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IN February 9’s Sunday Times Culture magazine, the critic Waldemar Januszczak, commenting on the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition of 120 of Julia Margaret Cameron’s luminous collection of photographs, said of the many depictions of children: “The smell of paedophilia that swirls about this show emanates not from Cameron herself, but from the audience she would have found for this work… the aforementioned patriachs.” These “aforementioned” include the subjects of some of the most memorable photographs ever taken by Cameron in her converted greenhouse and coal shed at Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight: the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Trollope, Tennyson, Carlyle, Watts, Darwin and the wild man Sir John Herschel, the scientist/astronomer who coined the word “photography”.

Januszczak sneers that Cameron has turned the lot of them into “emoting Santa Clauses”. This exhibition, in many ways a visual exercise in innocence and romanticism, is curated by Colin Ford, former Keeper of Film
and Photography at the National
Portrait Gallery. The book that accompanies the exhibition is an excellent illustrated biography of Cameron, who as a middle-class, well-connected mother of six, took her first successful portrait when she was 48, and still holds the record for the highest auction price for a single 19th century British photograph (£155,000 at Sotheby’s in 2001 for Kate Keown).

The plates in this book show Cameron as certainly eccentric, with her Arthurian tableaux, biblical life scenes, poses from Classical literature and from Shakespeare using friends, family, servants and, in the case of King Arthur, a porter from the pier at Freshwater. They also give us a chance to see the work of a photographer who gave her subjects a soaring beauty and, in some cases, particularly with her portraits of children, a magical intensity. It is true, however, that some are heavy-handed and over-allusive to contemporary eyes.

An excellent book, with beautifully reproduced plates and a thorough pictorial biography on one of the great photographers of the Victorian age.

• There have been three other books published to coincide with the exhibition: the most worthwhile as a work of reference is the first complete catalogue raisonné of the photographer’s work; Julia Margaret Cameron: The Complete Photographs by Julian Cox and Colin Ford, Thames and Hudson, £95; while the other two are From Life: Julia Margaret Cameron & Victorian Photography by Victoria Olsen, Aurum, £18.99 and Julia Margaret Cameron: Pioneer Photographer, Sutton £12.99.