At St Margaret's Church of Art, St Benedict's Street Norwich
Kinswomen: Camerons and Kings Served with Baked Starlings -
an exhibition by Julia Cameron
CONNECTING WITH FAMILY
THE ART OF SOCIAL DISTANCING. NEW EXHIBITION TO OPEN
26 August to 4 September 2020.
Norwich-based artist Julia Camerson has transformed a recently-discovered box of photographs and letters dating from Victorian times into a new exhibition that encourages people to reconsider their own family history and identity.
The discovery formed the theme for the new exhibition Kinswomen: Camerons and Kings Served with Baked Starlings where Julia has reworked and reimagined the images.
“The exhibition is designed to challenge us to reconsider the importance of family photographs, ancestors and mementos in our culture and personal history and what family means to our identity,’ says Julia
It’s a theme that proved to be more pertinent post Covid-19. ‘Many of us have reconnected with friends and family during lockdown, rediscovering and sharing old photos and memories via Zoom and other digital spaces. These have become the new family meeting rooms bringing reassurance or otherwise and news from afar and near.
‘Our loved ones have been reduced to two-dimensions or words on a screen and untouchable. Our ancestors would have been amazed at our communications network.’
In 2017 Julia Cameron saved an intriguing box of old photos and mementoes that were destined for the skip. They contained family photos, letters and cuttings that she never even knew existed. She had spotted them when her father’s room was cleared after he died.
The box contained images of four generations of her family – mainly studio and posed photographs and dating from Victorian times as well as letter and newspaper snippets.
“These were items that my mother had kept and were unknown to me until I literally lifted the lid on them,” says Julia.
“Most people have a dusty box in a cupboard or attic with albums or collections of family photographs and letters,’ says Julia. ‘Mine were acquired on the death of my father at the age of 93.
“In a cupboard in his room I found old cameras, a container of random seashells and an old box of ‘Big Value Christmas Cards, 20 for 30p’ with an illustration of a partridge in a pear tree on the lid.
“When I opened the box, I revealed this incredible archive that I had never seen before with material about my mother, grandmother and great grandmother.”
When Julia examined the contents of the box in more detail she found clippings from letters exchanged by Julia’s maternal grandmother and great grandmother. These recounted snippets of amusing things said by Julia’s mother, then just three.
There were also photographs, old school reports, letters, newspaper cuttings, drawings and cards commemorating births, marriages and sadly, deaths.
“Then beneath the box in a large brown envelope I found photographs unknown to me including official portraits of my mother’s confirmation.”
“I was also surprised to find a letter I had drafted, aged five. However, my parents had high standards for presentation and had deemed it not good enough to send. I recall the tears of having to do it again ‘properly this time”.
Archive leads to new exhibition
Julia Cameron’s discovery sparked the idea for an innovative contemporary art exhibition.
“Many of us inherit this kind of box and I began to question their importance and what should be done with them,” says Julia.
“Feeling somewhat bereft after the death of my father, I also felt the need to make some sort of ‘contact’ with my predecessors using photography as my medium because I am the last generation to have had physical photos taken of them.
“Everything is digital now and there will be no more boxes to be passed down to future generations. It has stopped at me.
There are also parallels with the history of photography as it moves from physical images to digital images which are more problematic to pass down, put in albums or share with future generations of a family.
Julia began reimagining and preserving the photographs in order to share them anew. ‘I have created a synthesis of the old physical photographs, combining them and changing them to make new versions that are imbued with memory and emotion.
“Most of the people in the photographs are dead and the past cannot be retrieved. However, while they are a source of sorrow, to my mind they can also be a source of comfort by making the images differently and bringing new life and connections to my past family” says Julia.
Unfortunately, encouraged by the latest trend towards minimalism and decluttering, many old family albums may now be discarded or not even passed down to the next generation.
Historian Sarah Gristwood has questioned how digital images will be preserved into the future indefinitely, as old photos have, when most of us can’t even access the computer files we made a decade ago. She has questioned whether historians will have the same research material in the future.
‘Paper and artefacts may take up a lot of space and collect a lot of dust but at least it’s been proven that they stick around for centuries. What the historian needs is the unsorted barrel of papers, the stuff that should or has been thrown away, stuff in cupboards.
“Although in some sense autobiographical, most people have some old family photographs with which they have their own connections. It is my hope that the exhibition will prompt visitors to get out, examine and value their own pictures, letters and documents as a way of ensuring a continuity of their own family history.
‘I have changed the layout and number of works in my show. My photographs are very large many at 2.5 metres high by 1.5 metres wide. I have reduced the number from 35 to 25 pictures, placing them one to a screen or those on the walls grouped together leaving open spaces between. Even the artworks will be socially distanced!’
The Private View will have a new format. It will still be free but with limited spaces bookable in advance through Eventbrite. The covid-safe, socially distanced “artist talks” will last about 30 minutes with 30 minutes of additional viewing time and questions – limited to six people. ‘The exhibition will also be open as a “drop-in” at all other times,’ says Julia.
‘Many exhibitions have been viewable online during lockdown, but large pictures do not come over so well on a small screen. Scale and detail are lost as is the immersive quality of being confronted by art larger than oneself.’ However, I plan to make a video of a walk round the exhibition for those who cannot come to see it.
‘Our news is full of daily deaths statistics, outbreak hotspots, and cautionary warnings. I hope the Kinswomen exhibition will provoke contemplation of what our family and ancestors mean to our identity as well as provide a comfortable and comforting space in these strange times,’ she adds.
 Historian Sarah Gristwood. 8 Jan 2020 Four Thought Tidying Up
Covid-safe new arrangements
Camerons and Kings Served with Baked Starlings,
St Margaret’s Church of Art, in Norwich,
from 26 August to 4 September 2020.
Free entry. Opening hours Tuesday to Saturday 10 to 4pm.
Initially cancelled due to lockdown, the event has been resurrected and will now go ahead on 26 August to 4 September, in St Margaret’s Church, St Benedict’s Street, Norwich, with extensive new social distancing and hygiene measures.
‘We hope people will enjoy the tranquillity of St Margaret’s Church and feel reassured by the extensive social distancing and hygiene measures we have put in place,’ says Julia.
The light, airy interior has good ventilation and visitors will follow a directed one-way route around with social distancing markers in place as well as hand sanitizer.