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Photography in Victorian England

Photography in Victorian England

I’ve taken an unexpected and long break from writing. Late last summer, my mother was diagnosed with inoperable stage four lung cancer. It all came as a shock. She’d always taken care of herself and had never smoked a day in her life. Her diagnosis hit me hard, and I had trouble keeping up with my writing.

My mother passed away on June 14, 2012. She was my biggest fan, my cheerleader, and my rock. I’ll miss her every day.

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In the 1850’s , Lady Clementina Hawarden (Clementina Maude, Viscountess Harwarden) began taking photographs, first of  Ireland’s landscape near their home in Dundrum County, Tipperary, Ireland, and later focusing on her ten children (yes, TEN). In 1859, when the family relocated to their London home in South Kensington, she set up a studio there to continue her work.

Photography in the Victorian age required exacting skill. For her process, Lady Clementina made albumen prints from wet-collodion negatives. The advantage of this particular process was that it was much quicker than many other methods, and the models did not have to stand frozen in place for long periods of time.

Collodion was made from gun-cotton soaked in ether, the liquid was then applied in a thin coat to glass plates. Lady Clementina placed the fragile plate in a camera, exposed it while still wet, and developed it immediately.

The next step was to create a print using the special paper. The albumen paper was coated with a mixture of egg whites (albumen) and salt in a smooth layer, and a second layer of silver nitrate was applied over it. Together, the salt and silver nitrate formed the light sensitive compound of silver salts.  To create the print, she placed the paper in contact with the negative, and exposed it to sunlight until she achieved the desired level of exposure… not too light, not too dark.

c. 1861

While most male photographers of the day traveled extensively to photograph foreign lands, Lady Clementina remained at home, capturing images of her family. It is from these photos that see views of the life of an upper-class family. Sometimes her daughters wore the fashions of the day, and at other times they wore costumes from the family’s dress-up box. Reenacting historical tableaux was a popular pastime of the day.

Lady Clementina’s first public exhibit of her work took place in 1863 in an annual event hosted by the Photographic Society of London, and then again in the following year. She won a silver medal both years.

Sadly, she died of pneumonia in January of 1865 at the age 42, leaving behind ten children and a large body of work.

To see many of her photographs, visit the website for the Victoria and Albert Museum  at  http://www.vam.ac.uk/page/l/lady-clementina-hawarden/.

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