Victorian Giants Lewis Carroll, Julia Margaret Cameron, Oscar Rejlander and Clementine Hawarden at the NPG

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“When people think of Victorian photography, they sometimes think of stiff, fusty portraits of women in crinoline dresses, and men in bowler hats,” says Phillip Prodger, head of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery. “Victorian Giants is anything but.

“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. The works of Cameron, Carroll, Hawarden, and Rejlander forever changed thinking about photography and its expressive power. These are pictures that inspire and delight. And this is a show that lays bare the unrivalled creative energy, and optimism, that came with the birth of new ways of seeing.”

He’s promoting Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography, a new show at the NPG featuring Lewis Carroll, Julia Margaret Cameron, Oscar Rejlander, and Clementine Hawarden. The four photographers were from very different backgrounds – Rejlander was a Swedish émigré, Cameron an expatriate from colonial Ceylon, Carroll an Oxford academic, and Hawarden landed gentry – but were united in their passion for the new discipline. Cameron, Carroll, and Hawarden all studied under Rejlander, and the four stayed in touch throughout their careers.

Influenced by painting and often associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement, they created new approaches to portraiture that remain influential today. Victorian Giants allows visitors to compare and contrast their work, showcasing the separate portraits that Cameron and Rejlander each took of the poet Alfred Tennyson and the scientist Charles Darwin, and Carroll and Cameron’s shots of actress Ellen Terry.

Mountain Nymph, Sweet Liberty by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1866

Other portraits in the exhibition show Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Thomas Carlyle, George Frederick Watts, and Alice Liddell – best-known as the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland. “The NPG has one of the finest holdings of Victorian photographs in the world,” stated Dr Nicholas Cullinan, the gallery’s director. “As well as some of the gallery’s rarely seen treasures, such as the original negative of Lewis Carroll’s portrait of Alice Liddell and images of Alice and her siblings being displayed for the first time, this exhibition will be a rare opportunity to see the works of all four of these highly innovative and influential artists.”

The NPG recently announced a major development, which will give it around 20% more gallery and public space including a state-of-the-art Learning Centre. It’s the gallery’s biggest development since its launch in 1896, and it’s scheduled to start in 2020 and take two years to complete. So far the gallery has secured £21.2m of the £35.5m needed to complete the project, including £9.4m from the Heritage Lottery Fund. It has appointed Jamie Fobert Architects, best-known for its work on Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge and Tate St Ives, to lead the work.

Founded in 1856, the NPG aims “to promote through the medium of portraits the appreciation and understanding of the men and women who have made and are making British history and culture, and … to promote the appreciation and understanding of portraiture in all media”. The gallery holds the most extensive collection of portraits in the world, and currently has over 1000 of them on display over three floors.

Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography is curated by Phillip Prodger and on show until 20 May at the NPG, and from June-September at Millennium Gallery, Sheffield.

Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography is a Photo London satellite event

Clementina Maude at 5 Princes Gardens, standing, looking into a large floor mirror; from The Photographic Study Series by Clementina, Lady Hawarden
Unidentified Young Woman by Oscar Rejlander
Two ways of Life by Oscar Rejlander, 1856-7
Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy