The photos by Julia Margaret Cameron that dominate this exhibit would be enough, by themselves, to justify the assertion that this is a display of important English photography from the 19th century, and yet there is much more here as well. Spectacular examples of Lewis Carroll's child muses, for example, add even more literary depth to the examples from the Cameron canon, while most everything else that defined English photography in the medium's early decades are also evident.
These range from rare Cundall and Howlett images of Crimean War heroes (photos commissioned by Queen Victoria and recently reused on postage stamps) to Roger Fenton's and Henry Peach Robinson's pastoral studies of English woodland and architecture, Hill and Adamson's 1840 portraits of the titled classes, early albumen prints of hulks in Portsmouth harbor, and hand-tinted daguerreian stereo slides. In all, this cornucopia of formal posed images and early photographic naturalism goes a long way in delineating the sure grasp of technique and the seriousness with which England's first wave of photographers approached their art.
And few if any were more serious or inspired than Julian Margaret Cameron, a gifted amateur who took up the camera late in life, in 1863, when she was nearly 50. Fired by the capacity of the medium to reproduce painterly images of idealized beauty, she was quick to master the painstaking wet-plate process of the albumen print; and in her long exposures, the soft focus and often blurred borders of her images took on a dreamlike cast. It was the perfect photo-stylization of her pre-Raphaelite influences, emphasizing intensity of emotion and lush texture, and her friendship with the Victorian founders of the pre-Raphaelite movement (who were often her subjects as well) that put her at the center of one of art's earliest avant-gardes.
The Cameron masterworks in this exhibit include illustrative portraits she executed for Alfred Lord Tennyson's "Idylls of the King" (Tennyson was an Isle of Wight neighbor of Cameron's), with their dramatic characterizations of Arthurian legend, as well as portraiture mounted in cartes-de-visite. Indeed, Cameron's images are some of the most highly sought after of all English 19th-century prints. If anything, Cameron's passionate and somewhat experimental approach to photography was less appreciated in her day than it is now, while her documentarian streak resulted in the only existing photos of some of the most famous figures of the Victorian age.
While Cameron casts a long shadow in this exhibit, there is classic Victoriana as well in Lewis Carroll's charmingly staged depictions of children in costume or in Antoine Claudet's stereo daguerreotype of a family posed with a gilded bird cage (a marvel, really, of hand-tinting, and a haunting example of one of photography's great optical novelties). Other images are notable for any number of reasons: their scrupulous composition, their tonal balance, their depth, but most of all for their sheer Englishness, capturing everything from castles to thatched cottages, hunters with their fallen stags, countesses and nursemaids. These relics from photography's vintage heyday are very much the emblems of an empire in its prime.