23 August, 2017 | Share Article
National Portrait Gallery exhibition of Victorian photographers will push beyond “insalubrious accusations” against Carroll.
Claims that the English author Lewis Carroll had an interest in sexualising young children will be countered in an exhibition of Victorian photography opening at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London next spring.
Victorian Giants: the Birth of Art Photography (1 March-20 May 2018) is to feature Carroll’s well-known portraits of a young Alice Liddell, the real model for his Alice in Wonderland, as well as the delicate original negatives. Less-familiar portraits of Liddell as a grown woman by Carroll and the pioneering British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron will also be included.
According to the curator Phillip Prodger, the aim is to “look at the intersections” between the four photographers included in the exhibition: Carroll, Cameron, Oscar Rejlander and Clementina Hawarden. “Sometimes it’s the same sitter, sometimes it’s the same subject matter; for instance, how did all four approach children?” Prodger says.
Carroll, Cameron and Rejlander all photographed Lionel Tennyson, the grandson of the poet Alfred. Meanwhile, Hawarden, who was the daughter of an English admiral, captured her own children. These and around 15 other images of children will feature in the show.
As for the allegations against Carroll, whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, Prodger says no claims of impropriety were ever made in the author's lifetime. “Of course, we will never know exactly how Carroll himself felt about his subjects,” he says.
“Some scholarship has been done on the history of these allegations, which didn't arise until the 1930s when the complete works of Freud were published in English,” Prodger says. “On Carroll’s deathbed, a number of young female sitters came forward and eulogised him, saying he was a very generous and gentle man who would never hurt a fly.”
Prodger says that the exhibition raises other questions about Victorian attitudes towards children. “Whether male or female, who would be drawn to photograph children? And how did children sit in the Victorian mind? These are the deeper questions that push beyond the insalubrious accusations,” the curator says, adding that the photographs reflect “a feeling of disconnectedness from innocent youth” and are “not about anything erotic”.
The exhibition will also include images by the Swedish-born photographer Rejlander. Although far less-well known than his followers, Rejlander has been described as the father of art photography and even the father of Photoshop.Rejlander’s Two Ways of Life (1856-57) is comprised of 33 separate negatives stitched together in a way that foresaw the digital manipulation of images. “When the work was first exhibited in Manchester in 1857, it polarised opinion,” Prodger says. “Some saw it as a bastardisation, as too like painting, while others saw it as a new frontier.”
Queen Victoria bought three copies of the print, giving one to her husband Albert as a birthday present. The NPG exhibition will be the first time the epic photograph has been shown in London.
An album of photographs by Rejlander purchased by the museum following an export bar in 2015 will also feature. The book was originally sold at Morphets auctioneers in Harrogate for £82,000 to an overseas museum, but its export was challenged. “We were given the opportunity to buy the album and were able to do so with the help of private donations and the Art Fund,” Prodger says.
he curator says that the exhibition will smash preconceptions of Victorian photography as “stiff, fusty portraits of women in crinoline dresses and men in bowler hats”. Victorian Giants is anything but, he adds. “Here, visitors can see the birth of an idea—raw, edgy, experimental—the Victorian avant-garde, not just in photography, but in art writ large.”