Victorian Giants: The Art of Photography


The NPG have selected four pioneering photographers, Julia Margaret Cameron, Lewis Carroll, Lady Clementina Hawarden and the Swede, under whom they all studied, Oscar Rejlander. In the middle of the nineteenth century, photography was no longer such a novelty, but the prints that were being produced were rather staid, and dull, portraits, mostly of famous ‘worthies’. These four really shook things up, with their ingenuity, inventiveness and imagination, bridging a yawning gap between the mundane and art. It is extraordinary to think that there are now more pictures taken globally every two minutes than there were ever taken in the 1880s, since the first ever photograph was taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826, of the view from an upstairs window at Niépce’s estate in Burgundy. Approximately 3.5 trillion photos have been taken since then, with the global photo count rising rapidly due to the accessibility of digital cameras and camera phones, with about ten percent of the photos having been taken in the past year alone.

These four champions accepted and promoted photography as an art-form, with some of their images strikingly modern in style and tone. Julia Margaret Cameron’s portraits have a soft-focus, ‘painterly’ quality that brings to mind Sarah Moon’s dreamy studies over a hundred years later. She came to photography relatively late in life, being 48 when she was given her first camera by her daughter. She was very much in the Bloomsbury set, as well as being influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, with wistful beauties gazing into the mid-distance. She photographed many of the most eminent Victorians, some in Arthurian garb, including Charles Darwin, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, G F Watts and Ellen Terry, one of whose portraits has a contemporary feel to it, and could have been taken today. Cameron and Rejlander photographed both Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Charles Darwin, and one would be hard-pushed to differentiate whose portrait is whose.

Lewis Carroll famously snapped Alice Liddell and her sisters, and even more famously, put them into Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. The NPG are at great pains to state that, although he took hundreds of photographs of children, their parents or governesses were always present. However, the mathematician’s biographer, Jenny Woolf, stated in a 2010 essay, ‘of the approximately 3,000 photographs Dodgson made in his life, just over half are of children, 30 of whom are depicted nude or semi-nude’, including one of Alice herself as a provocative urchin posing in a tattered dress, re-enacted from Tennyson’s poem The Beggar Maid. A photograph taken of Alice twelve years later shows a rather cross and defiant young woman. Soon afterwards, relationships between Carroll and the Liddell family, whose head was the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford University, cooled, but no reason was forthcoming.

The godfather of the group and the father of art photography, was the Swedish-born photographer Oscar Gustav Rejlander, who became known for his groundbreaking experiments in photomontage. One of the most striking examples of this is his work The Two Ways of Life (1856-7). A enormous photograph at the time, Rejlander used more than 30 separate negatives to create one tableau, depicting individuals in costume, and some young ladies without, in an elaborate allegory of the choice between vice and virtue, a life of lust, gambling and hedonism on one hand or one of religious piety on the other. Not only was the image the first publicly exhibited photograph of a nude in England, it was also the first major art photograph yet produced and the first photo-montage. The complexity of the image was pioneering for the time, as it would have been impossible to capture the spectacle in a single exposure. Quite naturally, the image caused a sensation when it was displayed in March 1857 at the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition, which was one of the first to exhibit photographs along with other art. One reviewer described it as ‘magnificent . . . decidedly the finest photograph of its class ever pronounced’. He went on to do more conventional portraiture as well as nude studies.

A Scottich Viscountess, Lady Clementina Hawarden, began her photographic career while living on the Dundrum estate near Dublin, taking stereoscopic photographs of the landscape, before taking up portraiture. She repeatedly took photographs of her ten children, as well as friends, which were both experimental in their dramatic use of lighting and controversial in their suggestive poses. She died tragically young of pneumonia at the age of 42, but has left a legacy of startling imagery, often using mirrors and windows to great effect. In her obiturary, her mentor Oscar Rejlander wrote, ‘she worked honestly, in a good, comprehensible style … she also was in her manner and conversation, fair, straightforward, nay manly, with a feminine grace. She is a loss to photography, for she would have progressed.’ She is perhaps the most interesting photographer in this well-curated and instructive exhibition, but the other three have certainly earned their places in art history

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