REVIEW: Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography

Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography is a superb examination of the work of four Victorian artists: Lewis Carroll, Julia Margaret Cameron, Oscar Rejlander and Clementina Hawarden, which highlights their enterprise with the growing medium and its emotive power.

By Catherine de Guise

What: Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography
An exhibition examining the relationship between four ground-breaking Victorian artists: Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–79), Lewis Carroll (1832–98), Lady Clementina Hawarden (1822–65) and Oscar Rejlander (1813–75).
Dates: 1 Mar 2018 – 20 Mar 2018
Where: Porter Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, London, WC2H 0HE

A veiled woman with her hands clasped in prayer; her expression conveys the burden of the knowledge of the suffering in her son’s future. It’s an easily recognisable scene; so familiar due to the countless times it has been the subject of a work of art. Yet this image differs from other portrayals of Mary, despite being based on Sassoferrato’s The Virgin in Prayer. Mary is transformed from the idealised figure depicted through painting or sculpture into a real person captured through a photograph.

The ability of photography to capture human life and emotion, and to show the universal quality of the elements of our existence in a moving and realistic way is demonstrated wonderfully in the National Portrait Gallery’s Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography. The exhibition brings together the photographs of Lewis Carroll, Julia Margaret Cameron, Oscar Rejlander and Clementina Hawarden. All four are linked, in particular by the fact that Carroll, Cameron and Hawarden were mentored in the art of photography by Rejlander. The exhibition highlights how their interactions and exchanging ideas shaped the future of photography, realising its potential and finding its place in art.

Photography as an art form was not met with wholehearted support, many believing it could never be as creative as painting. A viewer beholding Rejlander’s Two Ways of Life is certainly persuaded to see that this is not the case. It is an adventurous piece, combining around thirty-two negatives and arranging the subjects in each of these in the right way to ensure the final result would come out realistically. The result is a piece that is immensely fun, with so many different elements to consider as Rejlander contrasts the immoral life with the virtuous.

The nudes on the side of virtue caused some offence due to being too realistic, people preferring the idealised version of the female form that was popular in paintings. The realism of photography was another reason for some disliking it, while for others such as Rejlander the value of photography lay in its accuracy. He took nude studies to sell to artists for them to depict the body more realistically.

Rejlander seems to have enjoyed revealing the deficiencies of painters: to demonstrate the mistakes they had made in perspective and scale Rejlander took photographs based of famous paintings, such as his photographic version of Sassoferrato’s work. The comparisons allow the viewer to consider the pros and cons of each as an art form, as well as indicating the extent to which woman has been shaped by men.

The four photographers realised how useful the precision of photography could be in allowing for an exploration of the emotional expressiveness of humanity. This was also realised by Darwin, who commissioned Rejlander to take photographs showing different human expressions for his book The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Rejlander himself posed for several emotions such as anger, surprise and disgust and the results on display are wonderfully comic exaggerations of such emotion.

Showing photography’s ability to present more subtle and nuanced emotion is Rejalnder’s portrait of Tennyson, which presents him gazing intensely in a manner that evokes his poem Ulyssess. To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. Next to this photograph is Cameron’s portrait of Tennyson, which may have been a response to Rejlander’s. Indeed it portrays him in a contrasting light, both in being grey-toned and in capturing him in a more turbulent and melancholic mood, evoking a rather different poem. So sad, so strange, the days that are no more.

Cameron’s portrait of actress Ellen Terry entitled Sadness proves wrong the critics who believed photography was only useful to capture detail, and could not convey broader themes. The photo has a heart wrenching beauty that captures the emotion we are so well acquainted with. The emotive quality of the portrait almost makes me want to lean against a wall and clutch at my necklace with abject despondency. It is a moving, relatable and genuine portrayal of sadness, bringing home the power of photography.

The ability of photography to capture larger concepts is also shown in the photography of children, which is highlighted by the exhibition. They were popular subjects at the time, partly, the exhibition suggests, due to contemporary ideas about children. It was an increasingly popular belief that one is born a blank slate and it was therefore the duty of society to ensure the moral development of children through teaching them proper values and respectable behaviour. Children were also seen as virtuous in their innocence, and these themes come across clearly in photos such as Rejlander’s of two sisters praying, radiating trusting purity and hope for the future.

The exhibition is a masterful homage to the growth of photography and to the four photographers who are shown to have nurtured it and explored the ways in which it could develop best, in a manner similar to how the Victorians thought about how to bring up children. It reveals their sense of adventure and enterprise, experimenting with different roles and purposes of photography. Most of all it shows the power of photography to captivate and to force us to consider things differently as we take in scenes made more engaging by their proximity to our own lives.

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