Issue #240  4/17/2018
Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography--Lewis Carroll, Julia Margaret Cameron, Oscar Rejlander and Clementina Hawarden The National Portrait Gallery, London, until May 20th

By Michael Diemar

The Gallery’s Patron, The Duchess of Cambridge, has chosen a selection of photographs from the exhibition for this special Patron’s Trail. Her Royal Highness, an enthusiastic, amateur photographer, has written personal captions which will be displayed alongside her selected works. The Duchess has also written a foreword to the exhibition catalogue.
The Gallery’s Patron, The Duchess of Cambridge, has chosen a selection of photographs from the exhibition for this special Patron’s Trail. Her Royal Highness, an enthusiastic, amateur photographer, has written personal captions which will be displayed alongside her selected works. The Duchess has also written a foreword to the exhibition catalogue.

National Portrait Gallery is located at St Martin's Place, London. Opening hours daily 10.00–18.00; Thursdays and Fridays until 21.00. Last admission to the exhibition is one hour before the Gallery closes. Exiting commences ten minutes before the closing time. Entrance is free for members and patrons, and £10 (£12 with donation) for others.

I suspect that the title will give some a jolt, as it seems to diminish the efforts of Fox Talbot, Daguerre, Hill & Adamson, Le Gray, Le Secq, Salzmann and Fenton, to name just a few. It is however, in line with the three categories proposed by Jabez Hughes, most likely one of Cameron's early teachers, namely mechanical, artistic and "High Art", the latter meaning "pictures which aim at higher purposes than the majority of art photographs and whose purpose is not merely to amuse, but to instruct, purify and enoble".

"High Art" meant applying the standards and ideals of painting, that is, as it had developed in Britain. Rejlander would go the furthest of the four, moving into the arena of the plastic arts by combining several negatives.

In France, Gustave Courbet had led the Realism movement, rebelling against the historical and allegorical paintings that dominated the Salon of Paris. He would be followed by a new generation of artists, Édouard Manet and the Impressionists, eagerly anxious to cast off what they perceived to be the dead weight of art history, eventually leading to Salon des Refusés in 1863. In Britain, the avant-garde would develop along very different lines, with the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848, with one foot firmly in the past, and some painters entering the realm of noble knights and fair maidens.

As NPG curator for the show Phillip Prodger pointed out in the catalogue, the four photographers are sometimes described as belonging to the "Pre-Raphaelite School" as a result of their social and commercial interactions with the Brotherhood but in practice, their interests were the polar opposite, as time and time again they would turn to Raphael himself and to 17th-century artists such as Guido Reni and Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, and therefore might properly be described as the "Raphael and post-Raphaelite school". And it was the expressions they took on board from the paintings, their intensity inspiring them to scale new heights in portrait photography.

With just over 140 exhibits, this is a relatively small exhibition, but the quality of the prints is outstanding, with several, such as Cameron's portrait of Sir John Herschel, worth the price of admission alone. Instead of creating sections for each of the four photographers, Prodger has mixed their prints, underlining their similarities and differences.

The four would form an unlikely alliance: Rejlander, a Swedish émigré, sociable and outgoing, a painter turned photographer; Carroll, an Oxford academic and author of fantasy literature; Hawarden, landed gentry; and Cameron, a middle-aged expatriate from Ceylon.

Rejlander was the connection between them, as teacher, advisor and enabler; and he was the only professional photographer of the four. He also seemed to be everywhere, showing his work in exhibitions and promoting the idea of art photography in the press. His early years have always been shrouded in mystery but some light was shed in 2016 following the discovery of his naturalization papers and an article published in the summer 2016 edition of The PhotoHistorian.

He was born in Stockholm on October 19, 1813. His family later settled in Rauma, a small town in the west of Finland, at that time Russian territory. Claims that he spent the 1830's in Rome, studying art, anatomy and antiquity are likely to be apocryphal, and he was most likely self-taught as a painter.

He arrived in England in 1839, first settling in Hull. Two years later he moved to Wolverhampton, earning a living as portrait painter, copying Old Master paintings and producing lithographs. He probably took up photography as an aid to his painting, learning calotype and wet collodion processes in 1853 from Nicolaas Henneman, former assistant to Fox Talbot. While he would continue to paint throughout his life, it was a photographer that he would make a name for himself.

