Source of featured image: nationalmediamuseum.org.uk, woman against sunlit wall, Clementina Hawarden
Following some general research on historic portrait photography (see sources here), a photograph by Lady Clementina Hawarden (1822-1865) was chosen for in-depth study. Carol Mavor’s book, Becoming: The Photographs of Clementina, explains that Hawarden made around 850 photos, many with her adolescent daughters as subjects. Mavor states that she finds the photos erotic, while acknowledging that others do not so, and draws comparison with Sally Mann’s photos of her own adolescent children, which Mavor also finds erotic.
There are similarities between the work of Francesca Woodman and Hawarden; in the adolescent subject matter, the frequent use of a window as a light source, the empty room as a backdrop, and the eroticism.
While much is written about the work of Hawarden’s contemporary, Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–1879), there is little dedicated to Hawarden. This is perhaps because Hawarden’s work was not widely publicised at the time it was made – treated as private photos of her family. The V&A comments that ‘the collection of photographs by Hawarden came to the Museum in relative obscurity in 1939, without any accompanying archival material to reveal more about her life and work.’
Considering the photo, woman against sunlit wall, the National Medium Museum suggests that it could be a self-portrait or a photo of Hawarden’s sister. Regardless, it leaves a similar impression to the photos of the adolescent daughters, posed by their mother.
In my view the photograph is erotic, though whether or not it was intended to be so is difficult to know. The woman leans against a wall, with bright sunlight from her right casting a hard silhouetted shadow on the wall. Her neck is stretched and open to the viewer, illuminated by the sunlight. Her hair drapes loosely over her shoulder, dishevelled and unprepared for the public gaze. Her elongated neck is framed by a bead necklace, which draws the eye down towards the line of her low-cut dress. She looks down, reflectively in a private moment, as if unaware she is being watched; the camera and the viewer are voyeurs of the scene. The woman’s left hand rests upon her breast, encouraging the eye towards the low neckline of her dress. Her right hand rests on her dress on what seems to be her inner thigh area, but this is ambiguous and unclear, masked by the generous folds of her dress; engaging the viewer in questioning what is happening in the image. The shadow of her outline on the wall emphasises that the woman is leaning back, relaxed and without caring what is happening around her. It also adds shade to the left of the woman in contrast to the light on her right side, the dark shadow creating a sense of mystery.
Eve K. Victorian Musings [blog]. Viscountess Clementina Hawarden Maude (2013) . Available from: http://kimberlyevemusings.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/viscountess-clementina-hawarden-maude.html [accessed 2.7.16]
Luminous-lint.com [website]. Lady Clementina Hawarden. Available from: http://www.luminous-lint.com/app/photographer/Lady_Clementina__Hawarden/A/ [accessed 2.7.16]
Mavor, C. and Hawarden, V.C. (1999) Becoming: The Photographs of Clementina, Viscountess Hawarden. Duke University Press.
National Media Museum [online]. Woman against sunlit wall. Available from: http://www.nationalmediamuseum.org.uk/collection/photography/photographscollection/collectionitem?id=1985-5078/7 [accessed 2.7.16]
Sally Mann [website]. Available from: http://sallymann.com/selected-works/family-pictures [accessed 2.7.16]
The V&A [online]. Lady Clementina Hawarden and the V&A. Available from: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/l/lady-clementina-hawarden-and-the-v-and-a/ [accessed 2.7.16]