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Kentish Town’s ‘father of art photography’

The National Portrait Gallery is currently celebrating the Victorians who helped make photography an art form

20 April, 2018 — By Jane Clinton

Alice Liddell by Lewis Carroll, 1858. Image: National Portrait Gallery

THEY were the pioneers of early Victorian photography and challenged the establishment’s rigid views on what constituted art.

Oscar Rejlander, Lewis Carroll, Julia Margaret Cameron and Lady Clementina Hawarden all embraced the new wet plate collodion process to create some of the most beautiful and enduring photographs of the period.

An exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography, reveals the very close ties these photographers had with each other and, surprisingly, with Kentish Town.

Rejlander, who was born in Stockholm, is referred to as “the father of art photography”. He was at the forefront of this group and for a time created his pioneering work, including images of London’s homeless children, from a studio near his home at 129 Malden Road, Kentish Town (which is now coincidentally a charity for the homeless).

His most famous sitters included the poet Tennyson, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll (whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson).

Mountain Nymph, Sweet Liberty by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1866. Image: Wilson Centre for Photography

The studio referred to as “the glass room” was erected in around 1862 at No 7 St George’s Terrace, Malden Road, behind the home he shared with his wife Mary Bull, whom he had married in September 1862, at Pancras Register Office.

Rejlander would take visits from keen photographer Carroll, a mathematics tutor at Christ Church College, Oxford, particularly when he was relocating his studio and sought advice from Rejlander on its design.

Carroll is on record as visiting him in 1863, the year in which Rejlander photographed him, and the pair regularly corresponded to discuss photographic techniques.

However, Carroll would also be drawn to Kentish Town to photograph the celebrated actress Ellen Terry.

Terry had moved back to her family home at 24 Caversham Road in 1865 following the breakdown of her 10-month marriage to the painter GF Watts, who was 30 years her senior (he was 46 to her 16). In July of that year Carroll took a series of pictures of her and her family in the garden of their Kentish Town home.

Carroll had remarked: “Their new house is much larger than the old, and has a garden behind, which I hope to use for photography in the summer.”

Ellen Terry

Terry, who grew up in Stanhope Street, and opened the Camden Theatre (now KOKO) on Boxing Day 1900, had also been photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron in 1864 for the image, entitled Sadness.

Cameron took up photography aged 48 and had been tutored by Rejlander at her home on the Isle of Wight. His tightly focused portraits would greatly influence her style, as it would the largely allegorical work of Hawarden.

Rejlander would in turn go on to write the obituary of Hawarden. One of Britain’s first female photographers, along with Cameron, her career, which included an output of 800 images, was cut tragically short when she died of pneumonia aged 42 in 1865.

This exhibition, which includes some never-before-seen images, draws these four photographers together and we learn that Carroll, as well as a photographer, was also an avid collector of photographs by, among others, Rejlander, Cameron and Hawarden. (Also contrary to popular belief Carroll photographed Alice Liddell, the inspiration for the Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a handful of times – of the 2,600 photographs he took, there are only 12 solo portraits of Alice).

Despite the obvious beauty of the work of these four photographers, in the 1850s and 1860s the art world was fiercely divided over what photography’s proper place was in the visual arts.

Purify my Heart by Oscar Rejlander, 1863-9. Image: National Portrait Gallery

It was in this climate that Rejlander, above all, pushed the boundaries of both art and photography. His extraordinary work The Two Ways of Life (1856-7) caused a sensation when it was first exhibited in Manchester in 1857. Made from 32 separate negatives and taking six weeks to create, it is an elaborate allegory of the choice between vice or virtue. This photo­montage an early precursor of what is now Photo­shopping.

Taking its lead from fine art, the piece recreates an elaborately staged tableau. Rejlander insisted it was not a challenge to art but “was dedicated to English artists”. Nevertheless, some saw it as a swipe at the art establishment while revealing the exciting opportunities photography could afford.

Rejlander did enjoy recognition for it, however – Queen Victoria ordered multiple copies. Saddled with debt from owning a new studio in central London, he and his wife had to move to a more modest house in south London.

Unfortunately, from 1971 his health would deteriorate. When he died on January 18, 1875, Mary had to dispose of his paintings and art objects to pay for his funeral and a fund was set up to assist her financially.

It was a rather sorry end to man who, from his Kentish Town studio, had done so much to champion art photog­raphy, and showed it could rival some of the great works of art.

Indeed Rejlander once reflected hopefully: “The time will come when a work will be judged on its merits, not by the method of production.”

Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography runs until May 20, at the National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, WC2H 0HE, open daily, 020 7306 0055, www.npg.org.uk

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