by Christian Schaller
by Christian Schaller
Clementina Hawarden – the double pioneer
Early Photography and Early Feminism in Victorian London
They can be found in just about every household in the world today, filling entire albums, walls and shelves of countless families, and yet each one is personal and unique: we are talking about family photographs. Today, these snapshots are taken for granted and considered commonplace – and yet their origins date back less than 200 years. If the invention and spread of photography at that time seemed at first glance to be just another achievement in the context of the Industrial Revolution, a huge innovation in technology that could capture, document and explore the world better than ever before, this somewhat rigid view, typical of the time and influenced by the natural sciences, visibly softened in the years and decades that followed. Increasingly, attempts were made to apply photography artistically. This current of so-called Pictorialism, which is significant in terms of art history, bore fruit from the middle of the 19th century, especially in Victorian England. While the family photographs mentioned at the beginning were already common at that time, at least among the social elite, certain pioneers went one step further. Lady Clementina Maude, the Viscountess Hawarden (1822-1865), was one of them. In her subject, she uniquely combined the original purpose of photography – to capture something – with pictorialist aspirations and, not least, with classical family photography. In the pictures of her growing daughters, she strove to achieve the same thing that we still want to achieve with them today in the 21st century – she wanted to create memories.
Hawarden’s career and the wet collodion process
Clementina’s youth and also the first 12 years of her marriage allowed her only a modest, albeit happy, life. Only with the death of her father-in-law in 1857 and the inheritance that came with it did the family receive titles and thus also prosperity. The young mother now had the necessary leisure to turn to art and photography.
She used the wet collodion process typical of the time as her photographic technique. In this process, invented by F. S. Archer in 1851, collodion, a viscous solution of cotton, nitric acid, ether, and alcohol that is well suited as a layer for light-sensitive silver salt, is applied to glass plates. Before this layer is dry, it is still dipped in silver nitrate in the dark. After a few minutes it is light-sensitive and is inserted moist into the plate holder of the camera. Now it is quickly photographed, developed, fixed, watered and protective coated. This relatively simple chemical process elevated the wet collodion process to standard practice for about 30 years.
Lady Hawarden’s early works depict mainly stereotypical landscapes with few personnel, created around her Irish country estate of the time. Hawarden’s actual main body of work, very extensive at nearly 800 photographs, was not produced until 1859, after the family’s move to London, until her untimely death in 1864. The family’s new townhouse was in South Kensington, where many new residences were created during this period.
Hawarden’s studio, along with an attached darkroom, was located on the second floor of their South Kensington townhouse, and always appears minimally decorated and unusually empty by Victorian standards in the photographs. There is no fixed furniture or wall hangings, only a small number of constant props, such as the chair and the mirror, which Hawarden selected and positioned at will from photo to photo.
Her late work primarily encompasses her adolescent daughters, but in a highly atypical and ambiguous mode of representation for the private, Victorian family albums of the upper classes. Photography offered Hawarden a medium with which she could simultaneously idealize, romanticize, suggest, and evoke, but also, precisely because the models were mostly her daughters, document and record domestic life. In Hawarden’s work, one can note apparent symbols, metaphors, and stylistic elements with which she very subtly experimented. Hawarden’s daughters play roles, scenes, and attitudes, but nothing is ever explicitly or obviously portrayed. Hawarden evades artistic transparency at first glance, almost in the spirit of modern art. Nevertheless, her pictorial content deals with very universal themes, such as the obvious escape from everyday life, but also the subtle expression of intimacy, feelings and femininity. This allows Hawarden’s images to rise far above the status of mundane prints for a family album.
In general, moving and still forms play a role, as do convergent and diagonal shadows, which emphasize the sense of space and depth and sometimes gave the images a dramatic tension. The young women’s clothing increasingly becomes a disguise and functions almost as an architectural element – the light and drapery create drama and dynamism.
