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

Every room in the Guildhall Art Gallery

The Guildhall Art Gallery is a newish building, opened in 1999 to exhibit selections of the 4,500 or so art works owned by the Corporation of London. It replaced the original Guildhall Art Gallery which was destroyed by fire during the Second World War.

At any one time the gallery has room to exhibit about 250 artworks in its five or so spaces (the main, balcony, ground floor, corridor and undercroft galleries), as well as special exhibitions in the exhibition rooms. But the overwhelming reason to visit the Guildhall Art Gallery is to see its fabulous collection of Victorian paintings.

The gallery is FREE and there are chatty and engaging tours of the pictures every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday at 12.15, 1.15, 2.15 and 3.15.

Victorian painting

Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901) saw the fruition of the Industrial Revolution and the growth and consolidation of the British Empire, but neither of these subjects is much in evidence in the paintings here. Instead the wall labels emphasise the way Victorian artists widened the scope of painting from traditional Grand History paintings or mythological subjects or portraits of the rich, to include a new and wider variety of subjects, especially of domestic or common life treated with a new dignity or compassion, and with a growing interest, as the century progressed, in depictions of beauty for its own sake, in the work of the later pre-Raphaelites and then the Aesthetic Movement.

The Rose-Coloured Gown (1896) oil on canvas by Charles H.M. Kerr (1858-1907) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

The Rose-Coloured Gown (1896) oil on canvas by Charles H.M. Kerr (1858-1907) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Main gallery

Go through the main entrance and there is a wide staircase leading up to the Main Gallery, a big, relaxing open space lined with sumptuous Victorian paintings. They’ve been hung in true Victorian style, clustered one above the other and against a dark green background. It looks like this:

Although the paintings have labels displaying names and dates, they have no description or explanation text whatsoever, which is a change and a relief. Instead, the paintings are arranged in themes each of which is introduced by a few paragraphs setting the Victorian context.

Work

Love

  • Listed (1885) by William Henry Gore. My favourite painting here.
  • The Garden of Eden (1901) by Hugh Goldwin Riviere. The tour guide pointed out the irony of the title which is actually about a mismatch between a wealthy woman who has fallen for a man much below her station: note his clumpy shoes and his trousers rolled up. Also the way he’s carrying not one but two umbrellas, intertwined like the two lovers and, if you look closely, the tiny raindrops hanging from the black branches.

Leisure

History

The main gallery on the first floor has an opening allowing you to look down into the gallery space below and hanging on the end wall and two stories high is the vast Defeat of the floating batteries at Gibraltar, 1782 by the American artist John Singleton Copley. Grand history painting like this is about the genre of art furthest from contemporary taste and culture, but there’s lots to admire apart from the sheer scale. Rather like opera, you have to accept that the genre demands stylised and stereotyped gestures of heroism and despair, before you can really enter the spirit.

Faith

The Lord Giveth and the Lord Taketh Away (1868) oil on canvas by Frank Holl (1845-1888) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

The Lord Giveth and the Lord Taketh Away (1868) oil on canvas by Frank Holl (1845-1888) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

My First Sermon (1863) oil on canvas by John Everett Millais (1829-1896) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

My First Sermon (1863) oil on canvas by John Everett Millais (1829-1896) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Beauty

As the century progressed an interest grew in Beauty for its own sake: one strand of this was Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s paintings of voluptuous, red-haired ‘stunners’ as he called them. Strands like this fed into the movement which became known as Art for Art’s sake or Aestheticism, which sought a kind of transcendent harmony of composition and colour.

  • The violinist (1886) by George Adolphus Storey
  • La Ghirlandata (1873) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
  • On a fine day (1873) by Elizabeth Adela Stanhope Forbes. Although the detail is patchy, from a distance this is staggeringly effective at conveying that very English effect of sunshine on hills while the foreground is clouded over.
  • The blessed damozel (1895) by John Byam Liston Shaw
  • The rose-coloured gown (Miss Giles) (1896) by Charles Henry Malcolm Kerr. The face is a little unflattering but the rose-coloured gown is wonderfully done, lighter and airier than this reproduction suggests. There are several histories of ‘the nude’; someone ought to do a history of ‘the dress’, describing and explaining the way different fabrics have been depicted in art over the centuries.
  • A girl with fruit (1882) by John Gilbert. Crude orientalism.
  • spring, summer, autumn and winter (1876) by Alfred Emile Leopold Joseph Victor Stevens

The Guildhall

Home

During the 19th century home and work became increasingly separated and distinct. Home became a place to be decorated, shown off, furnished in the latest fashions purveyed by a growing number of decoration books and magazines. There is a massive move from the bare interiors often described in Dickens’s novels of the 1840s and 50s, to the fully furnished interiors and incipient consumer revolution of 1900.

