The first fashion photographer: Clementina, Lady Hawarden

I first came across this photograph in a history of 19th century costume. It’s been widely published in print and online so you may well be familiar with it.

The author in that book said that the woman on the right has been posed with the crinoline of her dress removed to fit into the picture. My immediate thought was that this was incorrect. In the first place there is clearly plenty of room for a full crinoline, and more importantly while Isabella Hawarden is wearing a conventional day dress her sister Florence is wearing some kind of fancy dress or theatrical costume around which a piece of white material has been draped in a way which echoes the shape of Isabella’s dress. Take a closer look.

I think you can see the same piece of material in this photograph:

That’s their sister Clementina sitting at the window with the same material draped around her. You’ll see it again in other pictures.

But before we go any further what about that title, the first fashion photographer? You let me get away with calling Edward Linley Sambourne the first style blogger but surely a woman who took photos of her family which were never published in her lifetime can’t really be called a fashion photographer? Well not strictly speaking but as I’ve said before the early photographers may have been limited by the technology at their disposal but had already grasped most of the uses of the new medium. Lady Hawarden was possibly the first photographer to be obsessed with the way fabric hangs on the female form.

She took atmospheric pictures of her three daughters which are not far off the work of a modern fashion photographer in the way she treats her subjects and are in many ways just as good.

This picture of Isabella was used by Penguin for the cover of an edition of Wilkie Collins’ Woman in White. It’s an appropriate choice. The image has an air of the loneliness and mystery which is a feature of Lady Hawarden’s work.

Isabella and Clementina in bohemian dress. As we’ve seen before when you take the Victorians or the Edwardians out of their conventional clothes they start looking modern. They even have the attitude.

Here’s Clementina on her own giving off an air of twentieth century ennui in front of some curious wallpaper.

Lady Hawarden posed her daughters in a variety of fanciful or melodramatic situations.

Isabella and Clementina playing out some psychodrama as if they were in a narrative painting.

Clementina channelling high emotion in a study of light and shade.

Clementina dressed as a man with Isabella in period costume.

Below, two pictures of Clementina in an elaborate dress playing another tragic heroine, first with a veil (a deserted bride?)

And back in that corner by the window, one of her mother’s favourite locations.

Have I made my case? In quiet sparsely furnished rooms young women solemnly pose, looking slightly overwhelmed by their extravagant clothes. The outside world is dim and distant. They’re in a kind of dream. It’s tempting to see these pictures in terms of Victorian gothic / sensation novel fantasy and the three sisters as grown up versions of Alice (Lady Clementina knew Lewis Carroll as a photographic colleague). But imagine these same images in colour with a famous fashion brand name underneath published in Vogue or one of those new fashion magazines like Love. Imagine the Cocteau Twins, or Warpaint or Mogwai playing in the background. You’d pause to appreciate the styling or the set or the model and flick to the next page without thinking you’d seen something from the first days of photography.

Clementina becomes timeless and you see the image of a woman which could have been created any time in the last hundred and fifty years.

On either side of the mirror another world.

Clementina, Lady Hawarden died aged forty two in 1865. It has been suggested her health was badly affected by the chemicals used in photographic processes. Had she lived she might have developed her artistic vision and become one of the greatest photographers of the 19th century.

This week’s photographs come from various sources including the excellent book by Virginia Dodier published by the Victoria and Albert Museum whose collection includes the original Hawarden photographs. The book is out of print now I believe but still available second hand and in good libraries. I avoided reading it again when I decided to write this post in case the author had far more clever things to say than I could manage..

I’ve wanted to write about  Clementina’s photos ever since I first came across them. The Kensington connection is slight – the Hawardens’ house at 5 Princes Gardens was just over the border in the City of Westminster but I believe the houses in the background of the balcony views might be in Kensington. As Lady Hawarden worked on her dreamlike interiors a few miles away James Hedderly was setting up his camera in the street. Two people from different social classes with the same obsession both taking part in the creation of a new art form.

Another post about Clementina and her daughter.

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4 responses to “The first fashion photographer: Clementina, Lady Hawarden

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