph in the V&A collection has been tagged with the corresponding catalogue entry in the Cox and Ford survey. In a similar manner, each photograph is also linked to its duplicates within the V&A collection.
Another aim of the cataloguing process is to maintain as much information as possible relating to the RPS Collection. RPS original cataloguing information on Cameron is contained in an unbound and handwritten register. This, along with the annotations on the backs of the works themselves, is an important source for historical context and provenance. These documents reveal that the majority of the Cameron photographs were acquired from three sources during the late 1920s through the 1930s, all descendants of Cameron, including AC Norman, Beatrice Trench and Colonel Cameron. Labels on the backs of the works also show that a large group of Camerons were acquired from the Pictorialist photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn, who donated his photography collection to the RPS in 1930. In order to direct scholars to this information, all previous reference numbers and museum numbers have been added to the catalogue entry. This will enable future researchers to look into the original acquisition history as well as into how the RPS built up its collection.
Duplicates within the V&A original collection make up a large number of the works received from the RPS, but also very exciting is the number of unique works, many of which exist only in the RPS Collection, expanding the depth of the V&A Cameron holdings. In particular, the RPS Collection includes rare portraits of maidservants and plantation workers she produced in the later part of her career while living in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).
Throughout, while this data collection and reconciliation was taking place, the V&A’s photography studio has been hard at work photographing each photograph to create a digital image to accompany each record. Once this is completed, researchers will be able to access the high resolution images for close examination, oftentimes allowing for a level of clarity that is not possible without a magnifying glass when viewing the works in person.
The integration of the RPS Collection almost quadruples the number of Cameron photographs in the V&A collection and available to the public (including a few attributed to her son Henry Herschel Hay Cameron), bringing the total to 981, the largest collection of Cameron photographs in any one institution. In addition to the photographs, the RPS material includes Cameron’s original manuscript pages for her autobiographical account Annals of My Glass House as well as the French-made Jamin camera lens she used for many of her famous portraits. Now that all the RPS Cameron material has been catalogued, scholars have access to the full catalogue of of her work at the V&A, facilitating further research into her career, working methods and techniques. This can accessed through the V&A’s online catalogue available to the public through Search the Collections,. In addition, all of the Cameron photographs can be viewed in the Prints and Drawings Study Room.