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Lady Hawarden’s light-filled photographs of her adolescent daughters posed in sparsely furnished rooms of her London home are curious, complicated, and often inexplicable. Along with Julia Margaret Cameron, Hawarden’s near contemporary, Hawarden is now considered one of the most significant female photographers in nineteenth-century Britain, and she is the subject of not one but two recent monographs and a 1999 exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. This is long overdue as Cameron has already been the subject of numerous books and international exhibitions. The reasons for this imbalance are many: for one, Hawarden’s surviving oeuvre resides principally at the V & A, while Cameron’s much larger output is shared by various collections worldwide, making it possible to mount a number of exhibitions. Moreover, Cameron photographed as many of her friends as she could convince to sit for her, posed her sitters in narratives drawn from the Arthurian legends and elsewhere, assembled her photographs into presentation albums, and exhibited in London. Hawarden, on the other hand, has historically been much more elusive. She photographed her daughters almost exclusively, titled her work only as “Photographic Studies” and “Studies from Life,” kept a lower profile in the London photographic world (exhibiting a handful of times), and left behind only a few letters documenting her life and photographic practices. And, as Virginia Dodier describes in the handsome volume published by Aperture to coincide with the V & A exhibition, when the Hawarden collection was presented to the V & A in 1939 by her granddaughter, the photographs, although originally mounted in albums, had been torn from the album pages so that their “original context and arrangement were destroyed by this drastic measure” (10).
Hawarden’s career spanned a brief period from 1857 until her death in 1865. Born in 1822 in Scotland, her family life, as Dodier reconstructs it, could have been the plot of a Jane Austen novel. She grew up in Scotland, the daughter of Admiral Fleeming, the second son of the 11th Lord Elphinstone, and Catalina Paulina Alessandro, “an exotic beauty,” in Dodier’s words. She and her three sisters were educated in the arts of accomplishment. Both Clementina’s eldest sister and her father died within a few weeks of each other when Clementina was eighteen, and her father’s estates passed to her elder brother, John, who Dodier describes as a “ne’er do well.” This left Clementina, her sisters, and her mother in financial difficulty. Thinking they would fare better abroad, the women departed for Rome, where they attended Carnival, a masked ball, and amateur theatricals, laying the groundwork for the themes Hawarden would explore in her photography years later. The Fleemings returned to London two years later and the marriage plot ended happily: all three of the sisters married well, including the love match Clementina made with the Honorable Cornwallis Maude, later Viscount Hawarden. Clementina in fact eventually inherited her father’s estate when her brother died childless.
The Hawardens had seven girls and one boy who survived into adulthood, and it was her children that became the chief subject of Hawarden’s photography. After 1857, while Hawarden busily photographed her elder daughters, she was constantly pregnant and caring for younger children. As Dodier points out, when Hawarden’s husband inherited his family’s estate and succeeded to the title of 4th Viscount Hawarden, the resulting improvement in the couple’s standing and wealth allowed Hawarden to invest in the “money, time, and work space necessary for photography in that era.” She used the wet-plate photographic technique that was the standard of the 1860s and shared by other prominent amateurs of the period, like Cameron and Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll). Dodier traces Hawarden’s career from her early stereoscopic views of the landscape at her family’s estate and tableaux vivants of the family to her more well-known work with her daughters in the family’s home in South Kensington from 1859 to 1864. As Dodier explains, she “began to work almost exclusively indoors, taking exquisitely lit and composed scenes, examples of which she exhibited and for which she became well known.” Hawarden kept the second-floor rooms of her house free of Victorian clutter to produce photographs of her daughter in various poses and costumes, positioned next to a few select props and pieces of furniture which appear again and again throughout her photographs. Dodier also situates Hawarden’s work within the London art world, providing brief comparisons with other contemporary photographers and artists: O.G. Rejlander, Cameron, Dodgson, the Pre-Raphaelites, James McNeill Whistler, and Francis Seymour Haden. Hawarden’s career was cut short when she died of pneumonia in 1865 at the age of forty-two. Her photographs remained in obscurity until, as Mark Haworth-Booth chronicles in an essay at the end of the Aperture monograph, she was rediscovered in the mid- and late twentieth century.
