Tag Archives: South Kensington

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.


Idle days in southern Kensington: William Cowen country

Through the trees you can see a domed building. We’re not truly in the country but this isn’t the city. It’s the suburbia of the 1840s. Not many miles from this spot there are wide roads, grand houses, public buildings, slums and rookeries, courts and prisons, open sewers and dirty rivers. But here there are leafy lanes and walled nursery gardens with occasional cottages and inns.

(Click on the image to see the details)

Here are some houses in the little village of Earls Court. A woman hangs out washing to dry in the clean air.

Here is Walnut Tree Walk or Redcliffe Gardens as we’d call it today which takes you south from Earls Court Road to Fulham Road.

In the distance you can glimpse some large buildings. The big places always seem to be in the distance, as in this picture of Cromwell Road, or Row:

Not the Cromwell Road we know of course. That wouldn’t come into being until the 1850s. If the angle is right the distant tower is Holy Trinity, Brompton before the Oratory got in the way. The view below has another church, St Luke’s in the background behind the newly built Brompton Hospital. (Or The Diseased Chest Hospital as it is called on the parish map of 1846.)

But the focus of the picture is the pair of young men and their reluctant looking horse. Things look more relaxed in Gore Lane:

Outside Ivy Cottage are two women, a child, a dog and a couple of odd looking birds. Chickens? Or guinea fowl maybe. Guinea fowl are strange looking creatures, I think. I once came upon a crowd of them at a farm (or is that a flock?). They moved away from me slowly in unison, their iridescent tail faeathers trailing behind. The sight has stayed with me through the years since that encounter.

Meanwhile at Mr Attwood’s house it’s all quiet.

Mr Attwood owned one of the many local nurseries and lived here with his wife, seven children and two servants. He is still remembered in gardening circles.

My favourite picture from the collection is this one:

Another young woman with a dog and the suggestion of a ruin, but the best touch is that Narnian lamppost. This is the avenue to Cresswell Lodge. At this time Cresswell Lodge was a private boarding school for young ladies, which sounds like an ideal place to go walking through a wardrobe.

This one has the same fantasy quality:

It’s Rose Lane, which leads to Kensington by a scenic route. The two women talking in the shade of the high wall appear to be in no hurry to go anywhere. Through the open gate is a still more private garden. The  sun casts long shadows.

No-one is sure where Rose Lane was exactly but may have been just west of Gloucester Road perhaps near the present Rosary Gardens.

William Cowen the Yorkshire-born landscape artist and author of Six Weeks in Corsica came to live at Gibraltar Cottage, Thistle Grove in 1843. Not the same Thistle Grove as today’s. The wide still somewhat picturesque alley we know today, which also has a Narnian style lamppost took its name from Drayton Gardens which didn’t need it anymore. Cowen lived there until his death in 1860. The indigo wash water colour paintings featured here are part of a set of 31 which seem to have come from the same sketchbook. They all have the same dreamlike quality, the same calm feeling of unhurried summer days in an idyllic rural landscape.

Back to the beginning, here again is Cowen’s most recognizable subject. The domed building is revealed as the chapel of Brompton Cemetery, another kind of walled garden at the end of Brompton Lane, by the side of the short lived Kensington Canal.

This is also the end of Cowen country. You can imagine visiting these landscapes but you’d need more than a time machine to get into the country of his imagination.


%d bloggers like this: