Victorian Giants

The Birth of Art Photography

The National Portrait Gallery’s latest major exhibition offers something different to the usual portraits visitors expect to see. The concept of “art” is difficult to define and everyone has their own opinion as to what falls into that category. Victorian Giants introduces the idea of art photography by looking back at the four most celebrated figures who changed attitudes and artistic approaches in relation to photography, art and portraiture, which has influenced artists ever since.

Endorsed by HRH the Duchess of Cambridge, a patron of the gallery and an aspiring amateur photographer, this exhibition contains a hundred or so images taken during the latter half of the 19th century when a new developing technique was underway. Gone were the days of unwieldy Daguerreotype processes, replaced by wet-plate collodion, allowing photographers to take faster, sharper and more versatile shots.

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Moutain Nymph, Sweet Liberty (Mrs Keene) by Cameron (1866)

A single photograph stands alone at the entrance to the exhibition, enticing visitors in with a suggestion of the portraits to come. Although not much is known about the sitter, Mountain Nymph, Sweet Liberty (1866) reveals the emotional and powerful charge of Julia Margaret Cameron’s (one of the four photographers) style of portraiture.

As the exhibition reveals, the four photographers were often inspired by various literature and attempted to capture fictional scenes or characters in their work. In this instance, the title of the photograph was taken directly from a John Milton poem, L’Allegro (1645). “Come, and trip it as ye go / On the light fantastick toe, / And in thy right hand lead with thee, / The Mountain Nymph, sweet Liberty.”

 

Of the four photographers, only one was a professional. Oscar Gustaf Rejlander (1813-75) was a Swedish émigré who came to England and set up a photographic studio in Wolverhampton in 1856. He later moved to London in 1863 where he learnt the new process of developing photographs, wet-plate collodion. This involved pouring collodion onto a glass plate and exposing it to light, via a camera, to capture the desired image.

Rejlander was known for his expressive portraits, often experimenting in order to perfect his photographs. He became an expert at photomontage in which two or more negatives were combined together to create a completely new image. By this method, people could be added into or removed from photographs as necessary or two very different scenes merged to form an impossible landscape.

The National Portrait Gallery has recently acquired a photo-album of previously unseen portraits, many of which are included in this exhibition. The head of photographs, Dr Phillip Prodger told Art Fund, “The Rejlander album becomes one of the jewels in the crown of our already impressive collection of 19th-century photographs.” It changed the way Victorian photography was perceived, particularly in relation to the extent of experimentation with a comparatively new medium.

Unlike the stiff, wooden portraits associated with the Victorian era, Rejlander’s photographs were life-like and natural. He captured sitters in natural, sensitive poses, such as staring into space deep in thought – a fleeting, almost private moment. It was this evanescent style that inspired the remaining three photographers that make up the Victorian Giants: Julia Margaret Cameron, Clementina Hawarden, and Lewis Carroll.

 

Lewis Carroll is by far the most famous of the group due to his popular children’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Although often working under his pseudonym, the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-98) was a lecturer in mathematics at Christ Church, Oxford University and picked up photography as a hobby in approximately 1856. Preferring to work outdoors, many of his portraits are situated in gardens where natural elements frame the model or sitters.

Carroll specialised in pictures of children, which make up half of all his known photographs. Understanding the complexities of working with youngsters, Carroll ensured a parent or governess was always present at the photoshoot. To entertain the children, he often initiated a game of dress up in which they would pretend to be heroes from works of fiction. An example is Captive Princess where one of his favourite models Alexandra “Xie” Kitchin (1864-1925), a daughter of a work colleague, poses as the princess, complete with crown, from the Golden Legend, awaiting rescue from the heroic St George.

Being a mathematician, Carroll was interested in the preciseness of angles and lighting, lining up additional light sources to achieve a particular size and direction of the shadow. It is clear from the photographs in this exhibition that Carroll put a lot of thought into his portraits in order to produce the best possible outcome.

 

Refreshingly, particularly for the era, the other two photographers are female. Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79), originally from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) took up photography during her 40s on the Isle of Wight after receiving a camera from her daughter in 1863. As seen in the first photograph of the exhibition, Cameron was particularly interested in Arthurian, legendary or heroic themes and other allegorical subjects.

