25 OCTOBER 1975, Page 12

Autumn books Quentin Bell on Cameron: 'art' for whose sake?

Even today £20.00 is a good deal of money and it is, surely, an indication of the strength of prevailing aesthetic appetites that a firm so judicious as Seeker and Warburg should make such an offer to the public*. Assuming, and I think that it is a fair assumption, that it is Mrs Cameron's name which here offers the main *A Victorian Album: Julia Margaret Cameron and her Circle Edited by Graham Ovenden with an introduction by Lord David Cecil (Seeker and Warburg £20.00) attraction, it is pertinent to note that although some years have passed since Helmut Gernsheim offered his excellent study, Julia Margaret Cameron, to the public, it is not very long since a magnificent anthology, Famous Men and Fair Women introduced by Virginia Woolf and Roger Fry, was reissued with a commentary by Tristram Powell. The present volume is, of course, a rather different proposition; it is a much larger book and one that contains the productions of many other photographers. Nevertheless, as I have said, it is Mrs Cameron who is the 'draw' and one must conclude that her tractive powers are still considerable. Indeed the blurb reminds us of this and tells us that, when the original album "was sold at Sotheby's in 1974 it obtained a world record price." Mr Ovenden is reputed to have paid £40,000 for it which works out at about £336 per photograph and where, in the present condition of the art-world, shall we find praise more fair than this? The answer is perhaps to be found in a transaction which took place a few months earlier when individual Cameron photographs changed hands for as much as £680 and £780. (this was at Sotheby's on March 8th, 1974). But these photographs had a particular charm in that they were, to quote from the sale catalogue, "collected by Virginia Woolf in a personal album". Posterity may smile at our enthusiasms and, since posterity loves nothing better than a good juicy footnote, let us inform it that Virginia Woolf's heirs and relations were greatly astonished to hear that Virginia collected photographs by her great aunt or that she had ever owned an album (personal or impqrsonal) of Cameron photographs. They were also completely at a loss to know how such a thing could have found its way to the sales rooms. The manner in which this valuable merchandise acquired its romantic title is something of which Sotheby's seems to know as little as does the world in general; some eminent scholar in this field, perhaps Mr Ovenden himself, might investigate and come at the truth of this matter. It concerns us here only because the excitement of the market is of importance to the critic; within recent years we have been rediscovering many forgotten artists of the Victorian age and still more recently there has been a rather extensive revival of interest in Bloomsbury; thus the name of Virginia Woolf, coupled with that of Mrs Cameron, tickles the fancy of our time most effectively. And now, by a happy chance, Virginia Woolf's comedy, Freshwater, of which Mrs Cameron is the heroine, is being prepared for the press by Professor Ruotolo (and it could not have fallen into better hands) so that, if it achieves the success that it surely deserves, Cameron originals may hit a new high. Now all this must lead a reasonably prudent observer to wonder , whether a taste so eminently fashionable can survive the applause of the moment? Is Mrs Cameron as considerable an artist as we should all like to think? It is true that Roger Fry was full of her praises long before the present craze was born or thought of; but does she not owe a good deal simply to the charm which now attaches to all Victoriana and to the special charm, the sense of historical actuality, which resides in old photographs? How does she compare with her great, or even with her lesser, contemporaries? A Victorian Album supplies the answer to some of these questions. In the introduction it is described as being "collected by Julia Margaret Cameron as a present for her sister Mia Jackson." But this surely is an error, certainly Mrs Cameron inscribed the volume (that is, the container) "for my best beloved sister Mia" and dated the gift "July 7th 1863" and it may well be that some of the contents were included in the gift; but Mr Ovenden ascribes the majority of the Cameron photographs to later dates. It seems reasonable to suppose that these, and the works of other photographers, were added by Mrs Jackson herself. Maria Jackson was not the most brilliant of the Pattie sisters and it must be said that, like many of us, she preserved a certain amount of rubbish, including some highly uninteresting reproductions of paintings which themselves are, as often as not, highly uninteresting. But these do not form a very large proportion of the whole collection and there are many examples of work by very distinguished photographers including Lord Somers, Rejlander and Lewis Carroll. These are serious competitors and their work is frequently delightful. On the other hand the collection of Cameron photographs, although it lacks some of her really impossible sentimentalities lacks also many of the greatest portraits; there is nothing here as good as the Herschel, the Carlyle or the Ellen Terry.

And yet, although the circumstances of the competition are against her, Mrs Cameron holds her own. Her work is outstanding, she has an understanding of chiaroscuro, an ability to render character and above all a quality for which it is hard to find a word but which may perhaps be described as 'monumentality' which really does make her the greatest of Victorian photographers, a portraitist compared with whom Watts looks like an amateur.

Altogether this is a most agreeable work; it contains some lovely things and is itself a most carefully and beautifully produced imitation of a Victorian album. The care and skill of those who are responsible for the material aspect of the book is equalled by that which Lord David Cecil has brought to the writing of the introduction. It cannot have been an easy task. Inevitably, it was necessary to follow a path which has been followed before and, on one occasion, by a very eminent writer. Nevertheless Lord David acquits himself very well indeed; he pays proper attention to that rather neglected figure Charles Hay Cameron, he writes with grace, lucidity and ease, he is pleasantly nostalgic and eminently readable.

Altogether £20 is a not unreasonable price.