Wednesday 15 April 2015

Photographing Alice (and Ina and Edith)

Once upon a time there was an old lady who lived on the south coast of England.  She had a secret, which as it turned out wasn't much of a secret no matter how hard she tried.

Mrs Reginald Hargreaves
When the old lady died, her ashes were buried by the war memorial that held the names of two of her three sons.  On her gravestone her secret was revealed...

Alice Hargreaves, or Alice Liddell as she is more famously known, died in 1934, 72 years after the writing of a story that would make her immortal.  When she was an old lady she became famous again, her photograph filling the papers as the world found out what had happened when the magical little girl had grown up. Once more her face was the subject of interest and record, just like when she was a little girl.

Perhaps then we have started at the wrong end of the tale.

Once upon a time there was a little girl who lived in Oxford.  Her name was Alice...

Alice Pleasance Liddell (c.1860) Lewis Carroll
Plenty has been written about little Alice, her sisters Lorina and Edith and a boat trip they took with a serious young man called Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (also better known as Lewis Carroll).  Dodgson was a friend of Alice's older brother Harry and Lorina, but when Harry went up to school, younger sisters Alice and Edith joined Lorina on her outings with the young man.  Dodgson wrote the story of Alice's adventures underground as a way of entertaining the girls on trips and in the tales he created a version of Alice who is curious, questioning, brave, obstinate and caught between trying to leave and trying to see more.

The Beggar Maid (1858) Lewis Carroll
When awkward Dodgson became Lewis Carroll, author and photographer he transformed himself in the same way as he transformed his most famous subject. Under his lens, Alice is a beggar maid, a ragged creature of pity.  In other photos, she is also a plush cat on a cushion with her equally silky sisters, as far from the beggar maid as you can imagine...

Edith, Lorina and Alice Liddell (1858)
Slipping by most people's notice was always Lorina, eldest sister and foremost friend of the young author/photographer.  When Dodgson was expelled from the Liddell family circle, a very twentieth century interpretation was placed upon it.  To our modern eye, some of the photographs look decidedly iffy: a young half-naked girl looking challengingly towards the camera, but are defended by many as being typical of contemporary art, coupled with knowledge that the mother was present when the majority of the pictures were being taken.  I say the majority for a reason, because there exists a very NSFW image of Lorina which is now argued to be the cause of the rift between the Liddells and Dodgson.  It was featured in the recent documentary on Dodgson and can be seen online and is of a very naked teenage Lorina and has no pretense of art at all.

Alice as The May Queen
Lorina (c.1860)
It is interesting to note that Alice is often playing a part in Dodgson's photographs but Lorina just sits there as the subject of that picture. It's almost as if Lorina does not need to play a part, she is the subject he wishes to take the picture of.  Alice, however, was dressed up, transformed, posed, a range of characters including the most enduring, that of 'Alice' which she was to be reminded of for the rest of her life.

The Sisters (Edith, Lorina and Alice Liddell) (1864) William Blake Richmond
Away from Dodgson and his interpretation of the sisters and Alice in particular, the Liddell girls found others who wished to capture their beauty.  Around the time of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, artist William Blake Richmond showed the sisters in a similar triangular arrangement to the above photo, with Lorina as the pinnacle. Although the two youngest still appear quite innocent and childlike, Lorina had begun to look more knowing and grown up.  It is unsurprising that Mrs Liddell, nicknamed 'the Kingfisher' after her desire to wed her girls to royalty, would want to separate her daughters from the poor young man who spent so much time with them.  Improper intentions or not, young Mr Dodgson did not have good enough prospects for Mrs Liddell.  The final picture he took of Alice is rather a melancholic piece...

Alice Liddell (1870)
At 18 and a marriageable age, Alice had to say goodbye to her childhood friend and concentrate on her future.  The notion that Dodgson was cast out for evermore isn't quite true but he did separate from the family for 6 months after which his relationship with the Liddell parents was cooler. He and Alice must have remained on good terms as Dodgson acted as godfather to her second son.  He didn't take any more photographs of her though, that mantle was taken up by another.

When the Liddell family moved from Oxford to the Isle of Wight in the early 1870s, they rented Whitecliff House, not far from Dimbola Lodge.  Naturally they caught the attention of Julia Margaret Cameron who was ever vigilant for new models. In the Liddell sisters she found young ladies of experience...

King Lear Allotting His Kingdom to his Three Daughters (1872) Julia Maragret Cameron
All three girl, from the left Lorina, Edith and Alice, surround Julia's husband, Charles Hay Cameron.  His dark drapery and age contrasts with their youth and beauty, and they appear satellites around his presence.  It's unusual to see the girls posed with another person, no longer so insular and separate.

Pomona (1872) Julia Margaret Cameron
Cameron also took some startling solo pictures of Alice.  Pomona has echoes of Dodgson's beggar maid, a mirror image of the pose taken by a woman rather than a girl.  Her expression is one of challenge as she nestles in the tendrils of the garden.

Alethea (1872) J M Cameron
From the same session, Cameron references her own work, this time "Call I Follow, I Follow, Let Me Die!" of 1867, with the female figure in profile, her hair fanning out behind her. Rather than being a goddess like Pomona, Alethea refers only to 'truth', interestingly looking away.