Cameron usually used family members, friends and the local villagers as her models, however, she also took photographs of well-known people. Her portraits have been described as Rembrandt-like due to the dark, natural backgrounds and the depthless focus on the sitter’s face. Examples of this technique are the portraits of Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), a distinguished historian, and the astronomer J.F.W. Herschel (1792-1871). Both men have an ethereal appearance, their hair and facial features emerging from the darkness.

 

Last but not least, the fourth photographer is Clementina Maude, Viscountess Hawarden (1822-65) who had a short but prolific stint as a photographer. Picking up the camera just under a decade before she died at 42 from pneumonia, Hawarden produced around 800 photographs, the majority involving her eight children.

Unlike the others, Hawarden photographed full-length figures more often than head and shoulder portraits, creating emotional scenes. Rather than focusing on the faces of her models, Hawarden thought carefully about the overall composition, draping fabrics to create a background, or employing props such as furniture.

A theme that initially tied the photographers together is childhood innocence. Victorians viewed children as pure souls who had not yet been affected by the corrupt realities of life. Their presence in artworks portrays the raw, unsullied youth that eventually gets lost as they approach adulthood, which makes the viewer want to care for and protect them from the rest of the world.

Photographing children was not an easy feat, therefore, these images display the skill and patience each of the four photographers possessed. Although children are still not easy models to work with today due to their inclination to fidget, capturing a child’s portrait in the late 1800s was much more difficult. Early cameras had long exposure times, requiring the sitter to remain completely still for at least 30 seconds. The slightest movement could ruin the picture.

Lewis Carroll had plenty of opportunities to photograph children due to his close friendship with the Liddell family. Henry Liddell (1811-98) was the dean of Christ Church, Oxford, where Carroll was employed and was a great supporter of his photographic experimentation. The Liddell family consisted of four children, the fourth being Alice (1852-1934) who inspired Carroll to write Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass (1871).

Although Alice Liddell was a favourite of Carroll, only twelve solo photographs exist, which is a mere handful compared with Xie Kitchin of whom he produced 45 portraits. Carroll also produced several photographs of Alice’s sister Ina and several with more than one Liddell child present. It is unknown why Carroll eventually stopped spending time with the family and only one photograph of Alice is thought to exist from the period after the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Carroll was not the only photographer to use Alice as a model, Julia Margaret Cameron made several portraits a few years later. The example displayed at the National Portrait Gallery is a profile shot of the 21-year-old Alice, which shows the physical changes from a cropped-haired little girl to a young adult with long, flowing locks. This photograph was titled Aletheia (1872), which is Greek for true or faithful.

Although the four photographers never collaborated as a group, they often photographed the same sitters, including a few famous faces. Rejlander, Cameron and Carroll produced photographs of the Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92) and his sons Hallam and Lionel. The Tennyson family lived near Cameron on the Isle of Wight allowing for plenty of photographic opportunities. Rejlander, when tutoring Cameron, took the opportunity to visit the family, and Carroll came across them whilst on holiday in the Lake District.

Cameron produced the greater amount of photographs of Tennyson and experimented with style, pose and light. The poet was impressed with her skills and used one profile shot, titled The Dirty Monk (1865) as the frontispiece for a publication of his poems, Idylls of the King (1885).

Rejlander and Cameron were also responsible for taking photographs of Charles Darwin. Once again, the connection between Cameron and Darwin was made whilst on the Isle of Wight, however, Darwin preferred the style of Rejlander. Darwin often used photographs for research purposes when writing his books, particularly after discovering the way the camera could capture emotions and expressions. These were a great visual aid for his writing, and Darwin also hired Rejlander to contribute images to illustrate The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872).

“I am now rich in photographs, for I have found in London Rejlander, who for years has had a passion for photographing all sorts of chance expressions, exhibited on various occassions … instantaneously.” – Darwin, 1871

Portraits of family, friends and famous people allowed the photographers to experiment with the camera, location, light and so forth, however, they took things a step further by controlling the scene they were photographing. It is at this moment the argument that photography is art becomes strongest. In a similar way to painters, photographers have to think about composition, tones and shades and the message behind the overall image.

