Culture Magazine

Review: Victorian Giants

By Kirsty Stonell Walker @boccabaciata
I love the National Portrait Gallery.  I don't think I have ever been to an exhibition there that I didn't adore or that they didn't do exceptionally well.  I still have really fond memories of the Millais Portraits exhibition they did many years ago.  They also do really good catalogues.  Anyway, enough of this swooning - to business! or rather, here is my review of the Victorian Giants exhibition that opened yesterday and runs until 20th May...
Review: Victorian Giants
I was lucky enough to be invited to the press review and so spent time on Wednesday up in snowy London seeing how you could bring together the careers of Julia Margaret Cameron, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Rejlander and Clementina Hawarden, all pioneers in 'art photography' in the middle of the 19th century.  As we have discussed before, I have come across the work of all of them, but only written about Cameron, Carroll and Rejlander.  My knowledge of Hawarden was limited to 'she was a bit posh and did girls in sunlit rooms, like an arty Victorian version of Flowers in the Attic'.  I was delighted to learn more...

Review: Victorian Giants

Clementina Maude (1862-3) Clementina Hawarden

Short-lived Scottish aristo, Lady Clementina Hawarden didn't (in my mind, anyhow) seem to have a great deal in common with, for example, Lewis Carroll, but the genius of this exhibition is that they  not only show who bought whose photographs, but also put images together so you end up going 'Oh, I see...'

Review: Victorian Giants

Kate Terry as Andromeda (1865) Lewis Carroll

There are rather a lot of 'oh, I see' moments in the show, not only with what they show, but also if you bring your own knowledge to bear on what you see.  Hawarden's captive girls, caught by privilege and isolated by their gender, are clearly reflected in images of captive princesses, offered up as sacrifice.  

Review: Victorian Giants

Lord Elcho and Son (1860) Oscar Rejlander

Review: Victorian Giants

Detail of Tennyson and son, from a photograph of the Marshall Family (1857) Lewis Carroll

The very dignified image of Lord Elcho and his little poppet of a son reminded me of that weird image of Tennyson looking very wary with Hallam on his knee, taken by Lewis Carroll.  They couldn't be more different in tone even though it is essentially the same image.  You begin to learn about the person behind the camera by what they think is okay to show in front of it.  I really think Carroll lacked the ability to distinguish emotional responses in his subjects because there are moments where you wonder why he chose that picture, that expression or response from his subject, but that also is what makes him an interesting chap, if a little controversial.

Review: Victorian Giants

Alice Liddell (1870) Lewis Carroll

If you were hoping for a discussion about Carroll's motivation in his photography of children, this is not the exhibition for you, but then I'm guessing we're all grown ups and don't need that.  In fact, I found the NPG have done much to reintegrate Carroll's work into the mainstream and when seen in the context of others, he doesn't seem so weird. So when you take this...

Review: Victorian Giants

The Beggar Maid (1858) Lewis Carroll

in the same breath as this...

Review: Victorian Giants

Beggar Boy (1862) Oscar Rejlander

It just seems part of the same 'poverty as art' theme, whilst being equal parts conscience-raising and distasteful is not sexual.  Even when Carroll is being a bit 'dodgy', seen within the context of what others were doing, it loses some of its impact, for example...

Review: Victorian Giants

Xie Kitchin Asleep on a Sofa (1873) Lewis Carroll

Review: Victorian Giants

Charlotte Norman (1863) Oscar Rejlander

It's all about context and what the others were doing at the same time.  I suppose, if I had a criticism, then Hawarden, with her beautiful girl-butterflies trapped in one room, shows the least range and doesn't participate in the sharing of subjects to the same extent the others do.  It's wonderful to see Lewis Carroll's images of Tennyson beside Rejlander's and Cameron's, not to mention the sharing of John Herschel and Charles Darwin between photographers.  When grouped like that you can enjoy the precision of Carroll, the dream-like qualities of Cameron and Rejlander's depth and wit.  Actually for me, Oscar Rejlander came out of this as a bit of a star.  Carroll lacks humor in his work but Rejlander has it in buckets, often straying into absurdity but always very well done.  He can also match Cameron for sheer beauty which made the part of the gallery with their photographs together an utter delight.

Review: Victorian Giants

Unidentified Woman (1863-6) Oscar Rejlander

Review: Victorian Giants

Mountain Nymph, Sweet Liberty (1866) Julia Margaret Cameron

So in conclusion, this is gorgeous.  The way all four photographers moved in and out of each others lives is fascinating and Oscar Rejlander should be a national Swede-y hero for what he has brought to our photography heritage.  Boobs, for one thing.

Review: Victorian Giants

Female Draped Artist Study (1857) Oscar Rejlander

Since the NPG acquired the Rejlander album last year, this exhibition has always been on the cards and in a way I wish they had done a one-man show but it is a wonderful blend of the familiar and the obscure, the great and the nude of Victorian society and I can't recommend it enough.  I'll end on my favorite image, which looks like a 1940s movie poster...

Review: Victorian Giants

John and Minnie Constable, Looking into the Fire, All Hallow's Eve (1860-6)

God bless you, Rejlander, that's delicious.
Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography is on until May and further information can be found here.

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