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The Scottish aristocrat whose pioneering photography drew admiration from Lewis Carroll

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  • by MIKE MERRITT
 

She was a Scottish pioneer of photography and Lewis Carroll admired – and bought – her work. Now an important collection of 37 prints by Lady Clementina Hawarden is to be auctioned in London next month

FOR a 19th-century aristocrat, Clementina Hawarden lived a fairly unusual life. The title of Viscountess Hawarden might suggest a life of privilege and precious little toil, but the Scot was a pioneering Victorian photographer in an era when the profession was dominated by men, and her work was avidly collected by Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll.

Her portraits of her children in the costumes of the day have been described as the earliest known fashion shoot. And almost as if to underline her credentials, the death of the Viscountess was attributed to poisoning from exposure to photographic chemicals. Now an important collection of 37 albumen prints by Viscountess Hawarden – known more regularly as Lady Clementina Hawarden – and a pair of pencil sketches of her and her husband are to be sold at auction next month, where they are expected to fetch up to £150,000. The sale of the collection by one of the most important and influential Victorian fine art photographers is a rare event in this market. The images come from a single album, the vast majority not represented in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s collection, where the majority of her work is housed.

Born Clementina Elphinstone Fleeming in Dunbartonshire in 1822, she was the third of five children of a British father, Admiral Charles Elphinstone Fleeming (1774-1840), and a Spanish mother, Catalina Paulina Alessandro (1800-1880). One of five children, she grew up on the family estate at Cumbernauld. Thereafter much of Lady Clementina’s life remains a mystery, but in 1845 she married Cornwallis Maude, an officer in the Life Guards.

In 1856 Maude’s father, Viscount Hawarden, died and his title, and considerable wealth, passed to Cornwallis.
Hawarden and her husband had ten children, two boys and eight girls, out of whom eight survived to adulthood.
The surviving photographs suggest that Clementina, now a Viscountess, began to take photographs on the Hawarden’s Irish estate at Dundrum, Co 
Tipperary, from late 1857. In 1859 the family also acquired a new London home at 5 Princes Gardens. From 1862 onwards Lady Hawarden used the entire first floor of the property as a studio, within which she kept a few props, many of which have come to be synonymous with her work: gossamer curtains, a freestanding mirror, a small chest of drawers and the “empire star” wallpaper, as seen in several photographs.

The superior aspect of the studio can also go some way to account for Hawarden’s sophisticated, subtle and pioneering use of natural light in her images.
It was also here that Lady Hawarden focused upon taking photographs of her eldest daughters, Isabella Grace, Clementina, and Florence Elizabeth, whom she would often dress up in costume tableaux.
She exhibited, and won silver medals in the 1863 and 1864 exhibitions of the Photographic Society, and was admired by both Oscar Rejlander, and Carroll, who acquired five images that went into the Gernsheim Collection and are now in Texas.
Tragically, Hawarden was never to collect her medals. She died on 19 January, 1865, after suffering from pneumonia for one week, aged 42. It has been suggested that her immune system was weakened by constant contact with photographic chemicals.
In 1939 her granddaughter presented the V&A with 779 photographs, most of which had been roughly torn from their original albums with significant losses to corners. Proper examination, and appreciation of this gift, was delayed by the Second World War, and it was not until the 1980s that detailed appraisal and catalogue of the V&A holdings took place. This comprises almost the entire body of Hawarden’s surviving work.

• The auction of the collection will be held by Bonhams in London on 19 March.

 

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