St Agnes (1872) J M Cameron

St Agnes (1872) J M Cameron
In this pair of images, Cameron portrays Alice as St Agnes, patron saint of chastity, gardeners, and girls, amongst other things. Rather than being posed with a lamb, Cameron chose the other attribute, a palm, as no doubt it kept stiller than lifestock. My favourite has to be Ceres, goddess of the harvest, fertility and motherhood. She is a beautiful plant in the wild tumble of nature, the white flash of her flesh echoed in the sweep of grain crop against her shoulder. Alice makes a fine model for Cameron, with her strong defiant features a perfect addition to Cameron's other images of young, handsome women.
Ceres (1872) J M Cameron
Even before her marriage in 1880 to the cricketer Reginald Hargreaves, the public photographs ceased.  The early and sudden death of Edith in June 1876 traumatized the family and drew the sisters together in grief.  I don't think it's a coincidence that the remaining sisters could not find the will to be the same as they had been.  When they had posed, it was often as a trio, even if there were subsequent solo images.  Now that triangle had been broken, the ones left behind did not assume the role of muses without the one who had vanished from view. Alice Hargreaves (nee Liddell) would always be little Alice, tumbling down a rabbit hole on a boating trip with her beloved sisters. Alice, Edith and Lorina Liddell were each immortalised (to differing degrees) by Dodgson and Cameron, as a trio of sisters made extraordinary by the inspiration they lent to others, but it is arguably a mistake to imagine that the images we see are mere portraits of the girls.  Just as Carroll's Alice is not Alice Liddell, then the little girls in the photographs are a complex mixture of surface and meaning that is dangerous to confuse. Maybe in understanding that it becomes clear why Mrs Reginald Hargreaves sought to separate herself from the images and text that drew on her as inspiration. She was Alice no more.

But then maybe she never had been.


  1. Dear Kirsty
    Thank you for another fascinating and thought-provoking post.
    Best wishes

  2. Fascinating post, I found it really interesting. :-)

  3. Hi Kirsty, Thank you for this post. You've just reminded me of a great Dennis Potter film, 'Dreamchild'. Starring Ian Holm and Coral Brown. It was shown on television during the mid eighties. Just ordered it from a well known internet shopping emporium. Thanks again.

  4. Thank you for your comments. I bought Dreamchild recently too! Splendid stuff indeed.

  5. The"nude" of Lorina is quite obviously either a fake, or another girl not taken by Dodgson.
    It was conveniently tacked on to the end of a recent documentary under spurious circumstances. The "experts" (and none of the Carroll experts were allowed to give opinions) tried bravely to "make" the photo into something it was not.
    One "expert" tried to show portions of both faces (the photo and known examples of Lorina) trying to "prove" similarities in structure, but even a child could tell that the faces are not at all alike... it was almost laughable.

    The image in question was most likely concocted by photographer Graham Ovenden who had fooled people before by making nude photos purported to be by Carroll and published in his book, "Victorian Children"
    Dodgson/Carroll never took nudes of Alice or her sisters. He dabbled in nude photography a short time in the 1870's The "girl" in the photo is well into puberty, something Dodgson disliked and never found aesthetically pleasing so it would be well out of character for him to take a photo of a a maturing young girl and without parental permission...something he never did.
    Finally, if the photo caused the rift between the Liddells and Dodgson, he would have been fired by Lorina's father, the Dean, and run out of town. However, though never quite the same, the Liddells did renew a limited acquaintanceship with Carroll not long after, and Lorina NEVER mentions any photographic impropriety in her letters to Alice or to any others. A scandal this would have triggered could not have remain hidden from the wagging tongues of Oxford.

  6. Many thanks for your very interesting comments. I agree that the situation between Carroll and the Liddells (and everyone else) seems so unclear that it will be argued over forever. The teenage girl is certainly an anomaly among his photographs so could safely be doubted. As for it being a fake in terms of being modern I'm doubtful because it is part of a French museum archive (easily found on the internet so I'm not sure what the revelation was) and so had some provenance as being Victorian if the rest is spurious. I find Carroll's relationship with adults to be equally if not more troubling than his friendships with children, so I guess we just need to wait for the next theory and revelations!

    Thanks again for the comments.

  7. Graham Ovenden among others wasa photographer and historian. He was well versed in making albumen prints and 19th c. paper stock still exists. He did wet plate photography himself, and could have easily "aged" the photo.
    Remember how many "fake" paintings have fooled the eyes of art historians and collectors and hung in prestigious museums until "found out"
    Photos are more easily faked than paintings...

  8. Indeed, I've worked in Museums and heritage for over 20 years now and the shenanigans that have gone on in the past would indeed turn your hair grey.

    Thanks for your comments.

  9. Thanks a lot for your story! I was shocked to learn these horrid details( can'take find a different word, sorry). You, British people, have always been a model for me in your respectful and caringet attitude towards your literary legacy. After watching this documentary I can ask only one question: how can they have been so prejudiced against a man who is Britain'so glory?

  10. Any unprejudiced person can see that these are two different girls! I was shocked to discover that British people who have always treated their literary legacy with great respect could have filmed this!

  11. Thanks a lot for your story! I was shocked to learn these horrid details( can'take find a different word, sorry). You, British people, have always been a model for me in your respectful and caringet attitude towards your literary legacy. After watching this documentary I can ask only one question: how can they have been so prejudiced against a man who is Britain'so glory?


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx