"Unfortunately, we possess none," came the reply from Charles Gibbs-Smith, the curator of the museum's already sizeable collection of photographs. Lady Tottenham went home and returned with 775 of her grandmother's pictures from the mid-19th century, and donated them to the V&A. Thus was preserved one of early photography's most dazzling archives, a collection all the more remarkable for the photographer's gender and social status.
Even then the significance of the gift went unappreciated. In 1952, when Lady Tottenham revisited the museum to look at the collection she had bequeathed, none of the works could be found. They had been left in a corner of an office, it emerged later. Gibbs-Smith found them when he moved a pile of boxes.
Awareness of the art of Lady Hawarden has blossomed only recently, helped by feminist interest in neglected women artists. The V&A, which holds 90 per cent of the archive, has occasionally put a small number on display. But an exhibition opening in the museum's Canon Photography Gallery this week should finally pay proper tribute to an exotic, privileged, and gifted figure. Virginia Dodier, the co-curator and Hawarden's biographer, says: "She was an artist in the romantic tradition, possessed of a good eye, a sure touch and a strong will." Mark Haworth-Booth, the gallery's curator, says simply: "I think her moment has now come."
Clementina, Lady Hawarden was the first woman admitted to the Royal Photographic Society (then the Photographic Society of London). In its acclaimed annual exhibition of 1863 she won the society's first silver medal "for the best contribution by an amateur", an award apparently created especially to honour her talent.
Her work predates that of the best-known female photographer of the 19th century, Julia Margaret Cameron (1813-1875), but her comparative anonymity is easy to explain. She worked for only seven years before a bout of pneumonia in 1865 curtailed her burgeoning career at the age of 42.
Her photographs are set in the upper-class world of Victorian England but in a sense reveal little of it. Not a dining table or servant is to be seen. Other than those taken at the family's inherited estate in Ireland, her pictures feature only the bare simplicity of a studio that she set up on the first floor of the family's large London home in South Kensington.
The bulk of these pictures to go on show are thoughtful studies of Lady Hawarden's daughters. (In the pursuit of an heir, she produced eight girls, as well as two boys.) Posed and composed, the girls are dressed up, as if for the carnivals that Hawarden observed in Rome when she was younger, or corseted in the long dresses of the time, whose folds catch the natural light with which she floods her photographs.
Lady Hawarden's use of mirrors echoes that of the painter Ingres, whose sumptuous portraits have been showing at the National Gallery in London. As in Ingres, the mirror reveals the sweep of a young girl's neck, the fall of material upon a shoulder. Muslin drapes the windows where the girls stand languidly, or gesture like the heroines of Italian paintings.
None of the works appears to have been titled. She called them simply "photographic studies" or "studies from life". But they display a technical accomplishment in the state-of-the-art process of wet-collodion negatives (using plates coated with collodion, a gel-like substance) which reveals serious ambition.
"She was the first important woman photographer and the first woman photographer to receive critical recognition," Haworth-Booth says. "She created technically perfect prints, but also used light with a lavishness and ambiguity that professional photographers didn't."
Lady Hawarden was born in 1822. She had a Scottish father, Admiral Charles Elphinstone Fleeming, and a Spanish mother, Catalina, from whom, Haworth- Booth speculates, she inherited her dramatic Mediterranean sense of light. When her father died in 1840, the family was left in financial straits and its future seemed insecure. Mrs Fleeming took her three daughters to Rome where they stood a better chance socially, and where the costumed carnival masquerades appear to have made a lasting impression on the young Clementina.
But at some point in 1842, the family returned briefly to Britain. There Clementina won the affections of the Honourable Cornwallis Maude, and, despite opposition from his parents, the 3rd Viscount and Viscountess Hawarden, they married.
When her husband came into his inheritance in 1857, it gave Lady Hawarden the time and means to pursue the still comparatively new art of photography on the family's estate in Tipperary.
It was only 18 years since Michael Faraday had told the Royal Institution of the remarkable invention of photography by William Henry Fox Talbot. Hawarden was in the second wave of practitioners, between the aristocratic and learned amateurs of the 1840s, like Fox Talbot himself, and the professional photographers who emerged in the 1860s.
How she learned her skills is unknown, although a teacher may have been unnecessary: manuals already abounded. But by 1859 she was practising them back in London where the family had returned to live at 5 Princes Gardens (now the site of Imperial College's swimming pool).
In South Kensington, nearly all the pictures show the Hawarden daughters in the intimacy of her first-floor rooms. The theatricality appears to have appealed to the young girls, who adopt the submissive dropped head of a Victorian maiden as readily as the tragic postures of classic heroines. Isabella Grace, the eldest, played the part of Mary, Queen of Scots.
The author and academic Marina Warner, in an introduction to Dodier's biography, describes Lady Hawarden's work as "an enigmatic, closed treasure: a body of work about intimacy and reverie, about interiors and disguise, about secrecy and private passions, about family, beauty, self-fashioning and reciprocal feelings". Lady Hawarden's photographs, Warner says, "communicate the idleness and even the emptiness of the upper-class woman's life, but transmute these conditions through artistic control, through the itensity of her concentration on creating an atmosphere, on setting a mood. Her images represent a triumph of artistry over circumstance, a sequence of ravishing glimpses of jeunes filles en fleur left to their own devices, and thriving on it. These photographs are dreamlike, intensely and tenderly subjective, expressive of that "inward eye that is the bliss of solitude," as William Wordsworth wrote half a century before.
For Mark Haworth-Booth, there is a startling comparison with the work of young photographers today, who have again taken adolescence as their subject matter and seem intrigued by the examples in early photography. At the V&A exhibition, pictures by Cindy Sherman, Hannah Starkey and Sarah Jones will feature alongside those produced 130 years earlier.
When Haworth-Booth first suggested Lady Hawarden to Virginia Dodier as a suitable subject for her master's thesis, little was known of this Victorian pioneer. Since 1984, Dodier has catalogued the photographs, 90 per cent of which are in the V&A archives, and slowly pieced together Lady Hawarden's story. She apparently kept no diary, wrote decidedly uninformative letters, and failed to appear in the social columns of the newspapers. There may be now little more that can be discovered about her. But Haworth-Booth still has hopes that just a little more will emerge to tie up the loose ends.
He is most curious about the links with the painter James McNeill Whistler, whose studies of women in interiors so strikingly resemble Lady Hawarden's work. The two may have known each other. Hawarden's physician, Francis Seymour Haden, was Whistler's brother-in-law. "The historical records leave you tantalised," the curator says. He hopes that the photographs will too.
'Clementina, Lady Hawarden: Studies from Life 1857-1864': Canon Photography Gallery, Victoria and Albert Museum, SW7 (0171 938 8349), 29 April to 30 August. Virginia Dodier's biography is published by the V&A on 29 April at pounds 30.