Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography

Cameron: Sadness (Ellen Terry)

(until 20 May 2018 at the National Portrait Gallery, London)

Shouldering up against the wall, the girl turns her face away from the light. We catch her in an unguarded moment, her blouse slipping off her shoulder and her hair mussed, her fingers tangling in her necklace. This is the celebrated actress Ellen Terry at the age of seventeen, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron during her brief, ill-suited marriage to the much older painter George Frederick Watts. It isn’t a portrait but an allegory, titled Sadness, and Cameron gives us the impression of trespassing on something deeply personal. It’s one of the most arresting images from a clutch of wonderful mid-Victorian photographs currently on view at the National Portrait Gallery, tracing the early days of this art form through the works of four pioneers: Cameron herself; her teacher Oscar Rejlander; Lewis Carroll; and the ‘amateur’ artist Lady Clementine Hawarden.

In 1865, a year after Cameron photographed Terry, she modelled for Lewis Carroll. Now placed side by side in the exhibition, the two pictures give a markedly different view of female contemplation. Cameron’s is sensuously melancholic, revealing the dreamy dishabille of a woman in her private space. Carroll’s places Terry in a dark dress in a dark room, beside a window that looks out into a vague sunny space. Terry isn’t looking out. Her head is lowered, her eyes closed, her hands rigidly clasped in front of her. If this is Carroll’s view of female contemplation, it’s one in which a woman’s ideas are hidden beneath her outward show, locked deep away within her conformity. It’s tempting, of course, to impose biographical contexts on these pictures. Cameron’s picture was taken while Terry was a wife – perhaps an uneasy wife, but a wife nevertheless. Carroll shows Terry after she and Watts had separated and she’d returned home. How much did Terry, as sitter, have to do with creating the mood in these images? Is she simply the tool of the photographer? It’s an interesting question.

At the time these pictures were taken, in the 1850s and 1860s, the rise of photography had sparked off a new debate in artistic circles. What was this new technique meant to do? What purpose should it achieve? Should it be used as a tool for painters and sculptors to capture poses that might be difficult to study from life models? Could it offer a cheaper alternative to finding a model? Or should it be regarded as a new, competing art form? Could photography achieve the same distinction as painting? Could it deal with the same elevated subjects: portraiture; history paintings; religious painting? This exhibition shows us how some artists tackled these questions.

Sometimes a direct comparison was made. Rejlander, in particular, had a fondness for recreating paintings in photographs. The show includes his ‘portrait’ of the Virgin Mary, which is based on Sassoferrato’s Virgin with her electric-blue robe in the National Gallery. His Non Angeli sed Angli of 1857 borrows the poses of the cherubs from the bottom of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna. Viewers were meant to get these references. Rejlander was trying to show that photography could outdo painting precisely because it was real: it removed a layer of obfuscation. But not everyone agreed. When he produced his magisterial 32-plate photograph The Two Ways of Life, a busy allegory that was exhibited at the 1857 Manchester Art Treasures show, some viewers were scandalised.

The composition was based on a classic ‘Choice of Hercules’ concept, with Rejlander himself playing the central role. On either side of him, an angel offers him a choice of path. On the left, the path leads to joy and fun and merriment and ladies who aren’t wearing very many clothes. (He’s already taken the hand of the angel on the right, who points the way to industry, hard work, study and virtuous life.) But it was the nudes who upset people. Audiences were used to seeing female nudes. But it was one thing to see a painted nude carefully fitted to classical norms. It was quite another to see a real nude woman, with all her imperfections, even if she was placed in an artistic pose. Clearly, photography could only be fully accepted as art if viewers were prepared to accept a shift in their expectations. And in fact, the whole question of photography as art, photo-realistic art and associated issues continues to be controversial today. We never really answered the question that Rejlander and his contemporaries posed 150 years ago.

Rejlander: Two Ways of Life

Oscar Rejlander, Two Ways of Life, 1856-57

So, one of the ways Rejlander used photography was as a way to remake traditional subjects. Lady Clementine Hawarden favoured narrative photography as well, although her interests were a little different. I hadn’t come across her before at all and was intrigued to look at the photographs selected here, taken in her own home with her dressed-up daughters playing various roles. There’s an immediacy here, a sensitivity to Victorian female experience, that makes the pictures very accessible. You have the sense that you’ve stumbled across a story halfway through. In a bare room, a young man in a cloak (played by Hawarden’s daughter Clementina) waits with head bowed in front of a dignified young woman in an approximation of 18th-century court costume (played by another daughter, Isabella Grace). The woman’s eyes are closed, her hands clasped across her front. Has the young man proposed to her, and is she making him wait for her answer? Has he come to jilt her, and is she bottling up her emotions? Is he leaving to fight in a war and she is wondering how she’ll bear his absence?

