Painting With Light @ Tate Britain

This exhibition has the feel of a very interesting lecture or documentary about the interplay between photography and photographers and art and artists in Britain, from 1840 to around 1910. During this period photography went through a swift succession of technical innovations, and Art itself evolved through a whole series of movements, so that the exhibition contains two distinct and complex histories intertwined, and also features many interesting biographical stories about individual photographers and artists. All very enjoyable.

As usual I’m struck by how long ago photography was invented. William Henry Fox Talbot announced details of his ‘salted paper’ process to the Royal Society in 1839 (referring back to the oldest photographic negative, taken in 1835). In the same year Louis Daguerre announced his invention of the daguerreotype.

Enough photographers were at work a decade later for the Photographic Society of London to be established in 1853 and come under royal patronage the next year. It continues to this day as the Royal Photographic Society.

The most obvious impact of photography was to capture exactly what is there – the truth of landscapes, bodily poses and all the details to be seen within the frame. The human eye selects and focuses, and paintings and drawings even more so select and highlight. Photographs show everything within the field of composition and preserve it as a record, to be studied indefinitely. As soon as it became available, artists began taking photographs to use as models for paintings in all genres – urban vistas and landscapes, people and poses, buildings.

The core of this exhibition is the scores of fascinating examples where the curators have placed a photograph and the work which it led to side by side, allowing us to compare and contrast the function and effect of the two media – sometimes exact copies, sometimes more a capturing of the spirit of place or person.

Photography > painting

Some of the many examples of photographs providing the basis for paintings include:

In 1843 Robert Adamson established a photographic studio in Edinburgh where he was joined by the painter David Octavius Hill. They took more than 4,000 photos of Edinburgh until Adamson died at just 26. Among them was a photographic portrait of the artist William Etty which Etty then used to directly compose his Self-portrait, after a photograph by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson (1846). It’s interesting the way Etty has got rid of all the details of the folds of his jacket, especially the left arm: it has become an undifferentiated block of black which has the effect of focusing our attention on the pale face, concentrating on thought and inspiration.

Daguerrotypes are small precise images made onto polished silver plates. The artist and art critic John Ruskin was quick to take to photography, having his valet John Hobbs experiment with them. The show includes a striking contrast between Ruskin’s watercolour painting of the North-West Angle of the Facade of St Mark’s, Venice with a daguerrotype Hobbs made of the same view in 1850. Ruskin defined art as paying attention to what is actually there:

The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way. (Modern Painters 4, 1856)

This was the basis for Ruskin’s famous defence of the Pre-Raphaelite painters (William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti) when they started exhibiting in 1848. Although they shocked many Victorians with the ungainliness and ugliness of their paintings, Ruskin defended the PRBs’ fanatical attention to detail. Both were, by temperament, attracted to the similar recording of detail found in photography.

Ruskin used photography as a record of detail as in this photo of the courtyard of a late Gothic wooden house in Abbeville, 1868 and used them as teaching aids in his public lectures and then at the art school he set up.

Abroad In 1854 the pre-Raphaelite William Holman Hunt and the photographer James Graham toured the Holy Land. Graham took a series of photographs of Nazareth, which Hunt used as an aide memoire when he came to make this watercolour of the scene. The commentary points out that the photograph doesn’t fade away into the distant haze traditionally found in landscape painting, but continues to show the detail of the landscape with its tracks and terracing. Hunt copied this to create a continuity of detail extending right to the back of the painting, one of the PRB’s signature effects.

Hunt painted a number of seascapes, often with light effects from the sun or moon, and in his essay on photography the critic Philip Hamerton contrasted the depth and variety of colour possible in a watercolour like Fishing Boats By Moonlight (1869) with the light effects of the celebrated French photographer, Gustave le Gray, such as this Ciel Chargé (1857). In fact, in this instance, the photo seems to me much the superior image for its crispness and clarity.

Tourism In 1864 A.W. Bennett published a volume titled Our English Lakes, Mountains and Waterfalls as seen by William Wordsworth with thirteen albumen photographs by Thomas Ogle including one of the Bowder Stone, Borrowdale, the subject of an 1868 painting by Leeds-born artist John Atkinson Grimshaw.