Occasionally, the four artists dressed their sitters as characters from literature or mythology, for example, Xie Kitchin as the Captive Princess and Tennyson as The Dirty Monk. In other photographs, models were positioned carefully to depict a particular scene, often replicating a well-known painting. A small number of the images displayed as part of Victorian Giants have been based on existing artworks. Some are loosely inspired by them, whereas, others closely resemble the exact portrait.

An example of a photograph based on a painting is Non Angeli sed Angli (1857) taken by Rejlander. It is a pastiche of Raphael’s cherubs in the Sistine Madonna. The two children pose in the exact same position, head on their hands, looking both innocent and mischievous at the same time.

The reason for making pastiches or reinterpretations of historic paintings was to prove to those who considered photography a tool rather than a visual art that photographs could do anything painting could do. Although they could not recreate brushstrokes, the composition, emotion and tone of the image could be produced equally as well with a camera as with a paint brush.

Carroll’s pastiche of Rembrandt’s Andromeda (1630) shows the actress Elizabeth “Kate” Terry chained to the rocks awaiting rescue from the sea monster by her future husband and hero Perseus. In this instance, the photograph is only loosely based on the painting, the position of the model, clothing and backdrop being completely different. Rejlander’s The Virgin in Prayer (1857), however, is a much closer representation of Sassoferrato’s painting of the same name. Rejlander has restaged the painting as closely as possible and, although the camera could not yet capture colour, the photograph is a very close approximation.

Rejlander’s most impressive reinterpretation of an artwork is his partial pastiche of  Guido Reni’s Salome with the Head of St John the Baptist (1638-9). Focusing only on the head on a charger, Rejlander produced a powerful likeness of the Baroque painting. As recorded in the new testament, Salome requested and received the head of St John on a platter. Missing from the photograph is Salome holding her prize, however, Rejlander’s biographer believed he intended to use this image as the centrepiece of a larger picture made up of a variety of photographic elements. Unfortunately, Rejlander never got the opportunity to complete this but there are a couple of examples at the National Portrait Gallery of Rejlander’s combination photographs, including one made up of at least 32 separate negatives.

Victorian Giants is both a demonstration of photography as a visual art and a celebration of the development of the camera. Included in the exhibition is a four-minute film demonstrating the nineteenth-century technique of printing photographs using wet-collodion glass-plate negatives and albumen paper.

Although it is still a matter of opinion, the National Portrait Gallery strongly expresses the view that photography belongs under the category of visual art. None of the photographs exhibited is simply a resource for other outcomes and can exist and be displayed in their own right. Some, particularly the innocent photographs of children, are extremely beautiful and full of emotion. They look equally as good framed on a wall as a hand-painted version would.

Some pictures visitors may not care for as much, but it is interesting to see the innovative methods these four photographers experimented with during a time when new technology was only just developing. Compared with what the camera can do today, these photographs feel much more precious than any modern photographer’s work.

Closing on 20th May 2018, Victorian Giants is open daily from 10 am until 6 pm. Tickets cost £10 or £8.50 for visitors over the age of 60. Members and patrons may visit the exhibition for free and National Art Pass Holders receive a 50% discount.

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Fairy-Truths

A recent exhibition at the V&A Museum of Childhood displayed a range of photographs recreating some of the world’s most famous fairytales. Sonya Hurtado, a Spanish freelance photographer, uses child models as the focal points of her surreal art work, thus her simply-titled series of work, Tales, is rather in-keeping with the rest of the museum’s collection.

Tales is made up of twelve images in which Hurtado explores the imaginary world of childhood. Despite the happy, carefree demeanour society likes to believe children have, they are often victims of isolation, fear and despair. This display is not for children, but about children. It tries to reveal to the average adult the complexity of a child’s mind and their confusing emotions.

Using fairytales as the subject matter conveys a sense of innocence with an underlying darkness. These tales were not always the “happily-ever-after” stories children are told today; many originate from disturbing, violent backgrounds that would never get approval from publishers of juvenile fiction today.

