Auctions | March 20, 2013

Two Albums of Rare 19th-Century Photography Sold High at Bonhams

Two collections of early photography — fashionable ladies and the architecture and landscapes of India — were the stand-out items in Bonhams sale £784,000 today (19.3.13) of Books at Photographs in Knightsbridge, London.

Top item in the sale was an important collection of 37 albumen prints by Clemintina Maud, Lady Hawarden, plus 15 associated albumen prints (several possibly by Lady Hawarden), [c.1857-1864] which sold for £115,200.

The second highest item in the sale was the photo album of a wealthy young Frenchman, Alexis De La Grange, who while having fun on a tour of India some 163 years ago, took some of the first photographs of the country between 1849 and 1850. His album offers 49 architectural views, most of which are Mughal, in northern India. The album sold for an above estimate price of £63,650.

But it was Lady Hawarden’s photographs that captured the bidders' enthusiasm, hardly surprising as this exceptional collection was by one of the most important and influential Victorian fine art photographers, a rare event in this market. The images are derived from a single album, the vast majority not represented in the Victoria & Albert Museum's collection.

She exhibited, and won silver medals, in the 1863 and 1864 exhibitions of the Photographic Society, and was admired by both Oscar Rejlander, and Lewis Carroll who acquired five images which went into the Gernsheim Collection and are now in Texas. In 1865 Lady Hawarden died, and although her loss was regretted in the photographic journals, her work was soon forgotten.

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 World War Two, and it was not until the 1980s that detailed appraisal and catalogue of the V&A holdings. This comprises almost the entire body of Hawarden's surviving work apart from the five images now in Texas, and small groups or single images at Bradford, Musée d'Orsay and the Getty. The appearance of the present collection was totally unexpected, and represented a remarkable opportunity to obtain images (most of which appear not to be duplicated elsewhere) by a photographer whose work is otherwise unobtainable.

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). 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.

The surviving photographs suggest that Clementina, now Lady Hawarden, began to take photographs on the Hawarden's Irish estate at Dundrum, Co. Tipperary, from late 1857. Many of these were taken with a stereoscopic camera, and the present collection contains several Dundrum images which are one of the pair that comprise a stereoscopic image.

In 1859 the family also acquired a new London home at 5 Princes Gardens (much of the square survives as built, but No. 5 has gone). 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 Mark Haworth-Booth offered Virginia Dodier the opportunity to make a freestanding mirror, a small chest of drawers and the iconic 'empire star' wallpaper, as seen in several of these 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 tableau. The girls were frequently shot — often in romantic and sensual poses — in pairs, or, if alone, with a mirror or with their back to the camera. Hawarden's photographic exploration of identity, otherness, the doppelgänger and female sexuality, as expressed in the vast majority of these photographs, was incredibly progressive when considered in relation to her contemporaries, most notably Julia Margaret Cameron.