Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography

  • Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography
  • Unidentified young woman by Oscar Rejlander, 1863-9 © National Portrait Gallery, London

  • 'Hallam Tennyson' by Lewis Carroll, 1857 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Group Show

Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography

National Portrait Gallery / London / England

  • Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography /  Reviewed by Caroline Douglas / 26.03.18


    Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography presents four photographers; Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79), Lewis Carroll (1832-98), Lady Clementina Hawarden (1822-65) and Oscar Rejlander (1813-75).

    Photographs literally transport light from days gone by to the modern viewer…this time travel ensures a certain resonance between the sitter and the viewer. The light that touched Evelyn or Alice now touches us [1].

    A century and a half has passed since these extraordinary portraits were first conceived, and they haven’t lost any of their potency. Without question, they are now firmly established in the canon of art history [2]. At first glance, Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography seems an arbitrary grouping of photographers, pulled together, one might assume, to showcase some well-known works in the Gallery collection. This is, after all, the third time in as many years that Mary Hillier’s face has been presented in one of the capital’s major exhibition spaces [3]. There is nothing arbitrary however about Victorian Giants. In bringing Cameron, Carroll, Hawarden and Rejlander together, the show makes some startling connections between these four pioneering photographers. They were bound by their commitment to the wet-plate collodion process and the positioning of photography as art [4].

    Yet the commonalities run deeper still. Carroll, Cameron and Hawarden all studied ‘under’ Rejlander. Between them, negatives were shared, as were prints, techniques, and even sitters, too: Charles Darwin, John Herschel and Alfred Tennyson were among those photographed by Cameron and Rejlander; Alice Liddell and Ellen Terry sat before Cameron and Carroll; while Irene MacDonald was captured by Carroll and Hawarden. They even photographed each other and had their works jointly exhibited. Their practice, in other words, was shaped by reciprocity, shared concerns and critique. In bringing these works together for the first time, Victorian Giants makes visible something that has long been concealed by a preoccupation with the solitary artistic genius.

    The show’s claim that this moment represents the ‘birth’ of art photography, however, might be questioned. Twenty years earlier, in mid 1840s Scotland, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson (with their female assistant Jessie Mann [5]) were producing calotype portraits of their own. Without doubt, these Victorian giants north of the border were all actively engaged in photography’s claim to art status. As Sara Stevenson reminds us, Hill regarded his calotypes as “art in their own right” and had them exhibited alongside his landscape paintings in the Royal Scottish Academy [6].

    Public interest in the exhibition will likely be shaped by the involvement of the Duchess of Cambridge, who had a hand in its curation. During the press view, whispers of ‘which images did Kate pick?’ could be overheard. Less quietly, captions on the Gallery wall draw attention to those works selected by HRH. Of course, none of this is new. From its early beginnings, photography found validation in the taste and sensibilities of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who together acquired one of the earliest photographic collections [7]. The world may have changed immeasurably in the intervening century and a half, but this show suggests our consumption of these works remains marked by a persisting deference to fame and royalty.

    But attention will ultimately be fixed on the vintage albumen prints on display. And they are gorgeous. Blurred hair, sharp whiskers, knuckles, beards and pearls, fleshy dimples, aprons, jewels, pendants and braids, sumptuous cloth, ankle socks, curls and crucifixes…the desire to get closer to these photographs never ceases, no matter how many times we continue to encounter them.

    To be in their presence now is captivating; at the time it must have been revelatory. Never before had still moments of light and shadow been fixed with such precision and expression. The prints held a sharpness unachievable in Talbot’s calotype process. Similarly, their clarity outstripped even the precious Daguerreotype. Though these two earlier processes had a beauty of their own, they came with a multitude of shortcomings, including inflated production costs owing to their patented status. It is fitting then that the accompanying catalogue for Victorian Giants gives due acknowledgement to Frederick Scott Archer – the person responsible for the invention of wet plate collodion – whose decision not to patent the process made it widely available [8].

    Above all, it is the show’s attentiveness to gender that marks it out as unique. But things don’t set off on the best footing. The Press Release frames the four photographers’ biographies in the following way: Rejlander was a Swedish émigré with a mysterious past; Cameron was a middle-aged expatriate from colonial Ceylon (now Sri Lanka); Carroll was an Oxford academic and writer of fantasy literature; and Hawarden was landed gentry, the child of a Scottish naval hero and a Spanish beauty, 26 years younger.

    It is somewhat unfortunate that in 2018, Cameron’s age is deemed worthy of mention but not that of her male counterparts. Similarly, the reference to ‘a Spanish beauty’ does a disservice to the more transformative achievements of the show, particularly those concerning gender. What feels most timely is the show’s institutional undoing of the aforementioned solo artistic genius, which so often is embodied by the male figure. It truly is restoring to see this being tackled with sincerity and without tokenism.

    Victorian Giants demands and deserves our attention. As Carol Mavor eloquently reminds us, the light that once touched Evelyn and Alice now touches us. Aren’t we lucky to be able to say that?

     – reviewed for Photomonitor by Caroline Douglas


    [1] Mavor, C. 1996. Pleasures Taken: Performances of Sexuality and Loss in Victorian Photographs, Duke University Press. p.28.

    [2] Overlooked for more than a century, Clementina Hawarden only entered the canon in the late 1990s. She was the first woman admitted to the Royal Photographic Society (then the Photographic Society of London).

    [3] September 24 2015 – 28 March 2016 Julia Margaret Cameron: Influence and Intimacy, Media Space, Science Museum.

    November 28 2015 – February 21 2016 Julia Margaret Cameron, Victoria and Albert Museum.

    May 11 – September 25 2016
Painting with Light: Art and Photography from the Pre-Raphaelites to the Modern Age, Tate Britain.

    [4] This subject is explored more extensively in the exhibition catalogue Prodger, P. 2018. Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography, National Gallery Publications. pp. 85-105.

    [5] Simpson, R. 2010. ‘Exposing Miss Mann’ in McKenzie, R. and Thorp, M. (eds) Studies in Photography, Scottish Society for History of Photography.

    [6] Stevenson, S. 1981. David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, National Galleries of Scotland. p.23.

    [7] Lyden, A, M. 2014. A Royal Passion: Queen Victoria and Photography, Getty Publications. p. viii.

    [8] Prodger, P. 2018. Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography, National Gallery Publications. p. 86 89.

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