The digital collections platform provides access to the Ransom Center’s collections for students, scholars and members of the public who are unable to visit the Center. It also provides a way for visitors to access fragile materials or collections that exist in challenging formats, such as personal effects and costumes. One example is a collection of glass plate negatives that documents theater performances in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The fragile collection was previously inaccessible, but the negative plates were digitized and converted to positive images for the digital collection.
Visitors to the Ransom Center’s website can search within collections or across collections, often revealing related materials. Additional tools provide users with the ability to virtually flip through books, enlarge images and compare page images with accompanying transcripts, which are text-searchable.
Collections are being added on an ongoing basis, and planned digitization projects include the photographs of nineteenth-century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron and photographs and ephemera from the Fred Fehl dance collection.
This project was made possible with funding from the Booth Heritage Foundation.
Posing for the Rev. Charles L. Dodgson (1832–1898) for over a dozen years, Alexandra “Xie” Kitchin (1864–1925) grows up before our eyes through the series of portraits made of her during the 1860s and 1870s. Named after Princess (later Queen) Alexandra, who was a close friend of her mother, Xie (pronounced “Ecksy”) was the daughter of a clerical colleague of Dodgson’s at Christ Church College in Oxford. She began sitting for Dodgson’s tableaux at the early age of four, and, by at least one historian’s count, sat for him more than 50 times before she turned 16. Several other children—or “child-friends”—that Dodgson photographed were quickly bored with dressing up and sitting for long poses before the camera, but Xie participated well into her teens and is frequently referenced in the photographer’s diaries.
Dodgson’s first, or “seated,” portrait of the costumed Xie is directly influenced by one of the greatest child portraits of the Georgian Era, Sir Joshua Reynolds’s painting of Penelope Boothby (1785–1791). Penelope, the only child and heir of Sir Brooke Boothby, the seventh baronet, and his wife, Susanna, was painted at the age of three in Reynolds’s London studio in July 1788. By all accounts, Reynolds enjoyed the company of small children as much as Dodgson and had a fine relationship with the young Penelope throughout their sessions. Art historians attribute the endearing quality of the painting to their brief but strong personal bond.
Another factor contributing to the painting’s fame was the tragic fate of its sitter. Young Penelope would spend the remainder of her short life at the family estate at Ashbourne Hall in Derbyshire. She died apparently of encephalitis in 1791, a month before her sixth birthday. Her death led to the tragic collapse of her parents’ marriage. After the final breakup of the family estate, this most successful of Reynolds’s child portraits eventually found its way to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, where Dodgson undoubtedly fell under its spell a half century later.
Dodgson posed a costumed but clearly older Xie in a position similar to the Reynolds painting. He also had her stand in costume for a second pose. For the final image from the series, he brought into his studio a wicker chaise and an Oriental parasol, had Xie remove her oversized “Mob-Cap” bonnet, and placed her in semi-recline in the chaise. The resulting tableau, an original Dodgson composition combined with Xie’s own studied gaze, would become one of the great child portraits of the Victorian Era.
Dodgson, who gained early fame in mathematics and literature under the pen name of Lewis Carroll, remained an avid photographer for 25 years until abandoning the art in 1880. He retired from teaching the following year but stayed in Oxford, writing about mathematics until his death in 1898. Xie Kitchin published no memoirs or reminiscences of her friendship with Dodgson, but she would go on to marry and live in London until her death in 1925. Interestingly, the first of her six children was named Penelope.
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Lewis Carroll is synonymous with Alice in Wonderland, his 1865 novel of nonsensical imagination that cemented his reputation as a visionary author and captured the hearts of children and adults alike. Carroll’s literary creation, immortalized through Disney movies, is well known. What is less known, however, is Carroll’s life as an avid photographer.
Carroll’s forgotten hobby was not rediscovered until 1949, 50 years after his death, when collector Helmut Gernsheim was offered an original album of photographs taken by Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Dodgson, of course, was the same man who published under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. Gernsheim poured his energy into discovering more of the photographer, “for quite frankly” as Gernsheim recalled “until then, Lewis Carroll, photographer, had been a stranger to me.”
“I consulted the leading histories of photography and studied the photographic literature of the last century for information,”‘ wrote Gernsheim in his book Lewis Carroll, Photographer. “I sought it with thimbles, I sought it with care, I pursued it with forks and hope, but Dodgson’s name and his pseudonym remained as elusive as the Snark.”
Gernsheim sent his wife to compare the distinctive purple ink and handwriting in the album with Lewis Carroll manuscripts in the British Museum. After a meticulous search, Gernsehim contacted Dodgson’s living descendants, historians, and photographic subjects. The Gernsheims were able to track down and acquire four more albums for their collection, which are now part of the Ransom Center’s collections.
The rediscovery of an essentially forgotten nineteenth-century photographer introduced novel and entirely visual insights of the renowned author and eventually led to Gernsheim’s publication Lewis Carroll, Photographer.
Dodgson pursued photography for 24 years between 1856 and 1880. The album was Dodgson’s chosen medium to present and preserve his photographs of family and friends. Like most photographers of his day, Dodgson used the wet collodion negative processes and the corresponding positive albumen print processes.
The complicated process involved setting up a cumbersome tripod camera and posing the sitter in an aesthetically sensitive manner. Dodgson always took great aims to ensure a relaxed atmosphere, which was not an easy task because posing for extended periods of time tended to produce static, formalized portraits. Next, the photographer would coat and sensitize a plate of glass in a makeshift darkroom. Then, the photographer would quickly transport the light-sensitive “wet plate” to the camera and make an exposure upon it. Finally, he would return to the darkroom to promptly develop and fix the exposure before the plate could dry to complete the negative process.
Dodgson favored the albumen print, which allowed the dried wet collodion negatives to be placed in contact with sensitized paper surface and printed. A binding solution composed of processed egg whites held light-sensitive silver salts onto the coated surface of a thin sheet of paper and resulted in lustrous prints with broad tonal ranges.
Though only a hobby, Dodgson demonstrated genuine skill while utilizing the wet collodion negative processes and the corresponding positive albumen print processes, both of which required patience and dexterity to master. Dodgson’s skill is easily visible in his photographs, which convey a broad range of emotions.
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