the enigmatic images of pioneering photographer clementina hawarden

Lady Clementina Hawarden (1822-1865) was an Irish photographer who specialized in a certain kind of portraiture. She deviated from the standard poses of the day – mostly head and shoulder shots. being from an upper-class family had it’s advantages. She could take up photography as a hobby rather than work to support her family. Though being female and a Lady – a Viscountess at that, unlike the male photographers of the day, who were sailing off to foreign lands to capture the next exotic picture, she had to work mainly around her estate. Unlike other artists, like Emily Dickenson for example, Hawarden’s work was much appreciated in her lifetime. Among the prominent admirers and collectors of her work was Lewis Carrol. Some of her work, we are on the internets and just about everyone with a theory has access, have attempted to paint her portraits through modern eyes. I don’t know that the modern world is any more or less salacious than the Victorian Era ( read John Fowles The French Lieutenant’s Woman sometime) or about the ever so pure era of the early Holy Roman Empire. Those re-interpreters have tried to put a mild erotic cast over photographs that were, certainly by today’s standards, amazingly innocent reenactments of romantic fantasy. That is not to say they were totally devoid of sexual romanticism. I’m a little stumped for an apt comparison – her photos would have been like a PG movie compared to a hard-R movie. It was becoming fashionable at the time to portray tableau – reenactments of dramatic scenes in photographs. It is difficult, but try to imagine a world where there was no radio in Clementina’s lifetime, no television, no internet, no e-mail messages to check, no smart phone to scroll through text messages and ever so urgent texts, no Facebook status to update, no traffic jams to fight. So you have ten children running around. How do you spend the day. I’m not sure whether living in such an electronically detached era – reliant on conversation, books and magazines for information and entertainment was especially conducive to an active imagination – the working class would hardly have the time. Though it seems like people in the social class of the Hawardens would have been incredibly bored without imaginative use of their time. To veer a little off topic for a moment, it was not unusual for the upper-class in London or other large cities to spend much of their spare time a little tipsy or under the tranquilizing effects of unregulated drugs. They even gave an opium mixture to children in Victorian times, Poetry, pain, and opium in Victorian England: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s use of laudanum.

Isabella Grace and Clementina Maude, photography by Lady Clementina Hawarden, about 1863-4.

Isabella Grace and Clementina Maude, photography by Lady Clementina Hawarden, about 1863-4. Isabella Grace and Clementina Maude were two of Clementina’s daughters. The edges are not artificial effects. Many of her surviving photographs were stored in albums with glues, and museums curators cut them out. The naming is going to be repetitious because she also generally did not name individual photos. Clementina preferred to think of them as a series of studies. Except for the one of the the drawing room below, these photos are from what was called the “Orientalist” series. Which is also another clue as to her point of view in terms of custom and lighting.

Clementina Maude and Isabella Grace, photography by Lady Clementina Hawarden about 1864.

Clementina Maude and Isabella Grace, photography by Lady Clementina Hawarden about 1864. No iPads, just needlepoint and reading.

Isabella Grace and Clementina Maude, photography by Lady Clementina Hawarden, about 1863-4.

Isabella Grace and Clementina Maude, photography by Lady Clementina Hawarden, about 1863-4.

Isabella Grace and Clementina Maude, photography by Lady Clementina Hawarden, about 1863-4.

Isabella Grace and Clementina Maude, photography by Lady Clementina Hawarden, about 1863-4. Note the custom like nature of these last two and the first, and compare it to the regular standard fashion of the day worn in the two-sided photograph. She may have over romanticized or maybe not when writer-critic Marina Warner wrote in “The Shadow of Young Girls in Flower,” in Virginia Dodier Clementina, Lady Hawarden: Studies From Life 1857-1864 (New York: Aperture Foundation, 1999), p. 8.

“Hawarden’s exquisite and enraptured compositions give young women (and we may include her among them) authority over what they see and how they are seen, over what they present and what they conceal. Her studies from life stage a secret, mutual, and loving game of private dreams and unknowable pleasures.”

I think one can see why Lewis Carrol would be a fan. No, not because of the way some have twisted, and added Freudian and Jungian subtext to the original meaning of “Alice”, but because of acting out the tales they had read.

Clementina Maude, In Underclothes, photography by Lady Clementina Hawarden, about 1862-3.

Clementina Maude, In Underclothes, photography by Lady Clementina Hawarden, about 1862-3. This photo was named by museum curators. She is wearing more clothes than most people wear to work. Even in her time a few of Clementina’s ( not to be confused with her daughter C. Maude) photos would be seen as provocative by some people – the natural lighting and light reflected by mirrors to produce the slightest hint of something daring. Enough for some modern interpreters to take their projections way too far.

Hawarden was only 42 when she died of pneumonia.

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