Lady Hawarden: the secret life of the photographer who captured the sensuality of the Victorian era

Lady Hawarden: The Secret Life of the Photographer Who Captured Victorian Teen Sexiness
Lady Hawarden: The Secret Life of the Photographer Who Captured Victorian Teen Sexiness

The cinema, perhaps favored by morbidity, generated the idea that photography during the Victorian era focused on images of deceased people, posing as if they were still alive, so that their relatives would remember them. This is a partial, anecdotal clipping, which of course does not represent what was really happening: the photos were taking their first steps in the world of fine art.

The Victorian era (1837-1901) was a revolution in many aspects – hand in hand with the industrial one – in literature and the arts, but above all in photography. The production of less expensive methods, opened a world to the growing middle classes -but especially to the upper classes- that allowed more and more people to have their own cameras or access studios to immortalize their moments. For example, by 1861, Britain had more than 2,000 full-time photographers.

On the other hand, this access -as is happening today with the democratization of technologies- allowed many people to playfully investigate the photographic process beyond family portraits, and this generated the possibility of new perspectives. The time of the innovators.

Photos of Oscar Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson
Photos of Oscar Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson

However, not all the artists behind the cameras had the same recognition. Legitimization spaces were created by men for men, so for a long time only Swedish names were rescued as pioneers Oscar Rejlander (precursor of the artistic and the photomontage that today is achieved with Photoshop), the also Pre-Raphaelite painter Henry Peach Robinson Y Lewis Carrollbest remembered for being the author of Alice in Wonderland.

On the other hand, it was not easy -neither in his time, nor later- to Julia Margaret Cameron Y Lady Clementina Hawardenof whom it was 200 years since his birth, and who produced a very unique body of work, which was not only ahead of his colleagues, but also -from his aesthetic proposal- to icons of modern feminist painting.

The case of Lady Hawarden reveals how a double historical shift was made. On the one hand, that of the patriarchal system that led her to invisibility for decades and, at the same time, that confined her while she was alive, so her production was “homemade”, with her daughters as models, with images that went to stop for decades to the family album until its discovery in the seventies.

(Victoria & Albert Museum)
(Victoria & Albert Museum)

Clementina Elphinstone Fleeming was born in Dunbartonshire on June 1, 1822, the daughter of a British viscount and admiral and a Spanish mother; she at 23 years old she was already married to Maude Cornwallisconservative politician and Count of Montalt, who added to his own inherited fortune that of his father-in-law when he died in 1856.

A year later, the couple settled in Dundrum, the Hawarden’s Irish property, where she began her production with a stereoscopic camera in which she made images, above all, of exteriors; Until then, nothing very different from what her contemporaries produced: family photos outdoors.

By 1859, the family shuttled between Irish Dundrum and London, and by ’62, Lady Hawarden converted the entire first floor of the capital home estate into her own studio. It is here, where her images acquire a character of technical sophistication, especially from the arrangement of mirrors to take advantage of sunlight, as well as in the composition. There we go.

(Victoria & Albert Museum)
(Victoria & Albert Museum)

As an expression that “replaces” the pictorial arts a few decades before Hawarden began his production, it is interesting to see how the two dialogued during the Victorian era, a moment that was marked by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhoodwho accused mannerist academic art of lacking meaning, of empty virtuosity, and that with referents such as John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti Y William Holman Huntamong others, who were looking for a “return to the sources”, with pieces with many details and colorful, as was the case with Italian and Flemish artists before Raphael Sanzio.

In male photography, connections can be made, even direct ones, with the Brotherhood from a predisposition to the scenographic pose of a very marked dramatic style, as in Rejlandera construction -interiors and exteriors- more saturated, baroque at one point, like the Peach Robinson or, in the case of Carrollhis photographic pieces are not in themselves proposals that have the axis in beauty, there is no aesthetic bet that seeks to break or continue with traditions, but rather its importance is due to the association and stories about an alleged pedophilia related to his work literature that met over time.