However, it is not these ancient versions that Hurtado is depicting in her photographic compositions. Instead, she argues that the contemporary narratives are just as disconcerting. From the outside, they may appear fun, happy and enjoyable, but after deeper thought and consideration, worrying issues come to light.

Take, for example, Rapunzel: locking a girl in a tower is not something society would find acceptable. It would be labelled child abuse, and the villain arrested. No doubt a man using said child’s hair to climb up the wall would also be frowned upon. Similar concerns crop up in most fairytales. Hansel and Gretel: abandoning children in a forrest. Cinderella: child/slave labour. Little Red Riding Hood: is it acceptable to send a child out on a journey alone through the woods? Snow White: the queen tries to kill her, for goodness sake!

By manipulating and contrasting shadow and colour, Hurtado lets the atmosphere speak for itself, and reveal the more sinister side to fairy-tales. Her photographic works almost look like paintings due to the many components and vibrant tones. Many of the outcomes are inspired by imaginary stories as well as real life scenarios, thus making the viewer more conscious of the darker interpretations.

Tales is not an exhibition curated solely for aesthetic purposes, it creates awareness of the vulnerability of children of the present day, as well as educating its audience on the origin of fairytales. As a result, the Museum of Childhood was the perfect location for such a display. In a place where visitors are already geared to learn and discover, I expect the artwork was greatly admired and studied, and perhaps left a lasting impression on newly opened minds.

Ardizzone: A Retrospective

‘The supreme contemporary example of the genuine illustrator’
Maurice Sendak on Edward Ardizzone, 1967

At present, the House of Illustration, in London, is holding the first major exhibition in decades of the 20th century illustrator Edward Ardizzone (1900-79). From my own research, conducted when writing my dissertation in 2012, I was already aware of Ardizzone’s influence within children’s literature, however from attending the gallery, I soon learnt this was not his only area of authority.

Edward Ardizzone is known amongst children’s book illustrators as the creator of the Little Tim stories. These first appeared at the very end of the 1930s, however Ardizzone had already found success as an illustrator. Before turning to literature, Ardizzone’s art work featured in magazines such as Radio Times as well as a number of other publishers. Later in his career, Ardizzone was commissioned to produce cover art for a number of books published by Puffin. Books in this series included Stig of the Dump (1963) and The Otterbury Incident (1961).

Between 1940 and 1945, Ardizzone used the Second World War as a means of creating art. Using the same method as his book illustrations – pen and wash – Ardizzone continued to produce atmospheric illustrations, however with a more adult nature. Despite the subject matter, Ardizzone’s drawings look similar regardless of target audience. He got his inspiration from observing the world around him, closely looking at individuals and taking into account the changes current events inflicted on scenery (e.g. war).

What is perhaps most interesting about the exhibition, Ardizzone: A Retrospective, is perceiving the development of Ardizzone’s artistic skill and career path throughout his lifetime. The House of Illustration displays previously unseen original illustrations that Ardizzone composed toward the beginning of his art journey, as well as hundreds of other examples that reflect the diversity of his work. Amongst copies of well known posters and book covers, arranged around the gallery are initial sketches, caricatures and, rather surprisingly, the odd ceramic.

Edward Ardizzone appealed to me as an artist due to my love of 20th century picture books. After viewing the exhibition, I am even more impressed with his artwork as he proves that illustrations are not only for children. A clever drawing evokes more emotion than any photograph could.

Ardizzone: A Retrospective will be held at the House of Illustration until 22nd January 2017.

Children’s Picture Books: an evolution of British culture or childish commodities?

That was the title of my thesis I wrote in 2012. I wanted to write about something that interested me, something I would enjoy researching. At this point in my Graphic Design studies I was strongly interested in illustration, but I was aware that there was not enough theory surrounding the topic to use as a foundation of an essay, particularly one that needed to be based around an argument. So, I turned to picture books.

Reading has been a great joy for me – I usually get through over 100 books a year. Like most children I began learning through picture books, where the story was told through images rather than words. It felt natural to combine my love of reading and illustration together to result in the topic of children’s picture books.

