A detail from a photograph of Alice Liddell by Lewis Carroll, 1858. Photograph: National Portrait Gallery London
Fragile images by some of the pioneers of Victorian photography, rarely displayed because the prints and negatives are so vulnerable to light damage, will star in an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London next spring
The exhibition will include images by the Swedish photographer Oscar Rejlander, and will be the first time they have been publicly displayed in London since his death in 1875.
Lewis Carroll’s portraits of Alice Liddell, the real model for his Alice in Wonderland – including the delicate original negatives – will also feature, as will the less familiar portraits by Julia Margaret Cameron of Liddell as a grown woman.
Alice Liddell as Alethea by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1872. Photograph: Wilson Centre for Photography
Rejlander is now much less famous than his followers, but they all learned from him and discussed their work with him over the years.
The Swede has been describe as the father of art photography, and even the father of Photoshop, for his complex montages. These included the epic 1857 Two Ways of Life, which is composed from 30 separate negatives, and had to be printed across two sheets. The work shows one young person choosing the Victorian virtues of marriage and domesticity, while the other rushes towards the more beguiling life of lust, gambling and idleness.
It raised eyebrows in the 19th century because of the number of barely draped females, but Queen Victoria was sufficiently impressed to buy a copy as a birthday present for her husband, Albert.
Two ways of Life by Oscar Rejlander, 1856-7. Photograph: National Portrait Gallery London
Phillip Prodger, head of photographs at the NPG, is curator of the Victorian Giants: the Birth of Art Photography exhibition. He predicted it would be an eye-opener for many visitors, illustrating nothing less than a new way of seeing.
“When people think of Victorian photography, they sometimes think of stiff, fusty portraits of women in crinoline dresses, and men in bowler hats,” he said. “Victorian Giants is anything but.”
The NPG managed to raise the money two years ago to save an album of Rejlander’s work from export, which will be a highlight of the exhibition, along with the series illustrating human emotions which he created for the scientist Charles Darwin.
Rejlander remains a slightly mysterious figure. He is believed to have been born in Sweden in 1813, moved to Rome and trained as a painter. He then moved to England in the 1840s and switched to photography allegedly after a single afternoon’s training by a former valet of Henry Fox Talbot, another pioneer who invented a means of permanently fixing a photographic image.
When he died in 1875 his obituary in the Photographic News admitted: “Of the early life of Mr Rejlander, we have but a brief record, derived from his incidental remarks in conversation.” His grave in Kensal Green cemetery, north-west London, was only marked with a memorial stone four years ago.
The NPG exhibition will show his work for the first time with that of Carroll, Cameron and Clementina Hawarden, considered to have create art photography. The did this in part by roping in friends and family to serve as models. In the case of Cameron, passersby on the road outside her home on the Isle of Wight were called upon.
Julia Margaret Cameron’s portrait of Alfred Lord Tennyson. Photograph: Julia Margaret Cameron/National Media Museum, Bradford / Science & Society Picture Library
They frequently photographed the same subjects: as well as Liddell, Carroll and Cameron both photographed the actor Ellen Terry, who as a teenager briefly and disastrously married the much older artist GF Watts. Cameron and Rejlander both photographed the picturesquely bearded and cloaked poet Alfred Lord Tennyson.
Hawarden, the daughter of an English admiral and a Spanish beauty 26 years his junior, left no diary and few letters, but was experimenting with photography from at least 1857, including portraits of the eight survivors of her 10 children. She died in 1865 aged 42, her health said to have been damaged by her exposure to photographic chemicals. Rejlander wrote her obituary, describing her as “a loss to photography for she would have progressed”.
Photographic study by Clementina Hawarden. Photograph: National Portrait Gallery London
The exhibition will include loans from the Royal Collection, the V&A and Tate, as well the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and other museums in Sweden and Germany.
Prodger described the work of the four photographers as “raw, edgy and experimental, the work of the Victorian avant garde, not just in photography but in art writ large”.
He added: “The works of Cameron, Carroll, Hawarden and Rejlander forever changed thinking about photography and its expressive power. These are pictures that inspire and delight. And this is a show that lays bare the unrivalled creative energy, and optimism, that came with the birth of new ways of seeing.”