In the studio Samuel Butler studied at Mr Heatherley’s Art School in the mid-1860s. He took this photograph of Mr Heatherley and then used it as the centre of his oil painting Mr Heatherley’s Holiday (1874). What makes these old photos feel so, so rich and evocative? Is it the use of sepia, the use of brown instead of black as the dark shade?

Orientalism Roger Fenton trained as a painter but switched to photography and became the first secretary of the Photography Society. In 1855 he was in the Crimea making a historic set of photos of the British Army fighting in the Crimean War. In 1859 he exhibited a sequence of ‘orientalist scenes’ including this Nubian Water Carrier. The exhibition shows how the same pose is reworked in The Song of the Nubian Slave by Frederick Goodall, who went on to have a successful career as a painter of Near Eastern subjects.

In 1862 Walter Crane exhibited his version of The Lady of Shalott, based on the extremely popular Tennyson poem of the same name. Critics weren’t slow to point out the extraordinary similarities with the photograph of the same scene created by Henry Peach Robinson a year earlier, nor to point out that the photograph was in every respect superior to the painting.

Painting > photography

Of course the influence could work the other way. If some artists used photos as the basis of paintings, some photographers used famous paintings as the basis for photographs.

Stereoscopy In 1859 James Robinson used the new technique of ‘stereoscopy’ ie juxtaposing two photos of the same scene to be viewed through special spectacles, to reconstruct the pose of Henry Wallis’s famous 1856 painting, Chatterton. This led to legal proceedings by printmakers, who usually enjoyed a monopoly on producing and selling copies of popular works and so stood to lose out with the arrival of this new invention.

Mention of ‘stereoscopy’ and ‘stereographs’ feels to me like the borderline of what you could call ‘art’. Mention of Dr Brian May’s historic collection in this area makes me feel we’re crossing the border into the realm of collecting and collectibility – Antiques Roadshow territory – close to collections of cigarette cards or period comics or historic magazines, and the like. This is a problem photography faces when asking to be considered as an art form: right from the start a large number of people have been able to do it and produce very passable results, and nowadays everyone in the world owns a camera-phone so that the number of these ‘art works’ increases by tens of millions every day.

Julia Margaret Cameron is the famously well-connected woman photographer who was good friends with Alfred Lord Tennyson and  his circle, and enjoyed dressing up her subjects in fake medieval costumes to mirror the poet laureate’s sensually Gothic poems. The exhibition contrasts her posing of models for The Passing of Arthur (1875) with a possible source in Daniel Maclise’s Morte d’Arthur illustration for the same Tennyson poem in an illustrated 1857 edition.

Cameron’s photographs are much closer to the sitter, framed and cropped to emphasise psychological acuity, at the same time exposed slightly longer to achieve a fuzziness of focus. Precise poses of the earlier period were replaced by ‘draped postures and dreamy expressions’, photographic versions of the new emphasis on Aestheticism, on a kind of spiritual intimacy which was the new thing in the 1870s, which would develop into Art for Art’s Sake in the 1880s and 90s.

Cameron had a specially close relationship with George Frederick Watts – Watts painted her, she photographed him. (I think Watts was a dreadful artist; JMC’s photograph is infinitely more artistic – better composed, framed and finished than anything Watts could manage). They discussed their respective arts and even shared sitters: May Prinsep by G.F. Watts (1867) – May Prinsep by J.M. Cameron (1870).

Dressing up for the camera An unknown photographer was commissioned to photograph the family of Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh, in poses based on the romantic paintings of the popular late Victorian artist Marcus Stone. The exhibition brings together the photo and the painting of Two’s Company, Three’s None (1893) indicating, along the way, the depth of the Victorian fondness for amateur theatricals and dressing up.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti began Beata Beatrix in 1864 but set it aside when the model, his wife, died. Julia Margaret Cameron poses her friend Mary Hiller as Tennyson’s heroine Elaine dying of love for Lancelot in Call, I Follow, I Follow, Let Me Die (1870), possibly basing the pose on the Beata and when Rossetti took up and completed his painting in 1870 the smoky chiaroscuro of the JMC photo may have influenced him.

Beata Beatrix (c. 1864-70) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Tate.

Beata Beatrix (c. 1864-70) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Tate.

