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“Private dreams and unknowable pleasures” in early photography

Clementina, Lady Hawarden, a forgotten precursor of Julia Margaret Cameron, is the subject of this book and of the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition

Something about the protagonists and the play of light makes these magical photographs by the intimiste Victorian, Clementina, Lady Hawarden, a national treasure. Fifty-five stereoscopic and full-plate photographs from the Victoria and Albert Museum’s unique collection of 775 wet-collodion, glass-plate, photographic albumen prints (donated by her granddaughter, Lady Tottenham, in 1939, exactly 100 years after Daguerre and Fox-Talbot’s announcements of their discovery of the new medium) will once more see the light of day in a special exhibition at the V&A (until 30 August) along with new pieces by contemporary women photographers, inserted by Mark Haworth-Booth, curator of photography, into an updated hang of the current “Silver and syrup” show.

This exquisite display of the pioneering, dreamy, playful, romantic, yet utterly modern works by a relatively unknown precursor of Julia Margaret Cameron, “Clementina, Lady Hawarden: studies from life 1857-64” is accompanied by a catalogue which also contains the first biography of the pioneering photographer by Virginia Dodier, an American graduate of the Courtauld Institute of Art, in London,

“Her studies from life stage a secret, mutual, and loving game of private dreams and unknowable pleasures”, as Marina Warner states in “The shadow of young girls in flower”, her excellent introductory essay to Ms Dodier’s authoritative reconstruction. Years of research in the archive, a full programme of interviews with family members (in the absence of a diary or much by way of letters from Lady Hawarden’s own hand), an epic trawl of documents, records, photographs, relations and acquaintances on both sides of the Atlantic, was begun by Ms Dodier at the instigation of Mr Haworth-Booth. Much of the research for this volume was done in 1986-88, when she was employed by the museum to compile the catalogue raisonné of its Hawarden collection, which comprises fully 90% of the photographer’s known output.

The result is a fascinating and sensitive restoration of an intriguing subject. Clementina, Lady Hawarden, née Fleeming, was a luminous photographer and great artist of reverie, adolescence, games and poses. She is rescued from obscurity, so often the fate of Victorian photography, to breathe again, both in the publication and exhibition of her pictures and in Dodier’s patient excavation of her background, her childhood, or her all too brief career as wife, mother and photographer. Mr Haworth-Booth contributes an elegant, informative and inventive essay, “The return of Lady Hawarden”, as an afterword. It runs from an overview of her work—a contextualisation among Victorian luminaries like Reijlander, Lewis Carroll and Whistler—through Graham Ovenden’s assessment of Hawarden’s “symbolist” light, to comparisons with contemporary women photographers, such as Cindy Sherman, Sally Mann, Hannah Starkey and Tessa Traegar, who can be said to have followed in her wake.

Virginia Dodier, Marina Warner, Mark Haworth-Booth, Clementina, Lady Hawarden: studies from life 1857-1864 (V&A Publications, London and Aperture, New York, 1999), 128 pp, 130 col. ills, £30, $45 (hb) ISBN (UK) 18512839; ISBN (US) 0893818151

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘“Private dreams and unknowable pleasures”'