On display is "The Rejlander Album", purchased by NPG in 2015 with generous help from benefactors after the album was national treasured after being auctioned. Encountering albums behind glass in exhibitions always leads to frustration, but it is overcome here thanks to a flat screen showing a video of its pages being turned.

Oscar Rejlander's Two Ways of Life.
Oscar Rejlander's Two Ways of Life.

Rejlander wasn't the first to combine negatives but he took it a whole different level. "The Ways of Life", 1856-57, sometimes referred to as "Photoshop before Photoshop", was made with approximately 32 negatives and known in three variants, two of them with Rejlander as the central figure, an actor taking his place in a third. This is best of the known extant prints of it, on loan from Moderna Museet in Stockholm.

The image required meticulous planning. Rejlander produced a larger number of negatives than he eventually used, one such negative is on display here. He also produced a large number of sketches. It was previously thought that all sketches had been lost. In 2016, the National Portrait Gallery obtained the only known surviving sketch as a gift from Stephan Loewentheil. It shows a male figure, representing the world of science and knowledge, seated at a table, with books, paper and compass, looking down at his calculations. In the final print, a globe replaced the table, with the figure looking up at the protagonist.

"The Two Ways of Life" caused both a sensation and a scandal, this because of the inclusion of models with bare breasts. Rejlander would never again attempt anything so technically ambitious, and a few years later he abandoned combination techniques and focused more on natural expressions. This in turn led to the commission from Charles Darwin to provide photographs for his book "The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals" (1872). It also included photographs by Duchenne de Boulogne as well as illustrations. Rejlander used himself as a model, as well as actors for the photographs, some of which are on display here.

While Rejlander is admired for many for the sitters' lively expressions, others find some of them exaggerated and superficial. It should be noted, however, that some images were produced as aids for artists, while others were produced as actual works or portrait sittings. He seems to have had a remarkable gift of putting the sitters at ease, as seen here in the portrait of Gustave Doré, slouched down in a chaise longue, hand over his head and the portraits of Hallam and Lionel Tennyson, sons of Alfred Tennyson.

While the four never constituted a formal group they would connect at crucial points and create connections for each other, often leading to them photographing the same subjects.

So here we have Lord Alfred Tennyson photographed by Lewis Carroll in 1857, by Rejlander in 1863, and by Cameron in 1865, 1867 and 1869. Cameron photographed Ellen Terry in 1864 during her brief marriage to the 30 year-older artist George Frederic Watts. Carroll photographed her a year later after their separation, as seen here in the original negative.

The same subjects and on occasion similar styles has caused much confusion over the years when it comes to attribution, with many having been misattributed. Among them and on display here is, "Young Girl with Posies (Charlotte Norman)" 1863, which was previously attributed to Cameron, now to Rejlander.

Lewis Carroll modern positive from glass plate negative.
Lewis Carroll modern positive from glass plate negative.

Carroll was much less bound by painting than Cameron and Rejlander, using classical poses in a more subtle way. Nor was he bound by a studio or private quarters like the other three, choosing instead to travel to his sitters with his camera. The inclusion of a small group of original negatives is most welcome, including that of Alice Riddell on a chair in profile. These were also a part of a group that had been national treasured after an auction at Sotheby's London in 2001 of Liddell family memorabilia.

Helmut Gernsheim once proclaimed Carroll '"the most outstanding photographer of children in the nineteenth century". Personally, I'm not convinced, and there's some very strong competition here, such as Cameron's "Water Baby" (Kate Keown), 1863, and Rejlander's "Young Girl Reading" (Isabella Somers-Cocks), circa 1863.

While I find some Carroll photos masterly, such as "Ina (Lorina) Liddell", 1858, others seem more problematic, including a male adult gazing intensely, intruding on the world of young girls. I sense a certain wariness and fatigue in his portrait of Irene McDonald taken in 1863 and in the 1875 portrait "Xie Kitchin, standing in nightdress and crown, also known as "Captive Princess".

Did Carroll ever cross the line? Chunks of his diaries are missing, as well as some 60% of his photographic portfolio leading to speculations about a cleanup operation, so the debate will no doubt continue.

