Day 362 of Colourisation Project – May 4
Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.
As popular today as it ever was, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was first published in 1865 and has remained in print ever since.
The inspiration for this masterpiece of children’s literature and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass, was six year old, Alice Liddell, the daughter of the dean of Christ Church, Oxford.
Today’s photo of Alice Liddell, captured by Carroll himself, has been the subject of much controversy over the years, more so in recent times, than when it was first taken 157 years ago! Born this day, 4 May 1852, Alice Liddell, was his favourite muse.
Known primarily as the author of children’s books, Lewis Carroll (real name – Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) was also a lecturer in mathematics at Oxford University and an ordained Anglican deacon.
What is not so well known is that Carroll was also an early photography enthusiast. In fact at one time, Carroll was one of the best amateur photographers of his time, exhibiting and selling prints for a period of twenty-five years. Carroll was almost as famous for his portrait photography as he was for his writing.
Carroll amassed a portfolio of approximately 3,000 photographs, half of which were of children—30 of whom are depicted nude or semi-nude. Although they might shock modern day sensibilities, they were by Victorian standards rather conventional. No one at the time seemed bothered by the depiction of children this way, least of all their parents. Such indifference can be seen as either an indictment on 19th century Victorian society or as an indictment on 21st century values. Remember the furore generated by Bill Henson’s child nudes in 2008?
Fanning the flames, Russian author Vladimir Nabokov, who translated the first Russian version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, referred to him as “Lewis Carroll Carroll,” in a 1966 interview for Vogue magazine; –a reference to his fictional character, Humbert Humbert from his own controversial novel about an old man’s obsession with a young child, Lolita.
Without delving into Carroll’s apparent fixation on photographing prepubescent girls, 19th century attitudes toward children were very different to today’s. It is important to note that photographs of nude children such as those of Carroll’s contemporary, Julia Margaret Cameron, who also photographed Liddell, were praised as examples of fine art and tastefully executed by many Victorian artists as was the trend of the time.
Much has been made of today’s photo, to the point of over analysis. Her provocative pose, its erotic nature, her bare shoulder, exposed left nipple, and so on….things you probably wouldn’t have noticed until I just mentioned them.
The Victorian slant on nude imagery was that they constituted pictures of innocence itself. Seen through the prurient lens of modern day observers, Carroll’s fascination with children’s physical beauty has often been interpreted as predatory and sexually perverse but there is no hard evidence to suggest that Carroll was so inclined.
Titled The Beggar Maid, the image was most likely inspired by Carroll’s favorite poet, Lord Alfred Tennyson’s, who wrote a poem of the same name.
The wet collodion process had just overtaken the daguerreotype as the primary means of photographic image-making, and was Carroll’s preferred method. It was a tedious process, more so for the subject, who had to hold perfectly still for up to 40 seconds, the minimum time required for a decent exposure without blur. In today’s photo, six year old Alice Liddell managed to do that remarkably well; holding the same expression – not an easy thing to do. This would explain her piercing (non-sexual) look at the viewer.
Lewis Carroll died of pneumonia at his sisters’ home in Guildford, England on 14 January 1898. Two weeks after his death, local clergyman, Dean Paget summarized Carroll’s gifts in his sermon thus:
“The brilliant, venturesome imagination, defying forecast with ever fresh surprise; the sense of humour in its finest and most naive form; the power to touch with lightest hand the undercurrent of pathos in the midst of fun; the audacity of creative fancy, and the delicacy of insight—these are rare gifts; and surely they were his.”
Whilst these gifts are Lewis Carroll’s enduring legacy to children’s literature, so too are the one thousand or so photos that have survived the passage of time, his legacy to photography.