In another of Hawarden’s pictures, a young woman in a lace veil turns away from the camera, balancing a tiny glass of wine between her fingers while her other hand lingers on a jug-handle. Is she waiting for someone? Contemplating her fortune? Self-medicating to endure her confined existence? Because there really is a sense that Hawarden has something to say about life as an elite Victorian woman, governed by conventions and stuck inside her house. Her work, remember, was made at home with the aid of her daughters as models: a kind of play-acting in a world that offered women little real output for their abilities. And I got a similar impression of stifling confinement in her Photographic Study 5, Princes Gardens (1863-4), in which her daughter Clementina appears again, dressed for going out, yet crammed into a corner, framed close-up beside a mirror. We see only the stern, discontented profile of the ‘real’ Clementina’s face: only her reflection in the mirror looks out.

If we’re going to talk about mirrors, then we have to deal with Lewis Carroll. There’s no doubt that Carroll’s role as a pioneer photographer is very important, but personally I find it very unsettling to look at his photographs. I never quite understand them. And I was struck, this time, by how often his child models look surly or even downright angry. There are several pictures here of the Liddell siblings, of course, and Alice Liddell’s little sister Edith looks positively grumpy on almost every occasion. There’s something equally odd about Carroll’s portrait of Alice Liddell at the age of eighteen. She looks so utterly defeated. Her sister Ina, photographed on the same day, looks straight at the camera with the poise of a French countess; but Alice slumps in her chair, as if everything is spent. Did she choose the pose or did Carroll? No one knows. But it makes me uneasy. The formal, often uncomfortable poses that Carroll chooses for his models form a stark contrast to the more relaxed images taken by Cameron. Compare, for example, Carroll’s portrait of Alfred Tennyson’s son Hallam with Cameron’s portrait of his brother Lionel. Cameron seems to have caught Lionel unawares: a Little Lord Fauntleroy preparing his bow. Carroll has propped Hallam on a chair in a painfully precious pose.

Some of the most wonderful photographs here are portraits. This was the age when history was measured in Great Men (and Thomas Carlyle, the proponent of that idea, appears in person, photographed by Cameron). People wanted to know what great poets and thinkers looked like, and so there are portraits of Tennyson and Darwin and Rossetti, the latter photographed in a rare more relaxed manner by Carroll, apparently after Carroll had begged to be introduced for precisely this purpose. The two portraits of Darwin emphasise the different approaches generally favoured by Rejlander and his former pupil Cameron. Rejlander’s portrait is more formal, the kind of picture you’d expect to find as a frontispiece. Cameron’s is in softer focus, as was her wont, and allows you to imagine the spirit and intellectual capacity of the man. Her portraits and head studies all give the impression of movement: the soft focus, sometimes shading into out-of-focus, captures a liveliness which really appeals to modern taste. (Not all her sitters were as convinced: Darwin was privately rather baffled by her picture of him.)

And the head studies themselves make a lovely group to end on. There are stupendous pictures by Cameron of her favourite models, May Prinsep and Mrs Keane. The latter is titled Mountain Nymph, although the sitter’s firm and sorrowful expression hardly seems suitable for Milton’s Allegro, from which the title was taken. Yet it’s a super portrait. And May Prinsep’s picture struck me too, because it’s a very simple and straightforward picture of an attractive young woman without any mythological or literary trappings. It’s too simplistic to say that Cameron reacted to her female sitters as individuals, rather than archetypes, because she was a woman – she photographed her fair share of moody allegorical beauties too. But there’s something very immediate and engaging about her pictures, which I didn’t find in Rejlander’s more formal portraits. If you need persuading, take a look at her Agnes Grace Weld. It’s extraordinary. It could have been taken in the 1960s or 1970s. The woman in this picture isn’t confined at all. She’s self-possessed, confident and thoroughly at ease. What an utterly remarkable photo it is.

So, yes, this is a great introduction to Victorian photography. I was thrilled to see so many works by Cameron, whom I’ve loved ever since I had her picture of Iago on my wall as a romantic teenager. But I was also delighted to be introduced to Hawarden, who strikes me as a very interesting artist worth learning more about. It makes you think about the role of photography in a way that we tend not to nowadays – we take it for granted – and brings you back to a period where the paradigm was still being created and anything was possible. Rich, elegiac and evocative, it’s a sumptuous joy for the eyes. I’ve bought the catalogue but haven’t had a chance to read it yet; I will note, though, that the illustrations are very good and there are plenty of photographs which don’t feature in the show itself. I’m looking forward to learning more about all four photographers – I don’t suppose I’ll have time to go back again before it closes, but if you’re in London with a spare hour or so, do pop along to the NPG. It’s well worth a visit.

Buy the catalogue

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