Strike a Pose
Oct 25, 2017 | by Ellen Dial
Victorian Fashion Photography
Like many vintage lifestyle and history aficionados, I find myself browsing through, and yes – daydreaming over, the numerous vintage and historical boards on Pinterest. During my, arguably time-wasting habit, I kept coming across some of the most amazing photographs of young women – all taken by Lady Clementina Hawarden.
Who was she? This woman who captured the youth and beauty of her subjects, and in pretty much non-posey poses? I mean, we all appreciate early cabinet cards, carte de visite and formal portraits that were the thing in Victorian times. Everyone looks great – albeit a bit stiff and trussed up. Few smiles. Little emotion, except for the occasional look of terror or some majestically bearded gentleman looking thoughtfully into the void. All very formal. Well, and photoshopped – yes, they did that back in the day, too. There’s a wonderful vintage fashion and lifestyle vlog on the YouTube’s, check out the vintage musings of the delightfully charming Karolina Zebrowska, she did a brilliant research piece on old school photo manipulation. Some of those tiny waists weren’t as tiny as we’re led to believe!
All that aside, this woman interested me. In a time when female photographers were few and far between, it was an art form dominated by men, well, most art was. Talented women just weren’t as celebrated as a rule – enough said.
Who was she? Why don’t we know more? Who were these lovely young ladies in her pictures?
Set up your Brady stand and fluff your coif – let’s look at the little known, yet famous, Lady Clementina Hawarden.
Strike a Pose | Early Days
Clementina Elphinstone Fleeming married Cornwallis Maude, Fourth Viscount Hawarden in 1845. Making her, formally, the Right Honorable, Viscountess Hawarden – Right Honorable because she was not a daughter of the peerage. The Viscount and Viscountess lived on an impressive estate in the beautiful Dundrum County, Tipperary, Ireland.
Lady Clementina and hubby had eight children, yes eight! I can’t even.
She caught the photography bug in late 1857 or early 1858 – experimenting with large scale, panoramic pictures of the beautiful land surrounding her family’s home. As time passed, she moved to a pictorial record of daily life, I mean, with all those kids, she had subjects galore! Too bad she couldn’t take thousands of pictures and post them on Facebook, much to the chagrin of her FB friends. Unfortunately, most of these early photos no longer exist. But, she had the passion and the talent to push things a bit further.
In 1859, she (They? Details are sketchy) moved to London – into an elegant townhouse in an affluent area. She redesigned the whole first floor into a studio, removing the era-defining heavy interior decoration. Commissioning simple free-standing mirrors, chests and such to use in her work.
All this to take photography to a new level – working in a theatrical or “mise en scene” style. Acting out everything from ordinary, everyday scenes to tableaux rife with psychodrama. This was something new and certainly NOT something a lady of distinction would pursue.
But she did. You go!
Strike a Pose | Keeping it in the Family and Famous Friends
Lady Clementina focused upon her three eldest daughters, Isabella Grace, Clementina and Florence Elizabeth. The Lady herself rarely was included in the work, in fact, there are only a handful of photos that MAY have her in them.
Just an aside – don’t you just simply ADORE everyone’s name? So very, very Victorian. Jolly good!
The photos I’ve included are from the London period and feature her beautiful daughters. There are a couple in the collection of a son (Lionel?) and others, but the girls were the thing. She produced almost 800 photographs! She was as prolific with photos as she was children, just saying.
She did have a very famous (infamous?) admirer – Lewis Carroll was a big fan and amateur photographer as well. Her one well known contemporary was Julia Margaret Cameron, more (very little more) on her here. Carroll admired the work of both ladies. To be sure, he just admired ladies….and well, we’ll just let that comment perch in our Brady stand – as there are many rumors and speculations surrounding the gentleman and his photographic work.
Though she kept it in the family, I couldn’t find any works with the Viscount in them, now there may be some, I just didn’t find them. So, did he go to London with the rest of the family? What did he think of all this? Was he supportive, or is this why the Lady moved to London? So many questions and very few answers.
I’ll let our darling readers draw their own conclusions.
Strike a Pose | The Feels and Awards
What is most striking about Lady Clementina’s work is how unusual it was for the era. She focused upon the youthful beauty of her daughters. Capturing their innocence, sensuality and (gasp) sexuality in an age in which anything of this ilk was frowned upon. Her work has a sense of intimacy – loose hair, carelessly thrown shawls, bare ankles and, though still quite modest by today’s standards, visible stockings and corsets. You get the feeling you are seeing these subjects “at home” and at ease – the strict standards of the day pushed aside- as in home is where the pants aren’t.
All very staged, but seemingly not.
The projected attitude of her daughters, and focus upon clothing and drape recently earned her the moniker – first fashion photographer. She utilized dramatic lighting, windows, and mirrors to tell a story, set a tone – much like we see in modern fashion shoots (sans the provocative weirdness). We see her utilizing the same voluminous skirt or drape several times. Many of her images portray chic women, dressed at the height of Victorian fashion – add to that some shots with a Bohemian bent, but all with that attitude!
She was the first.
Lady Clementina’s talent and paradigm shifting work didn’t go unnoticed by her male counterparts. Though labeled an amateur, she broke onto the scene in January of 1863 with at her first exhibit, presented by the Photographic Society of London. She was inducted into the group March 1863. Over the course of a few years, she won several Silver Medals and her work was hailed by the press of the day – as groundbreaking and breathtaking.
Then, as suddenly as it started, it stopped.
Strike a Pose | Abrupt Endings and Beyond
The talented and much lauded Lady Clementina Hawarden died quite suddenly in 1865. Details of her untimely passing are murky. Tragic, to be sure. We do know she was in her mid – 40’s and most definitely at the height of her talent.
Soon after her untimely death, she all but fell out of the annals of photography. No posthumous exhibits, no writings in praise of her contributions. It’s been said the brilliant hottie, Edward Steichen, as well as other well-known artists, found her style inspirational. Artists who are still discussed, important and admired.
I’m just throwing this out here, was it because she was a she?
Very sad, indeed.
It wasn’t until the early days of WWII that Lady Clementina’s talent was resurrected a bit. In 1939, her grand-daughter Clementina Tottenham (another fabulous name!) gifted her grandmother’s portfolio to the Victoria and Albert Museum, where it lay idle until the late 1980’s – when a small portion of the collection was trotted out and Lady Clementina was reintroduced. This initial showing started a slow buzz.
Fast forward to today – you can find hundreds of examples of her fine work on Pinterest, the YouTubes, Instagram and Tumblr. She is all over social media. The star of blogs and books. Pictorial reviews. Finally, hopefully, getting the attention and interest, she well deserves.
I was thrilled to find her and learn more about her talent and contributions. There’s not a lot to be found, info on the interwebs is thin and repetitive. As a woman, she remains in the shadows. As an artist and influencer, she is coming into her own – just 150-plus years too late.
To our darling readers: are you familiar with Lady Clementina Hawarden? What do you think of her work? What do you know about her? Please add information to the comments if you know more!
The writer would like to thank: Wikipedia.com, themet.com, recollections.biz, rbkclocalstudies.wordpress.com, mastersofphotography.blogspot.com and cam.ac.uk. And those who post their images freely on the Internet.