Victorian Giants: the Birth of Art Photography review – the triumph of the female gaze

Clementina Maude by Clementina Hawarden, 1863-4. Photograph: © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

National Portrait Gallery, London
This captivating show proves that the most exciting thing happening in Victorian art was photography, and the bold and revolutionary Julia Margaret Cameron was the greatest British artist of her day.

Two young women stand side by side in the bright light of a window. One looks dreamily into the light, the other stares back at us, arms folded. She is confrontational, challenging. It is a bold, modern image. Are they suffragettes or is this a photo from the age of punk?

Neither. This portrait of Isabella Grace and Clementina Maude was taken by their mother, Clementina, Lady Hawarden, in 1863-4. Photography as a way of recording permanent images was only about 25 years old, even if experiments with cameras had been going on longer. The invention of the wet-plate collodion process by Frederick Scott Archer in 1851 revolutionised the young medium. Its use of glass negatives coated in silver nitrate made sharp, lucid, bright images such as Hawarden’s photograph of Grace and Maude possible. The results are uncanny. Time and again in this captivating exhibition you find yourself looking at people so precisely captured by the collodion process they seem to be alive, among us, now.

Here is Charles Darwin, portrayed by Julia Margaret Cameron in 1868, nearly a decade after the publication of On the Origin of Species made him notorious. The Darwin family had rented Cameron’s house on the Isle of Wight for a holiday, and she took the chance to fix his image for posterity. Like her other prints, this is big and expansive, with a subtle rich focus that makes Darwin seem to be preserved in silvery liquid. You can see the light in his eyes, as the dark pupils rise under his heavy brow in what looks like a moment of wonder and introspection. While he keeps still for the Victorian camera’s slow exposure, he is thinking. Pondering, perhaps, the evolution of human beings that he was to map out in his next book.

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Image Credit: Clementina Maude by Clementina Hawarden, 1863-4. Photograph: © Victoria & Albert Museum, London