Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography – a dazzling exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery which shows how the artists of the mid 19th century took the new-fangled camera to their hearts and used the lens to capture a fascinating range of portraiture and adventurous images.

The development of the camera in the mid 1800s must have created a thrilling time for artists as they explored and played with the potential of this new, accurate way to record images .  Before the evolution of the printed photographic image any painter aiming to create a likeness, an effective portrait, would have had to rely on their training and skill in ‘eyeballing’ the subject to capture the features and personality for a larger work.

The arrival of the camera changed all that. What a marvellous thing it must have been for a studio artist to be able to refer to pictures taken rather than make the subject sit still for hours on end filling sketch books with endless drawings.  But, more than using the camera and photos as a tool, a group of artists discovered that the camera was a brilliant way to create portraits, to stage-manage and compose image, control lighting and manipulate the various stages of production to produce artistic results.

Below: Agnes and Amy Hughes asleep on a couch 12 October 1863 taken by Lewis Carroll


The leader of a small group of artists who embraced the artistic potential of the camera was Oscar Rejlander (1813 – 75).  I confess I was unaware of him before going to the charming exhibition which has just opened at the National Portrait Gallery.  Rejlander was a Swedish emigre with ‘a mysterious past’, we are told. Judging from the self-portraits on show and a wonderful selection of expressive ‘selfies’ on show, he must have been quite a mercurial character.  He attracted artists from various disciplines like moths to a flame and it sounds as though he was generous with his understanding of this new art form and encouraged artist/photographers to develop their expertise.

He was a pioneer is the idea of the photo montage and created a ‘collage’ of images for his famous compilations scene called Two Ways of Life made from some 32 separate negatives. Apparently Queen Victoria and Prince Albert loved this picture and bought three prints.




Above: Rejlander posing for a photographs which capture emotion.


The show features the work of Julia Margaret Cameron (1815 -79), Lewis Carroll (1832-98) and Lady Clementina Hawarden (1822 – 65).  We’re all pretty familiar with Julia Margaret Cameron‘s work – those wonderful soft focus portraits. Below is her portrait of Freddy Gould taken in 1866 when he was five.


Below are portraits by Rejlander of children reproducing those famous putti by Raphael’s putti at the Sistine Chapel.

Lewis Carroll is best known as the author of Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass and his (possibly questionable) relationship with the children of the Liddell family whom he photographed hundreds of times.  It’s fascinating to see the images of young Alice, who modelled for him in various dressed up set pieces, and  intriguing to see a later photo of the 18 year old Alice, all innocence gone from her features and the emerging of a thoughtful young woman.

Below: Photograph of the Liddell children: Alice, Ina, Harry and Edith at their home in Oxford and, to the right,  Alice, aged 18 taken by Lewis Carroll.

Lady Clementina came from a well-to-do Scottish family and was closely associated with the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (who, apparently, used photography as source material for their detailed paintings)

All four photographers really did set the bar for the artistic use of photography, the careful lighting, composition and the medium’s potential for capturing emotion.  I loved this show.

It’s on at the National Portrait Gallery until 20th May and will then to go the Millennium Gallery, Sheffield from June 30 – September 21 2018


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