  • Sweethearts (1892) by Walter Dendy Sadler. Late for such an anecdotal painting.
  • The music lesson (1877) by Frederick Leighton. Characteristically smooth and sumptuous.
  • A sonata of Beethoven (1912) by Alfred Edward Emslie. Is that the great man himself, blurrily depicted in the window seat?
  • Sun and moon flowers (1889) by George Dunlop Leslie. Note the fashionable blue and white china vases.

Imagination

Clytemnestra, 1882, oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Clytemnestra (1882) oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

A staggering, monumental work, down to the tricklets of blood leaking from the axe over the stone step.

The ground floor gallery

This actually consists of two tiny rooms next to the lifts, to the left of the main stairs, showing nine City of London-related works.

Ninth of November (1888) oil on canvas by William Logsdail (1859-1944) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Ninth of November (1888) oil on canvas by William Logsdail (1859-1944) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

The tour guide pointed out the face of the boy about to pinch an orange from the basket at the far left of the crowd; the black and white minstrel complete with banjo, next to him; and to the right of the white-faced soldier at the foot of the main streetlamp, is a man in brown bowler hat, a portrait of fellow artist John William Waterhouse, of Lady of Shalott fame.

The undercroft galleries

As the name suggests these are downstairs from the ground floor entrance lobby. You walk along the ‘long gallery’ (see below), through a modern glass door on the right and down some steel and glass steps into a set of small very underground-feeling rooms. The paintings are again grouped in ‘themes’, although now applying across a broader chronological range than just the Victorians, stretching back to the eighteenth century and coming right up to date with a Peter Blake work from 2015.

London

The Thames During the Great Frost of 1739 (1739) oil on canvas by Jan Griffier the Younger (1688-1750) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

The Thames During the Great Frost of 1739 (1739) oil on canvas by Jan Griffier the Younger (1688-1750) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Seems clear to me that the paintings from the 1700s are of documentary interest only. Maybe there are elements of composition and technique to analyse, but they aren’t doing anything as mature, challenging and psychological as paintings like ClytemnestraOn a fine day or Listed.

War

The corridor gallery

Matthew Smith (1879-1959) was born into a family of Yorkshire industrialists. Like a lot of rich men’s sons he decided he wanted to be an artist and went to study with post-impressionist French painters in Pont Aven in 1908, then under Matisse in Paris. He served in the Great War, after which he suffered a nervous breakdown. The City of London Corporation was gifted a collection of some 1,000 of his paintings, watercolours, pastels, drawings and sketches in 1974.

The short corridor between the steps down from the lobby and the door into the undercroft displays some dozen of his works. Because they all have similar titles it’s almost impossible to track them down online.

These works struggle to compete with the masterpieces in the main gallery. In Matthews’ work, after the modern art revolution, the paint is laid on thick and draws attention to itself and to the canvas, to the surface and solidity, to the process of painting itself. They are about the interplay of oils, the composition of tones and colours in regard to each other, as juxtapositions of colours and shapes, of bands and shapes and lines and swirls. One result of this is that, having abandoned the realistic depiction of the outside world – using it now merely as inspiration for exercises in colour – there is an absence of the light effects which make so many of the Victorian paintings upstairs so powerful and feel so liberating.

Conclusions

Victorian painting is a game of two halves: as a general rule everything before about 1870 (except for the PRBs) was badly executed or village idiot kitsch; after the 1870s almost all the paintings have a new maturity of execution and subject matter. The change is comparable to the growth of the novel which, up to the 1860s was mostly a comic vehicle with only episodic attempts at seriousness; after around 1860 an increasingly mature, deep and moving medium for the exploration of human consciousness.

Seeing this many oil paintings together makes you realise the ability to oil to brilliantly capture the effect of sunlight – to dramatise a mythic subject and pose as in Clytemnestra – or to evoke a sense of shadow and light which is so characteristic of the English countryside, as in On a fine day – and then, in later Victorian experiments, to convey the hushed, muted shades of light at dawn and dusk – as in my favourite painting from the collection, Listed.

Oil painting can do this better than photography, in which it is very difficult to capture the difference between light and shade without glare or over-exposure. I hadn’t quite appreciated the wonderful ability of oil painting to convey the impression of sunlight in all its different effects.


Related links

Other museums

A Victorian Obsession @ Leighton House Museum

The Leighton House Museum is worth visiting at any time, but especially so when it is hosting an exhibition like this one – A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón collection at Leighton House Museum.

