Art Review: Victorian Greats, National Portrait Gallery ‘Beautiful, Groundbreaking Photography’

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The full title of this new show at the National Portrait Gallery is, Victorian Greats: The Birth of Art Photography and given that’s this exhibition’s objective – to examine how four key photographers harnessed new developments in technology to bridge the art of the past with the art of the future – the result is a remarkable success, celebrating not just the beautiful photography of these artists, but to frame them as rightfully ground breaking too.

I am a huge fan of Julia Margaret Cameron and it’s no surprise that this extraordinary woman is one of the four photographers included. She famously did not pick up a camera until she was 48 years-old, but her talent and application was something else.

In only a short time she created such innovative portraiture, such as the gender fluid depiction of St. John (portrayed by May Prinsep, a woman), working with a very young Ellen Terry to depict emotional studies such as sadness (usually the reserve of more traditional art forms such as painting and sculpture), and portraits of the likes of Mrs Herbert Duckworth that show such mastery of light and shadow that comparisons with Rembrandt quickly followed.

There’s also works from Lady Clementina Hawarden on display too. She excelled at narrative photographs, where inner lives and situations are hinted at, if not fully explained. Even to modern eyes, it’s noticeable that almost all her subjects were women. Perhaps the two situations are linked – exploring the inner lives of women who were, at that time, not given much opportunity to express their free will.

Of particular excitement for me was the opportunity to see so many images from Oscar Rejlander, a photographer I knew more by reputation than output. Here, I could get up close and personal with his beautiful female nudes.

Their skin soft but their lines as clearly defined as those on a painting. For that was indeed the point. Oscar was demonstrating how photography could be harnessed to explore similar themes to painters and sculptors, and what different takes and opportunities it could bring to the art form.

What particularly made me smile was wall text that stated that Oscar often sold these nudes to painters to use as studies, considering them important tools to share with artists he considered often misrepresented female anatomy in their paintings!

The big draw for most visitors, however, will likely be the work from Lewis Carroll. Children were a popular subject in Victorian England as they were considered to be the joyful hosts of the future and potential, and children were a popular subject for Lewis Carroll (though the exhibition is at pains to knock on the head questions about inappropriate behaviour from the photographer).

Alice Liddell is, of course, his most famous subject, though only twelve solo portraits of Alice are known. His young muse for Alice in Wonderland is forever immortalised through his images. However, less well known are the photographs he made years later showing her as an adult. This exhibition brings together these works for the first time.

This is only a small display, filling the more intimate galleries at the front of the building where the William Eggleston show was held, rather than the substantive corridor and rear galleries where the likes of Cezanne Portraits, Picasso and the Vogue exhibitions were geld.

I say that not to diminish this show but to manage expectations. There must be just over 100 photographs in this show, each a gem. But obviously they cannot be blown up into poster-sized images. Instead, we get the treat of exploring them in intimate, smaller rooms. And this is a better show because of it.

National Portrait Gallery, London, to May 20, 2018.
Admission £10 without donation (concessions available)

Image credits:
1 Head of St John (May Prinsep) by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1866 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford; Mrs Herbert Duckworth (Julia Jackson) by Julia Margaret Cameron 1867 © Wilson Centre for Photography.
2 Photographic Study, 5 Prince’s Gardens (Clementina Maude) by Clementina Hawarden, 1863-4© Victoria & Albert Museum; Photographic Study (Florence Elizabeth Maude) by Clementina Hawarden 1863-4 © Victoria & Albert Museum.
3 Kneeling Woman by Oscar Rejlander 1857 © Wilson Centre for Photography; Nude Study by Oscar Rejlander c. 1867 © National Portrait Gallery.
4 Alice Liddell by Lewis Carroll, 1858 © National Portrait Gallery; Alice Liddell by Lewis Carroll, 1870 ©National Portrait Gallery.

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