Jane Morris In the summer of 1865 Rossetti commissioned John Parsons to take a series of photos of Jane Morris in his garden in London. It was done in a specially erected tent to make the background close to the sitter, and also to diffuse the bright summer sunlight. The photographs capture the extraordinary power of her features, the sensuous lips contrasted with the strong curving jawline, as well as the folds of the rich dress. This was the model of feminine beauty which Rossetti used for paintings like Mariana (1870).

Working life In 1885 the painter Thomas Goodall collaborated with the photographer Peter Henry Emerson on a book titled Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads which showed common folk in everyday activities. The second print was titled The Bow Net and the next year Goodall exhibited his painting The Bow Net. Discuss. Unlike the Watts/Cameron images, the painting seems to me easily the better image.

Sir George Clausen studied French realist painting in Paris before settling in England. From 1881 to 1884 he lived in rural Hertfordshire depicting the often hard lives of working people. He used a small camera to catch images and the exhibition shows several of the photos which he then worked up into finished paintings like Winter Work (1883).

I was surprised to learn that John Atkinson Grimshaw, remembered for his paintings of urban scenes by moonlight, often painted oil directly onto photographs of the scenes he was depicting. Apparently that’s the technique he used to create this amazingly realistic image of Pall Mall (1880s).

Diversity and diffusion

There are several more rooms devoted to the relationship between photos and paintings of landscape, of urban scenes, of Venice – and a sequence about the fashion for Japanese art at the end of the century, linking photos of models posing in Japanese clothes and parasols with paintings of similar scenes. In all of these I felt the connections between the photos and the art works were becoming increasingly tenuous.

By 1900 photography was old enough to have not only an established royal society and a tradition of ‘old masters’ which were published in expensive volumes, as well as a panoply of diverse techniques and approaches, but a number of breakaway ‘revolutionary’ societies promising to do radical new things with the form, as well as hundreds of photography clubs all round the country who held scores of competitions and exhibitions, with work flooding in from America, France, from all the industrialised nations. If it was an art form it was also a mass practice as well.

By the 1890s the overlaps between art and photography seem increasingly coincidental. They are both simply depicting the world around them. When the show sets the impressionistic ‘nocturne’ paintings of J.M. Whistler alongside the works of contemporary photographers from the 1890s who were experimenting with how to capture the new phenomena of electric lights, with soft-focus night scenes of London and so on, you realise the similarity between some of the paintings and some of the photos might simply be because, by 1890, lots of people were interested in the same looks and styles.

I think it was in the Quai d’Orsay museum I read that the 1890s was ‘the decade of isms’, and it might well be the decade when the sheer number of artists, designers and photographers, and the range of media they’re working in, and the sheer volume of product they’re producing, becomes unmanageable under any one heading.

Certainly the show is wise to end on the brink of the twentieth century when posters, adverts, newspapers, magazines, hoardings – not forgetting the new ‘art’ form of cinema, with its accompanying posters and still photos of the stars – will create a world saturated with photographic and graphic images, artworks, brands and logos, designs and patterns – a profusion which makes the easy analysis of the relationship between ‘art’ and ‘photography’ which characterised the earlier part of the exhibition no longer possible.

P.S. Elizabeth Eastlake

After Robert Adamson died young, his collaborator David Octavius Hill prepared a memoriam volume of his work and presented it to the President of the Royal Academy, Charles Eastlake. As it happens, Eastlake would go on to marry one of the models featured in it, Elizabeth Rigby, Hill’s friend, model and herself an art critic who wrote one of the earliest essays on photography.

The exhibition includes a copy of the memorial volume, open to a page showing this image of Eastlake, one of the 20 or so they took of her. Her turned-away posture, added to the knowledge of Adamson’s early death, and the feel of long ago costumes and people, charge it with great poignancy.

By the end of the exhibition I felt like I’d seen hundreds of photos and paintings of women, but this early one still felt special. Maybe part of the appeal of the earliest photographs is they somehow carry a sense of their scarcity, their relative uniqueness, which gives them a poise and a charge lacking from later pictures as the flood of popular photography turned into an all-encompassing tsunami.

Related links

Other reviews of photography exhibitions

Other reviews of Tate exhibitions

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: