Sunday, 16 January 2011

Straightforward...with a Feminine Grace

Born in Scotland in 1822, Clementina Fleeming (later Vicountess Hawarden) married in 1845, living between London and a country estate in Co. Tipperary, Ireland, where in 1857 she took up an interesting and distinctly modern hobby: photography.

Unidentified Young Man with Camera on Tripod, c. 1857

The details of Lady Hawarden's life are largely unknown. Her birth, marriage and death are all part of the public record, but there is little else known about her. It is here that her images come forward and speak where the written word fails, here that her passion and inspiration shines through in photographic form. 

Isabella Grace & Florence Elizabeth on the Balcony of 5 Princes Gardens,  1862-3

In it's infancy, photography was seen as less of an art form, like painting or sculpture, and more of a science. The chemical processes involved in developing images would continue to alter and advance apace as the nineteenth century progressed, and Lady Clementina Hawarden's experiments are all the more interesting because she was a woman in what was perceived to be a masculine, scientific sphere. Her first images are dated in the year 1857, taken on the family estate in Ireland. They are albumen prints, a type of photograph achieved by "...coating paper with a layer of egg white and salt to create a smooth surface. The paper was then coated with a layer of silver nitrate. The salt and silver nitrate combined to form light sensitive silver salts. This double coated paper could then be placed in contact with a negative and exposed to the sun to produce a print."

Study from Life, 1861

Quite what Lady Hawarden's thoughts were on her new pastime are totally unknown, but she must have enjoyed the process enough to continue when she and her family moved back from Ireland to London in 1859. It was there, at 5 Princes Gardens, South Kensington, that she set up a studio for her work, becoming prolific and also confident enough in her abilities to put forward some of her pieces for exhibition. 

Earlier landscapes developed into a zeal for portraits, and it is here that the little details of family life can be most clearly seen. Her favoured models were her husband, her children and servants, whom she shot in a variety of attitudes and locations. Some are decidedly abstract in nature; more concerned in capturing a mood than anything else.

Clementina Maude, 1860s

Lady Hawarden had an eye for composition, as well as for evoking atmosphere in her use of light and shadow. It was a talent that went beyond the scientific process she engaged in. Today we would say she had flair, a good eye. She engaged with her subjects in a way that the stiff, buttoned up Victorian sepia portraits we are so used to seeing never show.

Clementina & Isabella Grace, c.1864

In 1863 and '64, Lady Hawarden exhibited Studies from Life and Photographic Studies at the Photographic Society of London, where her images earned her silver medal prizes. These were to be her only exhibitions, however; she died the following year of pneumonia, aged only 42.  

Study from Life, c.1860

Fellow contemporary O.G Rejlander wrote of her, "She was also in her manner and conversation - fair, straightforward...with a feminine grace." It is a comment which also serves to sum up her body of work, too. Clementina Hawarden's contribution to the burgeoning world of photography was widely respected during the nineteenth century. Her pioneering explorations and artistic flair continue to be so today.

All images courtesy of the V&A Museum.


  1. Dear Laura,
    I feel like you wrote this post just for me!! Even today it seems that the photography world is dominated by men so she would have had to be a strong woman to find her way. I'm in awe of the images - they are haunting in their beauty - exactly what I aim for in my work. Thanks so much for writing this. I'd love to see more.

  2. Hi Ingrid...that's so sweet, thanks! I certainly had my artist friends in mind when I wrote the post, and love sharing lesser known discoveries. It's a shame more isn't known about Lady Hawarden, but her images are truly beautiful. You're absolutely right: she would have had to have worked so hard to get recognition and respect, but she did it!

    The V&A has a few more images here:

    There are also a few books out there, too:

    I wish I could come along to your next show. I'm really intrigued by your promo-poster...

  3. Salut Laura, those photographs are beautiful and amazing and she certainly did have "a great eye". I do sometimes wonder though how many other extremely talented people there would have been "out there" but who weren't privileged enough to be able to indulge in their talent/"hobby". I'm sure that her social status would have been extremely helpful in securing her a (well deserved) place in the history and had she been less privileged, we might never have heard of her... Love from London xo

  4. Wonderful post, Laura. I'm always amazed at the women who picked up a camera back then - in a man's world. Dreamy images. Imagine - gone at 42. Thanks. Loved this.

  5. Carole - Lady Hawarden's social status is an interesting thought. I'm just glad that her body of work has survived to this day so we can enjoy it now. Talent is talent, no matter what the era. :)

    Catherine - Thank you! It amazed me, too. I like to imagine her husband was a very foward thinking gentleman! And yes, gone at 42. Imagine how she would have progressed with the technology if she had lived....