Charles Dodgson’s Photography – a different kind of story-telling

A steam train pulls into a station. It is late 19th century England, and floods of passengers dressed in full skirts and velveteen coats spill out onto the platform.[1] Travellers are met by friends and relatives or hurry off to engagements elsewhere. Only one carriage remains occupied. When the crowds have dispersed and its inhabitant is found and unloaded by the station porters, it is not a person that emerges, but a camera. A camera, with all of its trimmings and trappings in tow.

This strange traveller was sent on its journey by one Charles Dodgson (1832-1898), also known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll[2]. While perhaps best known for writing children’s stories, a recent addition to Christ Church Library sheds light on another creative aspect of Dodgson’s ‘one recreation’[3]: photography.

One can imagine the bemused expressions of the station staff as the equipment is hauled off the train onto the platform. The logistics of taking a single successful photograph in these early days of photography were painstaking, with specialist equipment required by the carriage-load. This Oxford Tutor had taken to bringing hyperbole to life by sending his camera equipment ahead of him on the train whenever he worked outside Oxford.

From Helmut Gernsheim’s Lewis Carroll: Photographer

The connection between Dodgson and Christ Church begins with his matriculation at Christ Church in 1851. In 1855 he became a lecturer in mathematics and while he later resigned from his lectureship due to the success of his writing career, he maintained his studentship and residency at Christ Church until his death in 1898.

The importance of photography in Dodgson’s life can be tracked by the proximity of his photographic studio to Christ Church. A priority from the beginning, in 1863 he hired the yard of a furniture store on St. Aldates to serve as a studio site, a space he used until 1871[4]. Later, having moved to different rooms at Christ Church in 1868, Dodgson used the opportunity to build a studio even closer to home, building one from scratch on the roof above his rooms. This new studio ‘was accessed by a stairway within Dodgson’s rooms, and it consisted of a room for photography and a dressing room for his sitters.’[5]

Dodgson’s fascination with photography began in the 1850s – the first decade in which picking up such a cumbersome hobby was possible for the (wealthy) amateur. The necessity of perfect lighting, exacting chemical treatments and statuesque sitters made this art form more of a labour of love than a relaxing pastime.

Interested in portraiture, Dodgson photographed local figures, including the daughters of the Dean of Christ Church, Henry Liddell (1811 – 1898). Alice Liddell became the inspiration for a now very famous fictional Alice when she asked Dodgson to tell her a story during their famous boat trip on the River Thames. Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, the original version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, was gifted to Alice by Dodgson as a Christmas gift in 1864.  The story was published in 1865, followed by Alice Through the Looking Glass in 1871.

When his imagination was above ground, Dodgson experimented with various photographic processes. Below is a brief description of the wet-plate collodion process – his favoured technique.

A ‘dark tent’ for the photographer on the move – Gernsheim.
  • A glass plate is prepared by coating it with collodion and a soluble iodide.
  • In the darkroom the plate is submerged in a solution of silver nitrate. The binding of the silver nitrate with the iodide produces a silver halide coating, which is sensitive to light.
  • While still wet, the plate is taken from the darkroom to the camera in a light-proof holder.
  • In the camera, the holder is removed to expose the plate to light.
  • The plate is removed from the camera to the darkroom to be developed and fixed.
  • Lastly, a protective varnish is applied.

Then a young art, photography was elbowing its way onto the artistic scene – a stylistic jostling for status that must have come naturally to a process characterised by gangly tripods, endless boxes of chemicals, and sharp-edged glass plates.

Some early photography, particularly portraiture, was highly prescriptive. As with many new processes finding their feet, a large group of practitioners felt more comfortable playing by the rules to get photos ‘right’ rather than pushing any more boundaries in an already new art form.

Readers – take note. If ambushed by an insistent photographer, remember these easy rules for success!

‘[For women] Eyebrows arched, forehead round, […] hair rather profuse. Of all things, do not draw the hair over the forehead if well formed, but rather up and away. See the Venus de Medici, and the Canova’s Venus, in which the latter the hair is too broad.’

‘[For men] An intellectual head has the forehead and chin projecting, the high facial angle presenting nearly a straight line; bottom lip projecting a little; eyebrows rather near together and below (raised eyebrows indicate weakness). Broad forehead, overhanging eyelids, sometimes cutting across the iris to the pupil.’ [6]

Happily, Dodgson was not so bound by convention, and an interest in and playfulness with composition is clear in his surviving photographs[7]. The man that wrote letters to his ‘child-friends’ in ‘mirror-writing’[8] experimented with reflections in his photography too[9]. Stepladders, bannisters and the occasional window ledge[10] are treated as photographer’s props to achieve images that attract and hold the viewers attention.

Barker, Rev. C. and May – Gernsheim


The recent addition to Christ Church Library’s collection of material relating to Charles Dodgson consists of a selection of letters written to the family of the Reverend James and Sarah Anne Thresher in March and October of 1875 regarding portraits he had taken of their children: Mary, Lucy and Elizabeth ‘Beta’ Thresher. Three out of the four letters are addressed as being written from Christ Church, and all are written in Dodgson’s characteristic purple ink. The black border around the letter dated March 17th is an example of mourning stationary[11], as Dodgson writes to give his sympathies for the death of Reverend Thresher’s aunt.  These letters join a range of Dodgson material in the library, including manuscripts relating to his publications, original photographic prints, proof sheets and presentation copies of his various publications[12].