One of the paintings on display references Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words (SWW by John Melhuish Strudwick). Why not listen as you read?

1. Leighton House Museum

Sir Frederic Leighton (1830-96) was one of the most eminent artists of the later part of Queen Victoria’s reign, with a particular interest in classical subject matter. In his twenties his prodigious skill already had people speculating whether he would become President of the Royal Academy, an ambition he achieved in 1878, and Leighton is the only British artist to have been raised to the peerage.

Leighton acquired this plot of land in Holland Park, west London, in the 1860s and for the rest of his life collaborated with architects to build and extend and improve what became an artistic creation in its own right, ‘a showcase for artistic and aesthetic taste’. The house is lavishly decorated and ornamented throughout but the most famous part of it is the Arab Hall, built between 1877 and 1881.

Leighton House Arab Hall (1) -®Will Pryce

Leighton House Museum, London: The Arab Hall. Courtesy of Leighton House Museum and Will Pryce.

The hall was based on the reception room at the twelfth-century palace of La Zisa at Palermo in Sicily. It was built to showcase Leighton’s collection of 16th and 17th century Islamic tiles and every inch of the walls, floor and ceiling contribute to the wonderful ambience, with mosaic floors, a gold mosaic frieze designed by Walter Crane running round the walls, elaborate alcoves with views over the garden and, in the centre, a small floor-level fountain trickling into a yard-wide pool. There are chairs so you can sit and relax. It is an extraordinary thing to find in a Victorian house.

Next in impact is the large, north-facing studio Leighton had built at the top of the house, to contain his easels, works in progress and the huge collection of photographs, sketches and oils which he kept around him. I was struck that Leighton had commissioned someone to run a scale version of the Parthenon frieze along the top of the longest wall in the room, a living link between his work and the classical Greek image of bodily perfection (a notion currently displayed and discussed at the British Museum) and which he saw as the ultimate source and validator of his work.

2. A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón collection

The Pérez Simón collection is named after the man who collected it, a successful Mexican businessman with an eye for Victorian art and the money to acquire it: he owns the largest collection of Victorian and Edwardian art outside Britain. This is a rare opportunity to see more than fifty paintings from the Leighton era gathered together in a house which beautifully preserves the ambience and feel of the time.

The staircase in the Leighton House Museum ©Todd White

The staircase in the Leighton House Museum, with paintings from the Pérez Simón collection © Todd White

The artists

The exhibition includes works by:

Timespan

The 60 or more paintings on show stretch from 1862 to 1916, from the heart of the Victorian era through the Edwardian high summer and on into the year of the Battle of the Somme.

Though they are not displayed in order, I think you can observe a development in interests and technique across the period. Very roughly the earlier paintings have a Pre-Raphaelite interest in the Middle Ages, an interest in Arthurian and other medieval legends and a soft-focus approach, a blurriness about the features which carries on in Burne-Jones’s work into the new century. This is a rare nude by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, using his most-painted model, Alexa Wilding.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti Venus Verticordia 1867-1868 Oil on canvas The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

Dante Gabriel Rossetti Venus Verticordia (1867-1868) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

The later group of artists are sometimes referred to as the Olympians because they were interested in the life of ancient Greece and Rome (and Egypt) – not least because archaeological discoveries were publicising and popularising these cultures. Whereas the Pre-Raphaelites like Rossetti or Burne-Jones painted a fantasy of medieval life, the next generation of painters, like Poynter or Goodall, had travelled extensively in Italy, Greece and even Egypt and prided themselves on an almost photographic accuracy of setting, clothing and detail.

Tennyson’s influence

If you read biographies of the poet laureate of Victorian society, Alfred Lord Tennyson, you discover that he and his closest friends at Cambridge debated long into the night and wrote treatises and poems addressing what was for them the burning issue of the day: Should the artist write about the reality of daily life (and, by implication, of the technological, political and social turmoil of the times) or turn his back on society and describe only an Ideal Beauty?

We know what happened: with occasional sideways references to contemporary life (glimpsed in Maud, The Princess or In Memoriam), Tennyson ultimately developed into the poet of escape, epitomised by the Idylls of the King (1859-85) which retold the legends of King Arthur in a particularly drowsy, dreamlike style. The artists collected here followed his path and their tremendous technical proficiency is used to depict dreams of heroism and chivalry, like the chocolate box perfection of Millais’ The Crown of Love.