For its part, Julia Margaret Cameron She was an excellent portraitist, she began to work after the ’40s and would have learned from Rejlander, but her proposal was that of a clear academic, of figuration between Renaissance and sacred, who – virtuosity aside – focused on the portrait that, in order to After all, it had already been one of the legs of artistic representation for centuries.

Portraits of Julia Margaret Cameron
Portraits of Julia Margaret Cameron

Lady Hawarden, on the other hand, carried out a management of space similar to that of the Dutch painters of the 17th century such as Gerard ter Borch, Frans van Mieris and of course, Vermeerand more if we take into account that his photographs were taken indoors.

Unlike Rejlander and Peach Robinson, many of his creations are stripped back, compositions with the minimum elements, which are repeated in one and the other: gauze curtains, a mirror, a chest of drawers, a Mudejar piece of furniture, with a staging that is also quite clean, on a balcony or, at most, with a characteristic starry wallpaper in the background.

Hawarden recreated the world of women, girls and adolescents, even before the impressionist Mary Cassatt, with a big difference such as the absence of the figure of the mother. And beyond the set design, it is in the proposal where his work reaches the status of avant-garde.

(Victoria & Albert Museum)
(Victoria & Albert Museum)

There is a whole series of images with three of the eight children he had – Isabella Grace, Clementina and Florence Elizabeth, the eldest – alone or as a couple, often disguised performing performances, which give off an unprecedented sensuality for the time, from poses romantic, in an exploration that speaks to us about loneliness and intimacy, about metaphorical daydreams? like a state of conscious lethargy, with looks and hands that go beyond the fortuitous. There is a desire that does not progress, a despair that does not reach, a cry that retreats before the conditioning of a tyrannical society.

In that sense, Hawarden’s work is not only more daring, to put it in a modest term, but also goes far beyond that of any of his peers.

The fact of capturing his teenage daughters is not minor either. In the Victorian era, being a boy was not an advantage, even a disadvantage, for the lower classes, as portrayed in Victorian literature. Charles Dickens. Those who grew up in wealthy homes and grew up without suffering child exploitation, had the possibility of studying in boarding schools or having tutors, so their presence could be ghostly, while adolescence -so non-existent that the term only appeared in the late nineteenth century- it was seen as a transition period into adulthood, where they could really contribute to society.

Hawarden’s photos put the spotlight on the coming-of-age as no one had done, and they would mark a trend that would grow at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th, again, thanks to the increasing accessibility of cameras.

(Victoria & Albert Museum)
(Victoria & Albert Museum)

In his short life, Hawarden achieved some recognition when he won silver medals at the 1863 and 1864 Photographic Society exhibitions, and received praise from Rejlander and Carroll, who purchased five pictures that are now in the Gernsheim Collection, purchased at the 1973 by the University of Texas.

The artist died in ’65 due to health problems, it is believed, contracted by handling toxics in the printing process, but her name quickly disappeared from the scene, even when the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) held an exhibition in commemoration of the centenary of the invention of photography, in 1939, there was not a single one of his images.

(Victoria & Albert Museum)
(Victoria & Albert Museum)

The exhibition was visited by Hawarden’s granddaughter, Lady Clementina Tottenham, who, disappointed to find nothing of her grandmother on display, donated 775 snapshots to the space, about 90% of her life’s work. Unfortunately, most were ripped somewhat roughly from the albums, so you can see cuts on the edges.

The donation did not mean an immediate enhancement, rather it had to wait several more decades, until the controversial painter and photographer Graham Ovenden (sentenced for child abuse in 2013, his works were removed from museums and many burned by court order) edited the book Clementine Lady Hawarden in 1974. They then appeared in the 1984 V&A traveling exhibition, The golden age of British photography, 1839-1900and were shown at the V&A in 1999 in Clementina, Lady Hawarden: Studies from Life: 1857-1864. Nowadays, all can be seen online.

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