A little girl kisses a melancholy man – the kind of sugary, sentimental image so beloved of the Victorian bourgeoisie and a variation on a theme that clings to the coat-tails of the twenty-first century as a nauseating mainstay of the painted plates advertised in the Sunday supplements of the quality press; only grannies would contemplate decorating their drawing-rooms with such images these days, perhaps indicative that the original meaning of this kind of devalued artwork has no relevance beyond the twee today.
The paintbrush’s role as the most accurate visual reproduction of reality was utterly usurped by the arrival of the camera, but as art responded by abandoning its previous pretence, early photography didn’t develop its own distinct identity and instead portrayed the human form in the same way as artists had since the Renaissance; that’s why nobody ever smiles on nineteenth century photographs. The manner of the poses in the more self-conscious first photographs, both with the backgrounds and props as well as the theatrical dress of the subjects, is wholly rooted in the style of the preceding medium. The fact that the process took some time meant that subjects posed just as they would for a painting. To amateurs with a keen artistic eye who didn’t possess a particular gift with a brush, photography was a means of expressing this, much as the sampler today enables those who aren’t great musicians to manipulate the talents of those who were.
Oxford don Charles Dodgson was one such amateur, and with the camera and all its accompanying paraphernalia being an expensive hobby beyond the reach or understanding of most, photography was firmly in the hands of such figures, ones that those desiring a photo of themselves or their children approached in the same way they’d approached portrait painters. The notion of such an instrument being put in the hands of the subject was anathema. This gave pioneering photographers the kind of authority that movie auteurs would later acquire and also free rein to decide upon the way in which they would portray their sitters.
The tradition of the naked winged cherub in art continued in photography; and whilst the medium in its infancy couldn’t convincingly create the illusion of flying children, the concept of purity and untainted innocence remained embodied in the ethereal, unclothed person of a pre-pubescent child. For all his innovations, Charles Dodgson adhered to this principle, as did his photographic contemporaries like Julia Margaret Cameron. Whereas it would have been inconceivable for anyone socially respectable to have photographed grown men and women posing naked in photographs, the Victorians – for all their alleged uptight morality – had no qualms about their children posing naked, which seems to suggest they didn’t regard the practice as morally dubious or see a sexual element to it. Dodgson’s photographs of children really need to be seen in this context.
Dodgson didn’t just photograph children; he also photographed prominent artistic figures of the day, such as Pre-Raphaelite painters, Millais and Rossetti, and the Poet Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson; but his photographs of children remain his most well-known courtesy of his success as an author under the pen name Lewis Carroll. The story of how ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ arose from his ability to enchant the young daughters of his college’s dean with his gift for storytelling has long been the stuff of legend; and when Dodgson turned his other notable talent in the direction of the Liddell sisters, the images of them he produced have become as much a part of that legend as the joyfully imaginative books he wrote.
Being a sensitive sort, exposure to the more boisterous side of male nature during his spell at Rugby School perhaps dissuaded Dodgson (who possessed a socially crippling stammer) from entering that world once his schooling was over, and his seclusion from it in the more genteel male environs of Christ Church probably prevented him from evolving into a cynical, world-weary adult; he maintained the eyes and imagination of a child, so it is not unsurprising that he had such a natural rapport with children, who flocked around him because he didn’t appear as intimidating or authoritative as most adults they were accustomed to. He was the Victorian equivalent of today’s ‘cool uncle’, the childless relative nephews and nieces favour as a more laidback incarnation of their fathers, spared the responsibility of parenthood and capable of communicating with kids in a language they understand.
His relationship with the Liddell sisters may seem strange to modern sensibilities, but had their parents not been perfectly happy to hand the girls over to Dodgson for boat trips along the river, we would have been denied one of the enduring classics of children’s literature. It was Alice Liddell, the pushiest personality of the three, who entranced and inspired Dodgson the most; not only was she his muse when it came to his writing, she also featured in some of his most beautiful photographs, fixing the camera with an assured gaze of startling self-confidence that goes in some way to explaining the hold she appeared to have over him.
It’s feasible to suggest that Dodgson was emotionally immature, never having (as far as we know) formed a stable romantic relationship with a woman, so claims that he was ‘in love’ with Alice are probably accurate, in so much as he was capable of being in love with anyone. Does love therefore automatically equate with sex? Anyone who has experienced love of the unrequited nature will know this is not the case, and there is no concrete evidence that anything untoward occurred between Dodgson and Alice. However, the absence of evidence is filled by speculation, something that has surrounded their relationship far longer than the current need to pin the flag of paedophilia in the reputation of every historical artistic icon whose sexual proclivities are shrouded in mystery. At one time, homosexuality would do the trick, but that has become the mark of a martyr now and simply doesn’t stir up the required scandal.
The latest television documentary to focus on both the ‘Alice’ books and what went on between the real Alice and Dodgson was screened last weekend on BBC 2. The recent discovery of a photograph attributed to Dodgson and said to be of Alice’s elder sister Lorina was studied at great length, even though viewers were only allowed to see the top half of what was a full-frontal nude of an adolescent girl of perhaps fourteen. This cautious censorship is itself ridiculous in that I was able to find the uncensored image online the day after the programme aired – a naked Victorian who has been dead for over eighty years. It’s also worth remembering that this girl, whose identity was assumed but not confirmed to be Lorina, was of the age of consent at the time the photograph was taken, meaning Dodgson could have married her if he’d so wished.
On and on the debate rages – was Charles Dodgson a repressed paedophile, and did he consciously photograph children in poses he considered erotic? The answer to the first is perhaps, though we will never know; the answer to the second is that if he considered the poses erotic, then so did all the parents of the children he photographed, most of whom were present at the sitting; does that seem plausible to you? And, lest we forget, it’s only just over forty years since naked nymphets graced the record sleeves of Led Zeppelin and Blind Faith. Continue to view the past though the twisted prism of the present and you will see sin in everything.