John Everett Millais The Crown of Love (1875) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

John Everett Millais The Crown of Love (1875) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

Tennysonian escapism

The art on display here is wholeheartedly escapist, awash with Arthurian stories or myths and legends from Greek, Roman or Biblical sources. There is none of the squalor and haste of Victorian life, let alone the innumerable small wars of Empire which Kipling was to write about from the late 1880s.

Instead, the viewer is transported back in time to the lazy lives of the leisured classes of long ago. Hardly any of the paintings depicts activity: a deep languor hangs over them, and the later in the period they are created, the lazier the lives depicted.

Are we to indict these artists for failing to depict the squalor and misery of their times, as if all art must always be about the most sordid subject matter the age can provide; or celebrate them for providing visual antidotes to it, for following the almost universal contemporary belief that art exists to create the inspiring and uplifting, the ‘beautiful’?

The female image

Woman as embodiment of virtue ‘A preoccupation at the heart of pictorial expression during this period is the representation of female beauty’ (the guide). Why? Women, constricted and constrained by Victorian laws and conventions were, paradoxically, turned into the embodiment of what men were fighting for, what men were working for, what needed to be protected. In the social realm, whether they wanted to or not, women had forced upon them the role of Embodiment of the Good, of Virtue.

Male pleasure In the realm of Art, pale, white, virginal, half-naked women were obviously pleasurable for male artists to paint and male critics to judge and male patrons to buy and stare at. Thousands of artists devoted their working lives to equating the category of beauty with the female face and body, an object to be coveted, fantasised and dreamed about.

Market forces A couple of times the commentary mentioned specific paintings being composed and created with an eye on the market. An artist has to earn a living. If images of scantily-clad young women sold, then the artists would produce every variation on the theme, placing scantily-clad young women in settings as diverse as imagination allowed, from Arthurian myth, to the legends of ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt.

Model power That said, art then – as maybe fashion or pop music today – offered an escape route from lives of poverty and low expectations, for the artists (some of whom came from very humble backgrounds) and also for their models, often illiterate girls plucked from the street.

Dorothy Dene

One such was Dorothy Dene, born Ada Pullen, the daughter of an impoverished engineer from Clapham. She became Leighton’s favourite model and muse for the rest of his career; she changed her name to Dorothy Dene and Leighton helped her start quite a successful stage career, paying for acting lessons and pulling strings to get her roles.

It is pleasing to read that Dene was one of the last people invited to visit Leighton on his deathbed in 1896 and that he left her the vast sum of £5,000, more than any other beneficiary of his will.

Crenaia

The vertical shape of the painting below reflects the waterfall in the background, a realistic depiction of the highest waterfall in Ireland, part of the river Dargle, which ran across the estate of Lord Powerscourt,  the painting’s first owner. Like so much art, it is about power and money and control – control of a foreign land which no doubt came with serfs and vassals, a fine house full of willing servants, and the leisure to stare at the white, elongated body of a beautiful young woman with her clothes just gently falling off her.

Frederic, Lord Leighton Crenaia, the nymph of the Dargle (1880) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

Frederic, Lord Leighton Crenaia, the nymph of the Dargle (1880) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

Is Crenaia pornographic? Not really, not as our age knows pornography. Is it a form of soft porn or titillation? Probably, yes. I think it must have pandered to its patron’s sense of seigneurship and that it flatters any man who looks at it with a momentary sense of ownership of a woman of such soft pink perfection. But it is a very deliberate work of art and so, at a level above that, it flatters the owner’s connoisseurship: because, putting the sexuality of the figure to one side, it is a striking composition, so tall and thin, depicting a body elongated to echo the falling waterfall, and the whiteness of the gown and the white pinkness of the flesh stand out as if spotlit against the deep darkness of the background. The gown to the left is mirrored by the waterfall to the right and both could be mistaken for wings; it is almost one of the fairy paintings which were such a feature of Victorian art. So, multiple layers of visual and psychological pleasure.

Aestheticism

It’s hard to understand that these swooning beauties represented something of a rebellion against the art establishment. In the 1870s and 80s the movement which was known variously as Aestheticism or Art For Art’s Sake rebelled against the heavy hand of Victorian moralising. A great deal of Victorian art is anecdotal, telling a story, all too often one which thumps out a great moral lesson, quite often about the perils of infidelity. Although he never went as far as the polemical aestheticism of a painter like Whistler, Leighton created a number of marvellous canvases which are quite obviously more interested in form and design, in the harmonious arrangement of colours and fabrics, than in any particular myth or legend. Probably the most famous is Flaming June (1895), but on show here was the equally stylised and striking Greek girls picking up pebbles by the sea, a much earlier work from 1871.

