Whilst in Leamington Spa we went to the Pump Rooms (the town’s small museum and gallery) and found a new travelling exhibition Domestic Idylls: Clementina, Lady Hawarden which sounded rather twee and uninteresting, bring to mind ‘nice’ paintings of upper-class country life. Fortunately the reality was very different as the subtitle to the exhibition is ’19th century photography from the V&A’.
Lady Clementina Harwarden (1822-1865) was one of the early pioneering photographers, taking mostly posed pictures of her family in their London appartment. The few exterior pictures in the exhibition come over mostly as holiday snap-shots, with the notable exception of an evocative and sinister shot of a female figure walking down a path through an over-grown wood (an image Tim Burton would be proud of).
Describing the interior pictures as ‘posed’ makes them sound static and unengaging but they are not. Almost all the pictures have been taken – ripped – from a book or journal so each has all four corners torn off, giving, from the start, a sense of found objects, not formal portraits. Your expectations are further challenged when you realise that in only a few pictures does the subject look at the camera, either glancing to the side of the photographer or staring directly out of the picture but with their eyes shut. Add to this the narrow depth of field and you have a collection of fascinating pictures.
Many of the pictures use reflections or mirrors and for me the centre of the exhibition is the picture of a female figure standing next to a full length mirror in which the camera is reflected – not the photographer, just the camera – the closest we get to Lady Hawarden coming into the picture as she seldom took self-portraits.
The exhibition is on loan from the V&A, which has a selection of Lady Hawarden’s pictures on its website, and is on in Leamington until the 6th April 2008. Although small the exhibition is well worth taking a trip to see.
In a final ironic twist it is believed that Lady Hawarden literally died for her art: she died on 19th January 1865 from pneumonia said to have been complicated by her exposure to the developing chemicals.
— Words and pictures by Paul