Hawarden was a virtuoso master of photographic technique, but she also possessed a deeper knowledge of art history. In the mid-Victorian era around 1860, the idea of narrative photography prevailed in Great Britain – the photographic technique was to tell stories and thus convey values. But Hawarden does not really seem to follow this attitude. Some of her photographs are certainly reminiscent of contemporary tableaux, such as the depiction of Mary Stuart, a courtship, or even the allegorical visualization of victorious Christianity triumphing over declining paganism. However, there are hardly any clear indications of a deeper narrative. Many images therefore remain enigmatic, indeterminate, and ambiguous. In fact, some of her photographs can even be compared to mid-Victorian subject pictures, whose tradition goes back to 17th-century Dutch-Flemish landscape painting and, at first glance, lacks a subject – a theme, an underlying anecdote. Nevertheless, Hawarden’s paintings are not in the tradition of typical Victorian genre painting, for it is precisely the apparent absence of a narrative, or at least an ambiguous one, that invites an art historical interpretation. As mentioned earlier, Hawarden did not title or date her paintings. However, in the course of the two public exhibitions in which she participated throughout her life, she called her photographs “studies from life” or “photographic studies.” These terms were generic and typical of the period, copying the artistic notion of “study,” the representation of an idea or concept-which in turn highlighted Victorian photographers’ aspirations to be a recognized part of the high arts. Hawarden’s addition of “from life” may also resonate with a realist pretension that seems to negate an art historical reading of her works. Contemporary critics also assessed only formal, aesthetic, and technical qualities in Hawarden, but also in her contemporary Julia Margaret Cameron, for example – they do not seem to have been “read.”
The position of photography and art in London in the 1860s
While photography was still under the nimbus of technical progress in the years following its invention, lively experimentation with the new medium subsequently ensured that it moved away from the scientific aspect of pure documentation. Photography began to be influenced by painting, theater and the popular tableaux vivants. The depiction of historical, mythological-biblical, literary and allegorical figures was already typical of the Victorian era, and now photography also began to depict and, as it were, arouse emotions. In the 19th century, in fact, the fundamental question developed as to whether photography could be considered a truth-telling medium, for example in the context of moral or emotional scenes, but also in the field of portrait photography. What was criticized here was the conscious and unconscious self-representation, i.e. the creation of a theatrically staged moment. Early photography, in fact, borrowed from portrait painting, which was already familiar with the ambivalent problem of “standing still” and simultaneously “capturing life” and had developed conventionalized, stereotypical poses.
In addition to this controversy, however, the element of depicted fiction was especially important. Due to the flourishing of amateur theater in the 19th century, role-playing in the form of the tableau vivant became very popular in itself. These “living pictures” referred to the re-enactment of works of painting and sculpture, as well as events and everyday life, through appropriately disguised people and props. This could include depictions of fairy tales as well as Shakespearean scenes or actual historical periods. This offered Victorian society the opportunity to change its own identity and almost play with rigid gender roles as part of a leisure activity. Such border crossings were only possible within the framework of an imaginary world. Photography now also began to depict such fictionalized worlds, and what’s more: as the 19th century progressed, it literally took up the fight against the common conception of art and attempted to establish itself as a recognized and virtuoso form of artistic expression. The position of photography was still highly controversial during Hawarden’s lifetime.
In the early Victorian era, art was regarded as a serious expression of national identity that was firmly anchored in everyday life. Art was a commodity and a status symbol. A serious tone, a clear narrative, mild pathos and drama were combined so that the images simultaneously moved and instructed – gentle sentiment and a moral weight conveyed national and social values in pictorial form. However, this changed in the course of Victorianism. At first glance, Romantic as well as Classicist elements underpinned the idealized representation in the arts, but they took fundamentally different paths. By mid-century, moreover, it became popular in art and literature to depict the real world and its social milieus unadorned. The “art for art” thesis, the joy of pure, beautiful form added to this. In summary, then, the coexistence of idealism, realism, and aestheticism can be noted for 19th-century British art.
In the course of the gothic revival and the strong contact with the British colonies, Neo-Gothic and Orientalism were also established. Hawarden was probably exposed to all these currents, to the change and rupture in the relationship between art and society, and was certainly tempted to transform elements of these manifold, if fundamentally different, currents into the new photographic medium.
Puberty and femininity in the context of sexualization and feminism
Although Hawarden’s artistic expression is Victorian at its core, she nevertheless depicted moods in an innovative way for art photography – with the lighting, but above all with the romantic elements and the ambiguous sensuality she concealed in her works. Indeed, from today’s perspective, especially given the almost clichéd Victorian prudishness, there is a certain salacious presentation in the images. They radiate a subtle sexualization. This, however, was perceived by contemporaries only to a very diminished extent; the visitors to the Photographic Society seemed to know that these were the daughters of a respected lady of the London upper class. What is striking here is the intensity in the expression between two women, be it actually two daughters depicted in the picture or just a girl looking at her reflection in the mirror. The mirror already mentioned also plays a role in sexualization. According to the art historian Carol Mavor, it represents female narcissism, which she psychoanalytically associates with auto-eroticism. She thus alludes to the psychological attachment of the mother to her daughters. Hawarden thus saw her children as her own duplication, as an image or photograph of herself. Thus, the mirror can stand as a direct symbol of the mother being mirrored in her daughters. This can also be applied to photography itself: the photograph of the daughters is a reproduction – just as the photograph is a print, the woman is a print of universal femininity, the daughter a print of the mother. Mavor even sees the doll-like staged daughters in their innocently bright or even fashionable dresses as an extension of Hawarden’s fetish, her collection of “pretty things,” the varying props and costumes worn. Hawarden thus symbolically empowers herself of her household. Accordingly, her work can be seen introspectively, that is, self-observantly.
In summary, then, the most important, almost minimalist components in Hawarden’s later subject are light and space, along with a few props, especially the window and mirror, and the young woman, mostly clad in light colors. An ambiguous, enigmatic narrative and subtle eroticism and sexualization also raise questions about the extent to which art, on the one hand, and femininity, on the other, positioned themselves in Victorian society. In the context of the aforementioned tableaux vivants, the representation of women often recurred to attitudes and was thus usually associated with a display of ideal, beauty, and grace. In the representation of the female, a controversial interaction of bourgeois ethics, aesthetics, and eroticism occurred.
The role of women in art was thus reflected in their social position. In Victorian England, a strict distinction was made between the public and the private, family sphere. This bourgeois ideology of the two spheres stylized the female sex into the cultural myth of the virtuous housewife. The officially patriarchal gender ideology led to the conventionalized portrayal of woman as a representational visual spectacle embodying beauty and a desirable object under the voyeuristic gaze of the male subject. Yet, in a sense, a dual coding of femininity also took place: Inherent in the Victorian stereotyping of women was a certain ominous ambivalence that subtly implied the social and moral superiority of women over men.
Victorian policy in the first third of the 19th century was still highly restrictive and conservative; women as the property of men were in fact confined exclusively to domestic life. This gradually loosened in the following period. The long-simmering struggle for women’s equality in physical, moral and civil terms, and the related discussion of emancipation and gender roles, reached a new climax by the 1960s, during Hawarden’s creative period, and remained an important, controversial topic – not only in British society – until well after the end of the Victorian era.
Viscountess Clementina Hawarden, ‘Photographic Study’ Portrait of the photographer’s daughter, albumen print from wet collodion-on-glass negative, ca. 1860s, Victoria & Albert Museum, London; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Juliana; Link
Already in Hawarden’s time, there was a clear opposition to the common ideology in London. One manifestation of this was, for example, the Female School of Art, which Hawarden also actively supported. Thus Clementina Maude’s work can also be seen as a compromise. She photographed mainly her daughters in her household, all within her socially defined realm. This adherence to convention is contrasted with the emancipated activity of creating art, for Hawarden only seemingly fits into the domestic idyll – quite the opposite. The space of her townhouse, half drawing room, half studio, is airy empty and flooded with light, almost an antithesis to the typical Victorian interior, which seemed to follow the principle of horror vacui. Like domestic life, the upbringing of children was something very private. The process of adolescent growth and puberty were a very problematic, often hushed-up topic in the Victorian era.