Dodgson was a prolific letter writer, writing roughly two thousand letters a year, ‘and with his characteristic fussiness in pigeon-holing every detail of his life, kept a letter register for thirty-seven years, which gives a précis of every letter sent and received, and at the time of his death contained 98,721 cross references.’[13] While Dodgson corresponded on all manner of topics, the main theme of these recently acquired letters concerns Dodgson’s wish to obtain some of the Thresher girls’ dresses, ‘as “properties” for [his] photographic studio’[14]. The first letter explains to the girls’ mother, Sarah Anne Thresher, that ‘old half-worn-out’ dresses are preferable for Dodgson’s photographic purposes, as ‘new ones would look theatrical’[15].  His hope was that these dresses could be used to ‘dress children in who come to be photographed’. We discover in a later letter that this wish came to pass, as he writes to Mrs Thresher that the ‘welcome parcel arrived safe’[16].

Photograph of the letter dated March 12th, 1875, written by Dodgson at Christ Church.

These letters are an exciting addition to Christ Church’s collection as they provide an insight into the way Dodgson thinks about his craft. We glimpse his attention to detail in the concern over the appearance of a dress that might look too ‘new’. In his first letter inquiring about the dresses, he expresses his wish that he might meet with the Threshers the following summer as he can visualise a photograph he wishes to take of Beta. He describes the pose he would have her strike with precision: ‘pulling at a rope […] the attitude I remember seeing her in one day [dragging a mutual friend across the room] – it would be a picture such as I have seldom had the opportunity of taking’[17]. It seems that for Dodgson, photographs existed in his mind’s eye as fully formed entities – all he needed to do was assemble the moving parts. He never managed to create this particular photograph of Beta, however. There is no record of him ever photographing the Threshers again.

Despite protestations against the theatrical in the letter discussed above, such distaste was not a permanent state for Dodgson. We learn from Helmut Gernsheim’s Lewis Carroll: Photographer that Dodgson had ‘a cupboard full of costumes: some had been used in pantomimes at Drury Lane, some had been borrowed from friends, or, on occasion, even from the Ashmolean Museum’.[18] Pantomime-like versions of gallant knights[19], acrobats[20] and even Shakespeare[21] are captured by Dodgson’s lens.

In these forays into worlds of bards, battles and the bright lights of the circus we can also spy attempts at something more serious. The playfulness of Dodgson’s approach goes some way in capturing the ‘lost realm’[22] of Victorian childhood, a concept that defied definition even then. What we also see in these surviving photographs is a particular moment in Victorian culture and artistic experimentation held in time, and, in the letters, the work undertaken to hold it there.

To see the photographs that Dodgson took of the Thresher children that began this chain of correspondence, see Edward Wakeling’s The Photographs of Lewis Carroll, A Catalogue Raisonné. Pages 256 to 261 show photos of the three daughters and the parents in various outfits and attitudes, and feature the dresses that came to join the “properties” in Dodgson’s photographic studio. Now a part of the library’s collection, the letters themselves are freely accessible to support study and research.

The final letter in this sequence brings us back to where we began. Dodgson asks a final favour of Sarah Anne Thresher as he writes:

Would you kindly send off my photo things to Ch. Ch. Oxford? I shall not be there till the 12th, so luggage train will be quite quick enough.[23]

[1] Visit the V&A’s website for a brief overview of the styles of the mid to late 19th century:

[2] Gernsheim, Helmut. Lewis Carroll: Photographer, (London: Max Parrish & Co. Limited, 1949) pp. 24 – 25 ‘Wherever [Dodsgon] went, he sent the apparatus in advance by rail, and when in London took it from place to place in a cab’.

[3] Taken from Dodgson’s journal. He writes on the 31st December 1855 his New Year’s resolutions, musing, ‘I hope to make good progress in photography in the Easter Vacation. It is my one recreation and I think it should be done well’.

[4] Wakeling, Edward. The Photographs of Lewis Carroll: A Catalogue Raisonné, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015), p. 4

[5] Ibid., p. 5

[6] Photographic News, 3rd June 1859, p. 125

[7] I particularly enjoy the slumped petulance of ‘Barker, Rev. C. and May’, IN-1233, Wakeling, p. 160

[8] Gernsheim, p. 20

[9] ‘Reflection’ (IN-0897)

[10] See ‘Brodies and step-ladder’ (IN-0710), ‘Angus Douglas’ (IN-1137) and ‘Mary Lott’ (IN-0746) for instances of these.

[11] For a brief overview of this Victorian custom, see the Oxford Reference entry:

[12] Explore the collection on the library website:

[13] Gernsheim, p. iv

[14] Letter dated 2nd March, 1875

[15] ibid.

[16] Letter dated 17th March, 1875

[17] Letter dated 2nd March, 1875

[18] Gernsheim, p. 20

[19] ‘Joan of Arc’ (IN-2366 and IN-2367)

[20] ‘The Little Acrobat’ (IN-2228)

[21] ‘Shakespeare (Honble. Evelyn Cecil) (IN-2364)

[22] Waggoner, Diane. Lewis Carroll’s Photography and Modern Childhood, (New Jersey: Princeton, 2020) p. 11

[23] Letter dated 3rd October, 1875