phone mail2 facebook twitter play whatsapp
Advertisement

Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography

18 April 2018 Jade Jenkinson

There is something surreally haunting about The National Portrait Gallery’s latest exhibition, Victorian Giants, with its collection of bespeckled and sepia tinted portraits of subjects that appear to have walked straight out of a Pre-Raphaelite painting. This crossover of art and life infuses the exhibition with a tangible energy, marking a point in which photographic practice was experiencing a transcendental evolution.

In 1839, photography emerged as a means to record information and capture likeness, yet as technique and technology progressed, it began to be regarded as an art form in itself. The ‘Victorian Giants’: Julia Margaret Cameron, Lady Clementina Hawarden, Lewis Caroll and Oscar Rejlander, produced works that revealed photography to be a medium capable of expressing creativity, subjectivity and emotion. The work of Julia Margaret Cameron is certainly the star of the exhibition. Her portraits of young women surpass conservative bourgeois tradition and infuse the sitters with enigmatic mystery, using chiaroscuro-like tonalities. Most haunting are those images such as Mrs Herbert Duckworth (1867), whose image, eyes downcast and face half in shadow, is far more beguiling than the matter of fact title suggests. Although Cameron was never critically renowned, the unique and stylized aesthetics of her work have experienced a revival in recent times. Her portraits of notable figures are well worth seeing, unmatched in inimitable charm in the photographic world.

Mountain Nymph, Sweet Liberty by Julia Margaret Cameron,  1866 (c) Wilson Centre for Photography

Lady Clementina Hawarden was also a photographic pioneer who, despite her title, pushed the boundaries with her photos of young women, often in provocative poses. Like Cameron, she was also limited in her choice of subject and photographed her daughters in domestic settings. Yet, through these relatively simple subjects, she was able to convey great emotional depth through use of light, colour and props. The exhibition particularly highlights her use of mirrors, a potent symbol of fractured identity and the darker side to reality.
The presence of Lewis Carroll’s photographic work brings into view the diverse array of literary and scientific figures that played a part in photography’s rising status. The exhibition also functions as a who’s who of the Victorian era, with portraits of prominent figures such as Charles Darwin, Alfred Lord Tennyson and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. A notable figure amongst Carroll’s portraits is the famous Alice Liddell, the inspiration for the Alice in Wonderland books. Alice’s small, pert features and commanded expression suggest wisdom beyond her years and reveal the photographer’s delight in being able to capture the fleeting state of childhood so poignantly through the lens.

Photographic Study (Clementina Maude) by Clementina Hawarden, early 1860s (c) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In contrast to the domestic portraiture, Oscar Rejlander’s work such as The Two Ways of Life (1857) depicts his ambition for photography at the time. This single image combined a montage of thirty-two separate photographs to create a moralistic scene. The intricate detail and range of characters display his attempt to rival historical and biblical painting.
In correlation with its subject, the exhibition space is divided into album-like sections. The aesthetic is clean and bright, and classical music plays soothingly in the background, adding a feeling of evocative reverie as you enter. Interactive displays and microscopic glasses allow the viewer to get a closer look at the works, whilst informative videos highlight the labour and the finely nuanced processes that lay behind creating a successful print.
Although the surreal, two-tone photographs may at first seem widely out of place in todays vibrant, technologically sophisticated society, when you step away from the bustling Trafalgar Square, and enter the cool, serene atmosphere of the exhibition, you can really appreciate the beauty in the simplicity and feeling of these works. For they capture a moment in time, so far away, and at the same time so seemingly close, as the viewer becomes immersed into the stories and lives of the enigmatic sitters.
 

Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography is at the National Portrait Gallery 1 March – 20 May 2018.

 
 
Advertisement

Most popular

A Guide to Feminist London

A Guide to Feminist London

To celebrate International Women's Day, here are some places from which women can draw female inspiration and strength
Advertisement
London’s Best Alternative Festivals 2019

London’s Best Alternative Festivals 2019

Proving music festivals don't need to hog all the limelight
Advertisement
The Best Poetry and Spoken Word Events in London

The Best Poetry and Spoken Word Events in London

Whether you're performing on stage or watching your faves, we've got the lowdown on the best places for a poetry fix
Advertisement
Win cocktails for two at the Gherkin!

Win cocktails for two at the Gherkin!

Grab a friend, lover or your mother and head up to the very top of a London landmark to do some drinking in style.
Advertisement
Theatre Top Picks of the Week

Theatre Top Picks of the Week

Where to get the best of new theatre openings in London
London’s Best Florists

London’s Best Florists

For the coolest, most creative, luxurious blooms around
Museum and Gallery Top Picks of the Week

Museum and Gallery Top Picks of the Week

The place to come for all the best current exhibitions in London...
Win a £50 bar tab at Number 90’s 5th birthday party!

Win a £50 bar tab at Number 90’s 5th birthday party!

Win a boozy bonanza at one of the biggest parties of the year
Top Five Museums and Exhibitions Combining Science and Art

Top Five Museums and Exhibitions Combining Science and Art

When science and art meet they can illuminate the other with a light brighter than a thousand bunsen burners
Win a BFI Stanley Kubrick prize bundle!

Win a BFI Stanley Kubrick prize bundle!

Join the BFI as they celebrate the groundbreaking, boundary-pushing cinema of cult film director Stanley Kubrick.

Your inbox deserves a little culture!!

Advertisement