Frederic, Lord Leighton Greek girls picking up pebbles by the sea (1871) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

Frederic, Lord Leighton Greek girls picking up pebbles by the sea (1871) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

The Roses of Heliogabulus

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, OM, RA, is the most famous painter of the classic Olympian scene, set on an airy terrace overlooking the sea. This painting, The Roses of Heliogabulus (1888) was given a room to itself, complete with various preparatory studies and some joss sticks filling the room with the aroma of roses. It depicts the (rather improbable) story from an account of the 3rd century Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus (203-222) who, among other corrupt and vicious behaviour, was said to have smothered guests at a feast with flower petals.

The striking thing about Alma-Tadema’s masterpiece is, of course, the complete lack of fear or violence; it looks like a lazy fin-de-siècle joke, all decadent music and fluttering rose petals. Far more noticeable than the nominal subject matter is Tadema’s characteristic attention to the detail of the surfaces, to the patterns in the marble pillars, the shimmer of the silk pillows.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema The Roses of Heliogabalus(1888) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

Lawrence Alma-Tadema The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

Women on the terrace of a villa maritima

I am grateful to this exhibition for giving me the words to characterise these Olympian paintings, so many of which feature, as the guide puts it, ‘women on the terrace of a villa maritima‘; the image of women in togas looking over a marble parapet out across the blue Mediterranean is a stock image of the period, the speciality of Alma-Tadema in particular: charming anecdotes from antiquity.

Some highlights

  • Andromeda (1869) by Edward John Poynter – apparently, the first depiction of pubic hair anywhere in British art. As usual, the graphic nude is permissible because it is disguised as an uplifting and authorised Greek myth.
  • Passing Days (1875) by John Melhuish Strudwick – an allegory of life as figures pass from youth to age to death. Very Pre-Raphaelite in the samey vacancy of the faces. I liked the medieval attention to the detail of the background.
  • The Finding of Moses (1885) by Frederick Goodall – Goodall visited Egypt in 1858 and 1870, both times travelling and camping with Bedouin tribesmen, bringing back sundry artefacts and remaining fascinated by its legends and architecture. The very white pharoah’s daughter and Moses contrast with the dark serving girls. White is power, purity and, in this Biblical story, godliness. Note the detail of the carpet, and the frieze of hieroglyphics on the low wall behind her, and the Egyptian figures on the temple wall and the chevron of white birds rising from the trees. And I love the muddy realism of the water, giving the bottom quarter of the image a mirror-like depth.
Frederick Goodall The Finding of Moses (1885) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

Frederick Goodall The Finding of Moses (1885) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

  • A Bathing Place (1890) by Albert Moore – the pose and the outdoor setting give this a surprising freshness. And it’s just a stunningly harmonious depiction of a perfect body.
  • The Crystal Ball (1902) by John William Waterhouse – lush velvet dress reminiscent of Millais at his best. Apparently there was a ‘Waterhouse profile’, a specific outline of the female face.
  • The Saz Player (1903) by William Clarke Wontner – what’s interesting is how this woman is so obviously English of the Edwardian, Downton Abbey type, and yet the drapery is very revealing. In its last years this genre became more shameless.
  • A Song of Springtime (1913) by John William Waterhouse – significantly different from the Crystal Ball, the roughness of the brushstrokes, and overlayering of paint creating a looser more spontaneous and open air feel. Although not ‘modern’ art, it has emerged from the Victorian syrup to become something more sturdy and independent.
  • A Passing Cloud (1895-1908) by Arthur Hughes – I think this is interesting because it shows the fag end of this tradition: a subject, a composition and a technique which have become hollow and superficial. The finish of the dress and the Delft tiles in the fireplace and especially the coat of the dog are little short of wondrous. But the whole painting is empty, it bespeaks an art which has migrated to the chocolate box and then been consigned to the attic. Leighton was long dead and the last survivors of his generation and his way of seeing things would die out on the eve of the Great War, which would sweep away their world, their fantasies, their ideas of Beauty, their visual imprisonment of women, and give rise to whole new ways of being and seeing.

My favourite

  • Greek wine (1873) by Lawrence Alma-Tadema – hidden next to a pillar was the highlight of the show. I liked it because of the vividness of the frieze copied from Greek pots at the back, because of the postures of the old man leaning up on his elbow and of the youth with his back to us pouring the wine, and because of the tremendous realism of the ageing, mottled flesh of the old man. An amazing depiction of the human body – and, as it happens, one of the few paintings with no women in it.

Related links

%d bloggers like this: