The “Victorian Giants” show now at National Portrait Gallery in London through May 20th begins with a small room where each wall introduces one of the four photographers in the show: Julia Margaret Cameron, Lewis Carroll, Clementina Hawarden, and Oscar Rejlander. This feels auspicious — they face each other in some interesting way that will be revealed or complicated, presumably, and they are equal like a square. There’s a welcome symmetry to this composition of two men and two women (I’m writing this during the week that the UK grapples with the mandatory reporting of gender equity in pay to men vs. women. The national average favors men by 17-18% and it seems likely that the NPG chose equal representation intentionally as equity in art history isn’t a given, which wikipedia edit-a-thons aim to address.)
But it’s not clear what the exhibit wants to make of the foursome, especially since they are not actually “equal.” Rejlander is probably the least known of the four but the exhibit makes him seem like the central figure because he was the only one who interacted with all of the others both personally and professionally. Carroll and Cameron also interacted (and disparaged each other’s work, though the exhibit doesn’t mention that). But, surprisingly, Cameron and Hawarden had no known direct connection, despite exhibiting in the same organizations and circulating in the same aesthetic and aristocratic circles. What to make of this? Nothing, apparently, because it’s not even mentioned in the show. In general, this exhibit emphasizes sameness over differences, connections over gaps, which is predictable but disappointing. There are other stories to tell, or at least questions to ask here. Rejlander, Cameron, and Carroll often collected each other’s photographs in albums and the attributions of who made which image are often hard to pin down — and then switch back and forth. That would have been interesting to examine: how do you know who made what image? And even more surprisingly, why might it matter?
This is not to deny that the connections aren’t often interesting and fruitful. It’s nice to see some groupings around the same model (for example, Tennyson portraits by Rejlander and Cameron side by side) but what does that suggest? These photographers knew the same people and lived at the same time: why wouldn’t their work be similar? What instead, maybe, to make of their differences? The women, especially, were particularly artful in their compositions — neither pretended to make conventional studio portraits. Cameron got so close to her subjects that their faces completely fill the frame, even sacrificing focus for intimacy. Hawarden posed her daughters in deshabille, leaning against walls and mirrors in carefully composed tableaux. Whereas both Rejlander and Carroll were interested in representing specific people, Cameron and Hawarden were more concerned with symbolic representation of ideas and characters. Inevitably, male and female artists’ portrayals of bodies are “read” differently too and the eroticism of these images is dealt with here in an oddly prim and defensive way, especially with the men: Carroll, we’re told, never photographed Alice nude and “nearly always” had adult chaperones during the sittings. Rejlander, we’re assured, took nude portraits of women purely as anatomical studies for artists. The exhibit’s patroness, Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cambridge, emphasizes the innocence of childhood in her commentary on the images.
There are curious gaps too: Rejlanders’ best known image of Tennyson is probably the sun-lit family grouping outdoors, with the parents and two sons all holding hands. It’s a rare outdoor image and much reproduced as evidence of their idyllic life at Farringford. Nor does the show reproduce the images Rejlander and Cameron were presumed to have collaborated on at her home on the Isle of Wight in 1863: where Cameron and her maids posed outside her door for narrative scenes with titles like “Greeting the Post” or “Maids at the Well.” These photos were part of a bigger narrative about Cameron’s transformation from colonial matron into art photographer: she was given a camera and took “her first lessons” from professionals like Rejlander (as the wall text asserts). That sounds a little too much like the old speculation about “who taught Julia how to use a camera?,” which has been complicated by research into her friendship with the scientist Sir John Herschel, who experimented with photographic chemicals in the 1840s, and her years of composing private photo albums for her sisters. Cameron’s famous portrait of Herschel is in the show but the exhibit’s suggestion that Cameron was “trained in part” by Rejlander makes those images (that weren’t shown) seem less of an equal partnership. I wrote a biography of Cameron fifteen years ago that grappled with that sturdy myth and maybe I’m over-sensitive to it. But as a biographer I was also put off from the start by the huge introductory wall text that said “BORN IN CEYLON (NOW SRI LANKA), JULIA MARGARET CAMERON…”. And that’s just plain wrong. She was born in Calcutta and died in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). (All the wall text and captions can be downloaded from the NPG website here.)
So I value any exhibition of Cameron’s work, or Victorian photography, and the best treat in the show was simply viewing Rejlander’s private photograph album (seventy-one prints collected from 1856-1866, now in the NPG’s own collection) which has been digitized to scan through. But overall this exhibition was a missed opportunity. The influences between these four “giants” (code for that favorite Victorian word, “genius”?) could have been more complicated: less biographical, less gendered, less one-directional. Still, you do get to see the images in person and at scale.
Here is one of my favorites, Cameron’s portrait of Carroll’s famous Alice Liddell, grown up and looking back at us through the looking glass. The exhibit displayed a variant, called “Alethea,” in which Liddell is in profile instead.
Compare Cameron’s Alice to Carroll’s, from fourteen years earlier. The gesture, the background, even the bold gaze back at the viewer, all suggest that Cameron knew Carroll’s photo and was consciously re-viewing it. Where Carroll called his “Alice as Beggar Maid,” Cameron’s revision associates Alice with Greek deities of truth and fertility. These are the sort of overlapping symmetries and asymmetries (of representation and power) that could have been explored in more depth.