Efforts to drag the Victorians out from their prudish, dusty coffins are embarked upon at least once a year. Frozen beneath a thick layer of their Queen’s own lifestyle, Victorian society struggles to be considered as anything other than colonial, prim, and for the most part, boring. With the French Revolution preceding it, and the first world war at its end, many would see Britain’s nineteenth century as something of a stilted grey blur of workhouses, industrialisation and Victoria’s ubiquitous black dresses. This year there has been an announcement that Pride and Prejudice will be made into a darker-than-usual adaptation. Because either the cry for gritty Austen has been loud and clear, or those making the decisions have mistaken Austen’s satire for Bronte Gothicism. Either way, it’s yet another grope at bringing the Victorians to life.
At the beginning of next year, running from March 1st until May 20th, the National Portrait Gallery will be displaying their own attempt at reinventing Dickens’s century. Their exhibition, ‘Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography’, will bring together the works of four photographers considered to be the parents of ‘art photography’. The four giants are Oscar Rejlander, Lewis Carroll, Julia Margaret Cameron, and Clementina Hawarden. Phillip Prodger, the head of the National Portrait Gallery’s photographs, explained that ‘When people think of Victorian Photography, they sometimes think of stiffy, fusty portraits of women in crinoline dresses, and men in bowler hats. ‘Victorian Giants’ is anything but.’ True, but it seems strange that the age that birthed photography is considered the least adventurous. The association seems to come from the general sullenness of those sitting for the photos, given the length of time it took for a negative to develop. Hypocritical, however, given the sheer amount of miserable, useless and unimaginative pictures we produce today, far outstripping the Victorians of any claim to mundanity.
The photographs on show are, for obvious reasons, highly delicate and as such rarely displayed to the public. Rejlander’s haven’t been part of an exhibition since his death in 1875, yet his ‘Two Ways of Life’, a composite of thirty-two images, was once so well-received that Queen Victoria herself purchased a copy. Rejlander, certified as ‘the father of art photography’, is perhaps the most intriguing of the four. Besides impressing royalty and birthing a movement of artists, the Swedish photographer collaborated with Charles Darwin to capture the varying emotions of mankind. These were used towards Darwin’s work, The Expressions of Emotions in Man and Animals, images that are probably today’s most recognisable examples of Rejlander’s output.
Whether or not the exhibition will alter any visitors’ perceptions of Victorian society is not a question filled with promise. The majority of those attending the event will be those who already accept that our recent ancestors were not the priggish types passed down to us in greyscale photographs, and past missions to change the minds of everyone else have failed. While the works on display, of Alice Liddell, Darwin, and Alfred Lord Tennyson, are curiosities worth seeing, ‘Victorian Giants’ is unlikely to awaken any guests to the wider Victorian world available.