Masterful portrait by Julia M. Cameron.
Masterful portrait by Julia M. Cameron.

Cameron would embrace the notion of photography as "High Art" with a religious zeal. Though he would later purchase a number of Cameron's prints, Lewis Carroll wasn't impressed when he first encountered her work. In his diary entry for 23 June 1864 he wrote, "I did not admire Mrs. Cameron's large heads taken out of focus. The best of the life-ones were by Lady Hawarden."

The stylistic touches that failed to win Carroll 's admiration were, however, not of her own invention. In 2000, The National Portrait Gallery presented an exhibition of photographs taken in the 1860s by David Wilkie Wynfield, a painter and a member of the St. John's Wood Clique of Painters. As the curator Dr. Juliet Hacking noted in that catalogue "Before Cameron's reputation eclipsed that of Wynfield, the 'out-focus-technique', which became identified with her name, was identified with his."

Wynfield's photographs, close-up portraits of the members of his group, dressed in historical costume, were first exhibited in early 1864 as 'by an amateur, this in order to protect his reputation as a painter, as it would have been damaged by the suggestion that he based his paintings on photographs.
Cameron identified him as the dominant influence on her work. In a letter from 1864 to Sir John Herschel she wrote, "I have had one lesson from the great Amateur photographer Mr. Wynfield & consult him in correspondence whenever I am in difficulty."

Cameron and Wynfield's photography would soon develop along different lines. The latter would delve deeper into the symbolism of history while Cameron made only a handful of images utilizing historical costumes before abandoning them.

But the historical and allegorical references would remain, in the poses, as well as the titles. The effect is sometimes perplexing: hung next to each other are two images of Mary Pinnock as a model, "Daphne", the heroine from Greek mythology, and "Ophelia", Shakespeare's tragic heroine. Except, there is no hint of tragedy in the latter. The poses and expressions in the two images are virtually identical and were probably based on Bernini's sculpture "Daphne and Apollo", but what comes across is Pinnock's forceful personality. This is I think Cameron at her best, when the moment and the sitter take precedence over art history.

Lady Hawarden's full-length portrait of one of her daughters.
Lady Hawarden's full-length portrait of one of her daughters.

Lady Hawarden is often mentioned in the same breath as Cameron, but their styles could hardly be more different. Hawarden took her first photographs in 1857, initially with a stereoscopic camera, of landscapes. Some time later she began making stereoscopic portraits of her adolescent daughters, before moving on to a large format camera.

Most of the images by Hawarden on display here, of her adolescent daughters, were taken at the family residence at 5 Princes Gardens, South Kensington. Unlike Cameron, Hawarden didn't title her images, exhibiting them as "studies". She avoided close-ups, instead utilizing interiors as well as fabrics, backdrops and mirrors. While they hint at narratives they remain unresolved, a sophisticated set of games played by mother and daughters. The images have a dreamlike quality, and unlike Rejlander's images they have an improvised, freer feel, though paradoxically they also convey a feeling of being trapped by the expectations of class and gender.

As I make a final round, I hear somebody exclaiming in quick succession, "Oh look, it's Garibaldi! ...Ah, no, it's not".

And, no, it's not Garibaldi. It's Rejlander, in a pastiche portrait of Garibaldi.

The Italian hero had visited London in 1864, drawing crowds of over 250,000 people. Cameron, accompanied by Tennyson's daughter Edith, had joined them, eager to secure a portrait sitting with the great man. Never afraid of the grand gesture, Cameron knelt before him, stretching her hands, stained by chemicals, up towards him, asking him to sit for her. Garibaldi mistook her for a beggar and declined, leaving Cameron, according to Edith, heartbroken, so Rejlander stepped in, producing a consolation prize as a present.

This is a very much a minor work in the exhibition, but I think it says a lot about Rejlander, his warmth, sense of humor, generosity, playfulness--characteristics that helped form the alliance between the four.

Michael Diemar is a London-based collector and consultant. He is also editor-in-chief of The Classic, a new free magazine about classic photography. He is a long-time writer about the photography scene, writing extensively for several Scandinavian photography publications, as well as for the E-Photo Newsletter and I Photo Central.