Victorian Giants at The National Portrait Gallery April 2018

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As I walked across Piccadilly Square, I could not help noticing how alike the Odeon cinema is to a church albeit one not pointing east!

This exhibition is described by The National Portrait Gallery who are staging it between the 1’st of March and the 20’th May 2018 as follows …

“This major exhibition is the first to examine 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). Drawn from public and private collections internationally, the exhibition features some of the most breath-taking images in photographic history. Influenced by historical painting and frequently associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the four artists formed a bridge between the art of the past and the art of the future, standing as true giants in Victorian photography.

Featuring striking portraits of sitters such as Charles Darwin, Alice Liddell, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Thomas Carlyle, George Frederic Watts, Ellen Terry and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.”

What do the critics make of the show? Writing in The Guardian, Jonathan Jones says “This captivating show proves that the most exciting thing happening in Victorian art was photography … ” and goes on to praise Julia Margaret Cameron … “There is a sensitivity to the magic of being human in Cameron’s portraits that makes her the greatest British artist of her time” a view that many would surely contest yet seems to echo what the critic Walter Benjamin wrote in his short history of photography about this era which existed before the commercialisation of the medium. Lewis Carrol wrote of her in 1864, ‘Hers are all taken purposely out of focus … Some are very picturesque – some merely hideous – however, she talks of them as if they were triumphs in art”.

Jones emphasises the importance of women in this show; “Hawarden’s pictures of Victorian women have an intimacy that transcends time and a mystery that asserts the autonomy of her subjects. They are feminist, and gothic too, in their eerie atmosphere.

Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Gaby Wood is drawn to Hawarden describing her as “the greatest discovery in the exhibition is a thrillingly strange image by Hawarden, to my mind always the most intriguing photographer of the four.” Wood goes on to describe Lady Hawarden as a Scottish countess when in fact she was Irish as was her husband, Cornwallis Maude, 1st Earl de Montalt.

Of the four art photographers showing, two are women, Julia Margaret Cameron and Lady Clementina Hawarden, two are men, Lewis Carroll and Oscar Rejlander.

Yet what of my own response to the exhibition?

My viewing started with ordering the catalogue to see what it was about beforehand and read an essay about it. Certainly the pleasure of seeing such work comes from actually viewing the original artworks rather than seeing their reproductions so a catalogue does not pre-empt the exhibition rather prepares one for it.

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signage outside the National Portrait Gallery

 

The title of this exhibition does seem somewhat contentious if not ironical. The Victorian Giants when meaning the photographers exhibited, can be considered so in relation to photography yet some of their subjects such as Tennyson and Darwin fit the description much better. In regards to these photographers being the birth of art photography, this raises questions about art photography and who might have originated it; did art photography start in England? What about Fox Talbot who is often considered both artist and scientist. In fact, the catalogue contains an essay about art photography (pp 98 to 104). This deals with the legitimacy of photography as art as reflected in writings of the time; of interest here is Alfred Wall who suggested that as the art establishment formally rejected photography as art by regarding it as a mechanical medium then it could well be time to think of photography in a different way although this did not really come about until later in the twentieth century and the birth of Modernist photography. Certainly Reijlander had interesting points to make about art and photography as in his “Apology for Photography” and such comments certainly mark the beginnings of “art photography”.
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the downcast look can be seen in the photograph behind the counter

Waiting to buy a ticket for entrance to the exhibition, I notice a photograph which is interesting in the way the subject has been posed. She neither looks at the camera or upwards but downwards without being downcast. An original posture that might well be frowned at these days.
Exhibition suggests art photography was not able to get underway until the 1850’s and the invention of the wet-plate collodion process. The exhibition shows an excellent video of the way this technology works. However not everything is the same in the film as then since modelling lights are being used for the session thereby greatly reducing the length of time the subject needs to be still and UV light being projected from a lamp to greatly speed up the developing of the print which formerly would have happened under daylight. There are also exhibits of original glass negatives from this time which are illuminated from behind by pressing a button.
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lunch beforehand in the restaurant

Collodion photography to which this exhibition bares testament allowed a different approach to photography; as Prodger writes “Speed began to separate photography from every other medium that had come before it. Not the speed to capture galloping horses or birds in flight – that would come later – but the simple ability to record discrete episodes of time.” (p.89) Exposure time could be of a second or less when before it was a matter of  seconds.
There is a sensitivity to these prints that one tends not to see in contemporary photography; the print material renders a softer image.
Initially, on entering the gallery, a brief show of the four photographers involved in this exhibition. It is not easy to differentiate between their styles although Cameron’s work is often characterised by dark backgrounds rather than the more formal white ones. Rejlander had mastered the technique better than the others whom he taught; this mastery is visible in the high level of detail in his prints.
Photographs of Tennyson and Darwin by both Cameron and Rejlander are interesting to view side by side although they do not reveal great differences of approach.
The suggestion that Carroll may have been a paedophile is not easy to resolve. His relationship with the two Liddell girls appears innocent enough. Likewise although his Andromeda photograph of Kate Terry suggests bondage, Rejlander has made a similar image which was inspired by a Rembrandt painting.
Rejlander also photographed nude women which to Victorian eyes was not as acceptable as painting them! However Rejlander interestingly pointed out that his photographs were accurate in regard to perspective where often painters were not. Photographers making documents for artists is a practice that continues to this day.
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view from the NPG gallery restaurant

One characteristic of these photographs is the use of allegory. This is not unknown in contemporary photography and still an accepted practice yet most photography nowadays more strongly denotes its’ subject. Many of the subjects do not look directly at the camera but to one side.
Photographs like The Chimney Sweep by Rejlander point towards social documentary rather than just portraiture but the photographic process was not yet suitable for street photography.
Art-must-assist-Photography-Putto-as-Allegory-of-Painting

“Art must assist photography!” by Oscar Gustav Rejlander (under licence from The National Portrait Gallery)
albumen print, 1856

Most of the photographs are portraits of females. Is there a reason for this? Perhaps it is a reflection of the then presiding view of photography as only a “handmaiden” of the Arts with women likewise being regarded of secondary importance.
Conceptually, this meant allowing the particular to stand for the universal,  and accepting that photographs, as specific and as detailed as they might be, can stand for something beyond what is actually recorded.
This was an enjoyable exhibition. Apart from visiting it with an old friend, I ran in to another old friend while in the gallery. These images have a beauty perhaps in their relative simplicity though the manner of their making involved a complex process not easy to conduct.
Of incidental interest was The Wilson Centre of Photography whose UK division supplied a number of the prints; more here from the Daily Telegraph.

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Victorian Giants at The National Portrait Gallery April 2018

    • Hi James Thanks as always for your response. At a time when more photographs are made in a day than were made in the entire nineteenth century, I have no objection to revisiting old chestnuts! I expect some of the Julia Margaret Cameron’s on loan from the V&A Museum might look familiar to me yet the National Portrait Gallery has accessed work from no less than 16 other institutions including ones in France and Germany as well as the United States. I doubt I shall be complaining about “having bought the T shirt!” to say nothing of the fact that some of these old chestnuts are worth seeing again. I shall be trying to put my finger on why they are so appealing … surely they do not have an “aura” or perhaps they do but an aura that needs to be questioned.

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