Hawarden’s addressed, increasingly sexualized and erotic portrayal of her daughters contrasts this view and is also juxtaposed with a historical event from 1861 that falls directly within Hawarden’s creative period. At that time, the so-called Offences Against the Person Act raised, among other things, the age of consent, i.e. the edge of adolescence and thus of marriageable age, from ten to 12 years of age. Officially, the controversial concept of puberty, the transition between child and adult, did not exist in the Victorian era. The child was considered sexless, innocent, and in need of protection; it was a supposed gender without sex. Puberty as a transformation of this transfigured “pure” form, however, rarely received attention in society.
The enigmatic impression that this process of adolescence made on society was thus partially as well as very subtly and indirectly compensated for in contemporary literature. Fairy tales popular in Victorian times that dealt with transformations and metamorphoses, such as “Cinderella” or “Beauty and the Beast,” can be symbolic of the mysterious, elusive concept of growing up. Authors such as Jane Austen (1775-1817) with “Pride and Prejudice” or Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855) with “Jane Eyre” also had their young heroines undergo a process of psychological maturation, develop a personality, and ultimately accept their femininity, their male counterpart, and also sexuality itself.
In summary, then, Hawarden was offered numerous prefigurations and an extensive accumulation of relatable iconography. Attitude alone, codified in the art of acting as an expression of the feminine, offered the display of passionate feelings and grace. But she went further: Hawarden showed the indefinability and fragility of youth. However, she visually left out the direct thematization of problematic puberty. Although the girls often wear a serious look, Hawarden’s photographs usually lack a fierce negative feeling. The sisters present impressions of beauty, playfulness, but also self-confidence, and through the often subtly provocative getup and the depicted bond between the young women, a subtle eroticism. However, there is no room for typical adolescent feelings such as sibling envy or anger. Nevertheless – and this is suggested by the partially exposed women as well as the intimacy and eroticism of some of the images – this euphemistic portrayal of adolescence is not only done in a conventional way.
In conclusion, Clementina Hawarden can be seen as a kind of nineteenth-century transitional figure between the first, aristocratic amateur photographers of the forties and the professional art photographers of the sixties.
In summary, Hawarden’s use of light, shadow, disguise, and props attest to a deeper knowledge of both photographic technique and the art history she drew upon in her work. The ambiguity of her images, their apparent narratives, and the use of symbolic objects such as the mirror or the window leave much open to interpretation. Nevertheless, she undoubtedly addressed controversial themes such as her adolescent daughters, their puberty, femininity and eroticism, and her role as a woman in the Victorian contrast between the interior and exterior worlds.
Her work was influenced by portraiture and genre painting, but it was important to distinguish it from them. Hawarden certainly wanted to document reality – her daughters – but at the same time unconventionally explore the possibilities of the new art of the photographic image, which makes her later work seem almost like experimental photography.
Thus Lady Clementina Hawarden reveals herself as a double pioneer, a double trailblazer. On the one hand, she stands in the tradition of British art, in the tradition of a romantic view of the world in the ever-changing 19th century, the rigid Victorian age and the era of the changeable Industrial Revolution. As a pioneer of photography, she stands between the amateurs of the early years and the professional art photographers toward the end of the millennium, as a champion of the still-young technique of the photograph, which was still trying to establish itself as a recognized means of artistic expression in the middle of the century. On the other hand, she was a woman, a Victorian lady, tied to home and children. Her works were family photographs, meant for a domestic album, as countless middle-class families maintained, then as now. But she went much further in this, paving the way for future photographers. In summary, there may well be some comparisons, reference points, and parallels between Hawarden and contemporary photographers, such as Julia Margaret Cameron, and later photographers, such as Cindy Sherman and Sally Mann. However, in addition to similarities in portrayal and Hawarden’s status as a role model in her function as a pioneer of photography, there is one point in particular that makes her so interesting and attractive to this day: her portrayal of puberty and adolescence, and above all of femininity itself – in her own unique way of looking at it and mirroring the Victorian conception of the female sex. Her “studies from life” were ultimately just that – studies from life. She captured the growing up of her children, life itself, and by means of her artistic expertise and expressiveness, she also formulated an idea, a concept, inherent in what she photographed – in the sense of the artistic concept of the study and the sketch. She captured a moment, an experience, a sensation of life.
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