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Victorian Giants: The Birth and Art of Photography at the National Portrait Gallery
March 22, 2018
A long time ago when not everyone had a camera in their pocket and Instagram didn’t rule the world; photography was still seen as something faintly magical. In fact, the art of photography was reserved for just a small band of followers who had the technical know-how with a camera. The National Portrait Gallery’s homage to early photography in Britain focuses on four such pioneers from the 19th century: Oscar Rejlander, Julia Margaret Cameron, Lady Clementina Hawarden and the original mad hatter, Lewis Carroll. This group set out to prove the point that anything painting could do photography could do better.
The first of these ‘Victorian Giants’ is Rejlander, the Swedish émigré who settled in Lincolnshire during the 1830s and went on to teach each of the other three. Somehow, Rejlander has managed to stay off radar and this display is the first time his work has been seen in London since his death in 1875. And what a homecoming it is. One of the most important images in the show is Rejlander’s famous ‘Two Ways of Life’ made up of 32 composite negatives, which Queen Victoria and Prince Albert loved so much they bought three copies.
A name that might be more familiar is Julia Margaret Cameron. The great-aunt of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, Cameron took up photography in her later years and has become synonymous with poetic images of Shakespearean and Biblical characters as well as portraits of the most famous faces of the day like Ellen Terry and Alfred Tennyson. Cameron’s trial and error method resulted in a series of beautiful, soft-focus images that enchant and beguile.
Clementina Hawarden is more of a mysterious figure amongst the ranks. The elegant wife of a Viscount, Hawarden took over 800 photographs of her young daughters at their estate in Tipperary before she died tragically from pneumonia. At the National Portrait Gallery, Hawarden’s remarkable and unsung body of work takes pride of place.
And then there are Lewis Carroll’s treasured photographs of Alice Liddell, who would step beyond the looking glass in the story of Alice in Wonderland. Rumours abound about the Oxford professor’s relationship with the Liddell family, but curiously in this exhibition we also see Alice as an adult, captured by Julia Margaret Cameron with her loose hair cascading into a wall of hydrangeas and by Lewis Carroll as an audacious young woman.
The Duchess of Cambridge pens a trail of captions through the exhibition that draw on her royal connections and art history degree from St Andrews. While not the most insightful, these labels certainly add a sprinkling of royal fairy dust that will likely draw the crowds.
This jewel of an exhibition is a time capsule that reveals the secret art of photography before that perfect filter was just the click of a button away. In fact, these photographs are just the opposite. Far from Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment into the 20th century, they are filled with an unhurried mystery and just a soupcon of magic.
Words by Claire Phillips
Victorian Giants: The Art and Birth of Photography at the National Portrait Gallery, London, until 20 May