The photographs of Clementina, Viscountess Hawarden are now instantly recognizable – but her images only came to light by accident, as Mark Haworth-Booth remembers

I first became aware of the compelling name of Clementina, Viscountess Hawarden – to give it in full – in 1972. That was the year of a landmark exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum titled From Today Painting is Dead: The Beginnings of Photography. Lady Hawarden was not only well represented on the walls but a now-famous photograph of hers graced the cover of the catalog.

In this, two of Lady Hawarden's daughters are shown on a terrace overlooking Princes Gardens, a few minutes walk north of the museum. The young women were photographed en plein air, sunlight playing vividly on their skin, clothing and surroundings. They are both in the world-metropolis that Victorian London had become, but also separated from it, still within a domestic space. They are also part of another new land, that of the photographic image – a mysterious mixture of fact and fantasy. Such images were hard for aestheticians to classify both at the time the photograph was made (c.1863-64) and indeed in 1972, when curators and critics remained divided on whether photography should be included among the fine arts.

Like the organizers of From Today Painting is Dead, I had no doubt that photographs could be the work of artists and should be treated accordingly. For this reason (even before I became curator of photographs in 1977), I enjoyed sitting down in the V&A tearoom with the veteran curator, Charles Gibbs-Smith. It was 'Gibbo', as he was universally known, who told me how the museum acquired its unrivaled Hawarden collection. As the bright young man in charge of the V&A photo collection in the 1930s, Gibbo organized an exhibition to celebrate the first 100 years of photography. Soon after the show opened in 1939, Gibbo received a visit from a Lady Clementina Tottenham. She had seen the exhibition and wished to know why her grandmother, Lady Hawarden – an important pioneer – had not been included. "Unfortunately, your ladyship", my predecessor replied, "the museum possesses no photographs by Lady Hawarden." Lady Tottenham returned with 775 photographs, which she gave to the Museum. The war soon intervened and it was not until 1968 that the photographs were all fully mounted, numbered and listed.

As so often in the history of art, the rediscovery of Lady Hawarden owed a great deal to an artist. The first book of her photographs, published in 1974, was edited by the painter Graham Ovenden. He rightly pointed out that this still obscure photographer "struck out into areas and depicted moods unknown to the art photographers of her age". However, it is interesting to note that, in her own time, Lady Hawarden took part in the annual exhibitions of the Photographic Society (later the Royal), which awarded her medals, was critically admired and even had her prints bought by a fellow-photographer – and fellow-spirit – named Lewis Carroll.

I began my own researches into Lady Hawarden in the late 1970s. In a country house near Canterbury, I saw Clementina for the first time, in a pastel by Eden Upton Eddis dated 1851. There she was, a raven-haired beauty: I knew that she was of mixed Scottish and Spanish parentage but here was striking evidence of her Iberian inheritance.

Like Anna Atkins (1797-1871) and Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79), the other distinguished women who pioneered photography in Britain, Clementina, Viscountess Hawarden (pronounced Haywarden) was from a privileged background. She was born at Cumbernauld, Scotland, in 1822. Her father was Admiral Charles Elphinstone Fleeming and her mother Catalina Paulina Alessandro, a famous beauty from Cádiz, Spain. Her education included a year in Italy, and visits to such major picture galleries as the Brera in Milan and the Pitti Palace in Florence, as well as the collections in Rome. Here, she also experienced the Carnival, which she described as "certainly the most brilliant illumination while it lasts". Perhaps such experiences fed into the costume tableaux Clementina arranged in her photographic studio in London in the 1850s and 60s.

In 1845, Clementina married the Honorable Cornwallis Maude. On the death of his father in 1856, Maude succeeded to the title of 4th Viscount Hawarden and inherited a large family estate in Dundrum, Co. Tipperary, Ireland. Lady Hawarden gave birth to ten children, two of whom died in infancy. Despite this, from 1857, she was able to sustain an active photographic practice – first in Dundrum and later at 5 Princes Gardens, in a newly built square close to the South Kensington Museum, as the V&A was first known.

This new museum of the fine and applied arts staged its first exhibition of international photography in 1858. Photography was not only highly fashionable but its procedures had become standardized to the point when many amateurs were able to produce works of excellent quality without having to be trained in chemistry or physics. Women especially, who were unable to pursue careers as professional artists, found in photography a medium which could be practised in a domestic setting but still at the highest esthetic level. As amateurs, they were able to experiment and to follow intuition to a degree unavailable to professional photographers with studio overheads and staff wages to pay. However, Lady Hawarden's photographs would – when she exhibited them publicly for the first time in 1863 – be admired by amateurs and professionals alike.

The photographs – offered in Bonhams' Historical Photographs sale in March – contain portraits of key members of Lady Hawarden's family and social circle, such as Admiral Katon (her stepfather, who assisted her with photography at Dundrum in 1858) and her cousin and close friend Henry Brougham Loch, later 1st Baron Loch. This fascinating trove of photographs also expands our knowledge of Lady Hawarden's landscape work in Ireland.

Most important, however, is a group of photographs which adds to those in the extensive collection at the V&A and enlarges our understanding of Lady Hawarden's brilliance. These are her tableaux involving her daughters posing in sunlight, with mirrors and windows, in the studio or on the terrace at 5 Princes Gardens. These images connect with works in our own time – from Frances Woodman and Cindy Sherman to Hannah Starkey and Sarah Jones – and are important additions to one of the great Victorian photographic oeuvres.

Lady Hawarden's life (and career) was cut short by her death from pneumonia at the age of 42. One of the photographers who mourned her was Oscar Gustave Rejlander, who described his friend as "useful as a clasp and bright as a diamond". Her influence was felt in other fields too. The Hawardens' family physician was the 'painter-etcher' Francis Seymour Haden. He made use of Clementina's photographs in his etchings – which were collected by the Hawardens.

Haden also provides a link to James McNeill Whistler, whose 'subject-less' paintings were developed in the early 1860s. The most notable of these is perhaps The Little White Girl: Symphony in White, No. II (1865). This contains all the ingredients we find in Hawarden's Studies from Life. The subject is reverie, reflection – both literally and metaphorically – the play of light and the elegance of form and gesture given priority over narrative.

Along with other researchers – such as Virginia Dodier, who did sterling work in creating Lady Hawarden's catalog raisonné – I am glad that I was in a position to play a part in the story. As Ingrid Sischy remarked in the New Yorker, "Lady Hawarden is no longer a delicious secret... This is work of outstanding subtlety and beauty."

Mark Haworth Booth was curator of photographs at the Victoria & Albert Museum from 1977-2004.

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