However, I could not only write about books; I needed an argument. So, insert another of my passions: history, in particular British history. I decided to look at the evolution of the picture book in regards to the changes in British culture. Were children’s books moving in sync with the changing times, or were they purely a commodity, a way of making money?

Now that I had these elements in place it was easy to find relevant research and build up my argument. I was commended on my choice of question; I was told it was unique and very interesting. I enjoyed writing it – something other students found hard to believe.

For obvious reasons I cannot post my dissertation online, but I would like to share with you, three of the books I gathered for my research that I found extremely interesting and informative. If you are interested in this subject matter I highly recommend you seek these out.

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Puffin By Design: 70 Years of Imagination 1940-2000 
by Phil Baines

I admit that this book was not about picture books, but about children’s books in general. Therefore it was the least informative for my essay. Nonetheless, I would have bought this book regardless as book design is another area that I am greatly interested in.

Puffin By Design is essentially a visual timeline of book covers produced for Puffin (an imprint of Penguin Books) from the date of its formation until the publication of this book in 2010. Although mostly full of imagery, Phil Baines provides an insight into the development of Puffin and the changes in illustration and typography over the seven decades. Readers are shown the changing appearance of the books in order to appeal to youngsters of the era, to encourage them to read (or arguably buy).

Due to the lack of written word, and the fact that Puffin By Design mostly focuses on reading books rather than picture books, this book was the least cited in my thesis. However I could spend hours flicking through this book. It shows what has been successful in the past and thus is full of inspiration for upcoming designers wanting to work in the world of book publishing.

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Children Reading Pictures: Interpreting Visual Texts
by Evelyn Arizpe and Morag Styles

Children Reading Pictures is the result of a two year study, in which the authors interviewed a selection of primary school aged children to discover their understanding and interpretation of the illustrations within picture books.

Whilst not necessarily the most stimulating book to read, it is actually full of really interesting findings. Children are a lot more insightful than the average adult gives them credit for. Some of the interviewees were from migrant families, who had not yet got a grasp on the English language. These children were able to understand the stories to a certain extent purely by analysing the illustrations. When questioned, many were able to relate the images to events in their own lives. What some people may disregard as childish nonsense is actually extremely educational – children can learn as much from pictures as they can from words (and thus, as I argued, are easy targets for consumerism).

One of the more helpful chapters in Children Reading Pictures, in regards to my essay, was the interview and analysis of books by Anthony Browne, who, alongside Lauren Child, was one of the authors I heavily focused on in my writing. As students of English Literature will know, author’s works get ripped apart by teachers and lecturers in order to find meaning that was possibly not intended in the first place. In this case that was not a problem. Browne was able to provide an insight to his intentions when writing and drawing his books, and thus this can be viewed as a reliable source.

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Children’s Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling
by Martin Salisbury and Morag Styles

This was my favourite book that I bought for my thesis research. I could sit and read this for hours and hours. It was perfect for what I needed. Like with Puffin by DesignChildren’s Picturebooks is a visual timeline from the very first recorded book for children up until the present day (2012). However, this was a book about the INSIDE of the books, the actually stories, rather than the front covers.

Yet Children’s Picturebooks was so much more than a mere timeline. Salisbury looked into the key stages that make a picture book successful: the illustration, the typography, the story lines etc. With examples of famous illustrators, Salisbury demonstrates how artists and authors have kept children interested and managed to keep this dynamic sector of the publishing industry going.

This was perhaps the most cited book in my thesis (I admit I was warned about using it too much). There were chapters about controversial topics and the arguments as to whether children should be subjected to these or not. Could pictures influence the way children think or behave? – a perfect opinion to challenge in my essay!

 

If you are interested in book design, children’s books or illustration, I urge you to take a look at these books. You will not be disappointed.

For those looking for ideas for their own dissertation, I advise you to pick something you are interested in. This will make research less of a chore and much more enjoyable. You may be thinking that there is not enough content to write an essay on your passion, however combined with other elements you are bound to develop a question with a great amount of theory to back you up. Good luck and happy writing!