Lady Lever Artwork of the Month – December 2007

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Lady Lever artwork of the Month – December 2007
‘Women Photographers in Victorian Visions’, text by Sandra Penketh

About the artwork

Women played an important part in the early years of photography. Their creativity, ingenuity and determination against the backdrop of a male dominated art world was quite remarkable. The three women represented in the Victorian Visions exhibition, Julia Margaret Cameron, Lady Hawarden and Anna Atkins, exemplify the characteristics of many women who broke into the art world in the mid-Victorian era. They were well connected, well educated and in some ways unconventional. They weren’t professional photographers but serious amateurs who helped to advance the possibilities of this new art form. Their work is dominated by domestic interiors, portraits and ‘feminine’ subjects but is no less powerful because of this. In fact, quite the opposite, their work today stands out for its quality and timelessness.

In the 1840s through to the 1870s, when these women were taking photographs, the practice was still a highly technical, physically difficult and challenging activity. Cameras were heavy, photographers often mixed their own sensitising chemicals, and developed their own prints. The actual process of taking the photograph was lengthy due to the often-long exposure times required. It was quite a challenge for anyone to take up this practice, but arguably more of a challenge for a woman. Women did not have the same opportunities for professional art training; they were expected to behave in a conventional and proper manner; and they were usually excluded from scientific or technical pursuits (apart from the more traditionally feminine subjects such as botany).

Women from relatively well-off families were expected to show some artistic skill at an amateur level as part of their accomplishments but it wasn’t considered proper, in many social circles, for them to pursue something more serious. Their responsibilities were to the home and family. In addition, the nature of their artistic practice was limited by convention. Women were not expected to go wandering the countryside alone to make landscape studies, nor were they expected to go out un-chaperoned to source subjects for their work. But they were expected to work on a domestic scale. Considering all these limitations, it is quite surprising that any women took up photography.

Gallery Talk
Talks will take place on 14 December 2007

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