Home » Exhibitions » Exhibition Review – Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography at the National Portrait Gallery from 1st March to 20th May 2018

Exhibition Review – Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography at the National Portrait Gallery from 1st March to 20th May 2018

The National Portrait Gallery presents an exhibition entitled Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography which combines for the first time ever portraits by Lewis Carroll (1832–98), Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–79), Oscar Rejlander (1813–75) and Lady Clementina Hawarden (1822-65).

The exhibition examines the relationship between the four artists and brings together images drawn from public and private collections internationally. A number of the images have not been seen in Britain since they were made.

Two ways of Life by Oscar Rejlander, 1856-7

The exhibition explores in detail, the remarkable work of Swedish born Oscar Rejlander and features the finest surviving print of his famous picture Two Ways of Life of 1856-7, where he used a pioneering technique combining over 30 different negatives to create a single final image. An album of photographs by Rejlander purchased by the National Portrait Gallery is also on display.

Rejlander inspired many photographers with his ground breaking work  and Carroll, Cameron and Hawarden all studied under Rejlander briefly, and the four continued to exchange ideas about the new art of photography.

The photographers also shared sitters and within the exhibition, visitors can compare how Cameron and Rejlander both photographed the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson and the scientist Charles Darwin and how Carroll and Cameron both photographed the actress, Ellen Terry.

Lewis Carroll’s initial fame was through his writing especially Alice in Wonderland, his photography is probably lesser known, however the exhibition provides a connection between the two by featuring a series of Carroll’s photographs of Alice Liddell, his model for Alice, both as a child and a fully grown woman.

The work of Julia Margaret Cameron and Lady Clementina Hawarden is particularly interesting because they were women in a male dominated environment. Their portraits of other women are known for their often complex interpretations. Sadness featuring actress Ellen Terry by Cameron is an example of great technique and sensitivity. Hawarden’s images of the Maude family provide unusual poses with the women often looking away or into a mirror.

One of the consequences of the new art of photography was famous Victorians were photographed for the first time, the exhibition include portraits of sitters such as Charles Darwin, Alice Liddell, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Thomas Carlyle, George Frederick Watts, Ellen Terry and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

This fascinating exhibition challenges the long accepted view that Victorian photography was formal and formulaic. Oscar Rejlander in particular, quickly pushed back the boundaries of the new art of photography. His influence on the other three artists to experiment was considerable and many of the images are remarkable even by today’s standards. All four photographers were pioneers in their own way and influenced latter generations of photographers in a variety of ways.

Video Review available here 

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

For more information, visit the National Portrait Gallery website here

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