The monographs of Dodier and Carol Mavor bring diametrically opposed methodologies to the task of interpreting Hawarden’s photography. As Marina Warner describes in her characteristically lively and insightful introduction to Dodier’s volume, Hawarden’s photographs “explore ideas of enclosure: they acquaint us intimately with the walls of the rooms that she and her flock of girls inhabited. . . Yet the stars on the wallpaper, like the casements opening on to the city, seem to dissolve the borders of their enclave, promising something enticing, formless, and undefined that beckons from beyond” (7). Mavor and Dodier each stay true to the photographs as Warner describes them, or, indeed, as Dodier describes them at the end of her Preface: “[Hawarden’s] photographs served dual purposes: through photography, she could suggest as well as record, evoke as well as document, hint as well as tell” (12).
Dodier’s monograph proves successful at the latter of these two purposes: Dodier records, documents, tells and “acquaint[s] us intimately with the walls of the rooms,” even drawing a map of Hawarden’s London home, to ground Hawarden’s photographs historically. Her meticulously researched and annotated text is filled with revealing glimpses and rich documentation of Hawarden’s life and career. In her efforts to reconstruct the circumstances of the photographs’ creation, Dodier has done what she can to restore the lost context of those original—and now destroyed—albums. Two bookends to Dodier’s text widen the scope: Warner’s introduction outlines the theoretical issues at stake in Hawarden’s photography and Haworth-Booth brings us back to the contemporary scene. Aperture has furthermore produced the book with a wealth of beautiful high-quality reproductions that do full justice to Hawarden’s luminous and mysterious photographs.
Mavor is not as interested in writing history, and, in Becoming, she offers her reader impressionistic, wide-ranging, and often highly personal interpretations of the photographs. Discussing a photograph of Hawarden’s daughter Clementina, for example, Mavor writes:
- I am especially troubled by Clementina’s twisted hands.
- Coiled around one another, nearly entwined with the window’s
- curtains, her outstretched arms become nearly indistinct from the
- fabric that binds them. A chignon of hands and fabric. She is tied up
- in desire (withheld). Tongue-tied speech. Breathless beauty. I am
- made breathless by her churning beauty. Tearing beauty.
- Clementina tears at the picture’s frame as if in anticipation of the
- picture’s own eventual tearing from the photographic album (51-53).
- Coiled around one another, nearly entwined with the window’s
Mavor wants to suggest, evoke, and hint: she writes about the photographs as they appear to her in the wake of reading Roland Barthes’s seminal Camera Lucida. For Mavor, the loss of the albums is a point of departure rather than a call to document as for Dodier, as it allows her to associate freely. Mavor uses Hawarden’s photographs to theorize about the intersection of photography, adolescence, and femininity, following on her previous examination of photography and childhood in Pleasures Taken: Performances of Sexuality and Loss in Victorian Photographs, also published by Duke University Press. She sees Hawarden’s work as not only imaging adolescence but also, as she describes, “indebted to the open structure of adolescence” (4). Much of her text is concerned with finding common ground between Hawarden’s photographs and those of Sally Mann and the work of other contemporary artists. As with her earlier book, Mavor’s principal concern is the potential erotic content of Hawarden’s pictures of her children.
There is much still to be said about Hawarden’s photography and its contexts, about such topics and issues as Hawarden’s engagement with the tradition of fancy dress and amateur theatricals, her appropriation and quotation of art historical models, and her relation to the history of Victorian album-making and archival culture, to name a few. Dodier’s text will be of most interest and use to scholars of both photographic history and Victorian culture, as it begins the task of understanding Hawarden.
Yale University Art Gallery
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