Cover of the book accompanying the exhibition, which also has contributions by Elizabeth Jacklin. All page numbers refer to this book. [Click on this and the following images to enlarge them, and for more information where the work is already on our website.]
Curators are under pressure now to produce sensational "shows," the type of exhibitions for which pre-booking is advisable, and timed-entry tickets issued. Once inside, visitors expect immediate visual gratification. It was risky, then, for Tate Britain to dedicate the first and, as it were, title room of "Painting with Light" (11 May-25 September) to a gigantic "assembly" painting — one that few will even have heard of before. But people go to exhibitions to be enlightened too, and, on this score, it was a risk well worth taking.
David Octavius Hill's Disruption Portrait (The First General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland signing the Act of Separation and the Deed of Demission on 23rd May 1843. 1843-1866. Oil on canvas. 1420 x 3657. (Free Church of Scotland.) Photographed by the author by kind permission of Tate Britain.
The "assembly" painting in question is David Octavius Hill's Disruption Portrait (1843-66). This is a vast, almost 12-foot-long, official-looking painting of row upon row of people witnessing an historic signing. More surprising than the presence of a number of women, and even one or two children, is the fact is that there is no sea of faces here. Every single one of the hundreds of attendees, even those at the very back or peering down from skylights in the rafters, is distinct and individual. This is not how the eye sees. The secret of the faithful portraiture is, of course, the involvement of the camera.
Detail of Hill's Disruption Portrait. Note the photographer holding his camera, seven figures from the left, towards the top: this was Hill's collaborator, Robert Adamson (see p. 14).
The painting is a documentary piece: a record of all those present at "the dramatic secession of the Free Church in an abandoned Edinburgh gasworks" in 1843 (13), executed by Hill (1802-1870) with the help of pioneering photographer Robert Adamson (1821-1848): some of the separate little photographic portraits are shown in Room 1 as well. David's second wife Amelia Robertson Hill, better known as a sculptor, helped him complete the painting after Adamson's premature death. Then, we are told, rather than making an engraving of it, Amelia Hill had it photographed in its entirety, and created a half-size version by painting over a sequence of three large carbon prints joined together. This is the version illustrated in Carol Jacobi and Hope Kingsley's useful book accompanying the exhibition. In these ways, Adamson and the Hills immortalised a fateful moment in Scottish history, and initiated the profoundly significant relationship between camera and artist.
Although the Pre-Raphaelites appear in the title of the exhibition, and the influence of photography on them is well known, the impact of this new medium on art was by no means confined to them. Nor was it one way. This is established in the first room as well. There are two Turners here — a watercolour and an engraving of the view from Calton Hill, Edinburgh. Now, Hill and Adamson's studio was on the slopes of that very hill, and their own panoramas of Edinburgh, the first of their kind, clearly reflect the same concern with light and shade as that of the artist whom they admired. With around half a dozen of these views on display, the point is somewhat laboured; but it is as well to understand, from the beginning, that just as photography influenced art, so art helped photography to find its own aesthetics.
From left to right: (a) Ruskin's photograph of a courtyard in Abbeville, dated 1858 in Works Vol. 14. (b) Millais' The Woodman's Daughter, 1850-51. (c) Frederich von Martens' photograph, albumen print on paper, of The Glacier at Rosenlaui. c. 1855. 320 x 260. (Alpine Club Photo Library, London). (d) John Brett's oil painting of Glacier at Rosenlaui. 1856. 445 x 419. (Tate). The last two pictures were photographed by the author by kind permission of Tate Britain.
Cross-fertilisation continued apace. Enter Ruskin, in the next room (2: "New Truths"), with several finely detailed works. Here too, perhaps just in time to perk up Pre-Raphaelite fans, is the first really well-known Pre-Raphaelite painting, Millais' The Woodman's Daughter. This represents another milestone, because it brought Millais an avalanche of criticism for its minute particularity, and was therefore the first to be defended by Ruskin. It is seen beside a contemporary stereo-card of a figure dwarfed by dense woodland. The same "immersive composition" (31) can be found in both painting and stereo-card, the same disturbing hint of mysterious depths. In the painting, however, the woodman's axe and the little boy's stiffly outstretched arm, not to mention his scarlet tunic, also hint at the disruptive potential of the human element. Among other brilliant pairings are Friedrich von Martens' photograph, The Glacier at Rosenlaui (c. 1856), and John Brett's beautifully toned contemporary view of the same scene. Encouraged by Ruskin to paint in the Alps, Brett worked from photographic sources to great effect. Ford Madox Brown and Holman Hunt both feature in this room too, Brown, for example, finding a photographic view of Nazareth a good aide-memoire for completing his own panorama, and photographer Henry White achieving poetic effects in work influenced by Brown. The pairings are not simple "compare and contrast" exercises. They show just how complex, dynamic and incredibly fruitful the relationship between art and photography could be.
The various ways in which this changed the whole art scene become clear in the next rooms (3: "In the Studio" and 4: "Tableaux"). These focus on pioneering photographers like Julia Cameron, James Fenton, Linley Sambourne and James Elliott, who established photography as an art in its own right, and show how artists were now routinely incorporating photographs into their working practice, using them as "preparatory studies or substitutes for props, lay figures or models" (p. 43). Dickenson's Drawing Academy (later known as Heatherley's), where women such as the sculptor Susan Durant trained, built up a whole archive of photographic images for just such purposes (see p. 43). The display of "tableaux vivants" also shows how staging famous scenes for the camera to capture, a variant on the popular amateur theatricals of the day, confirmed the new medium as an art form. One photograph features two of the queen's grandchildren, Princess Alexandra and Princess Victoria, bringing to life Marcus Stone's painting Two's Company, Three's None; one of the plums of the exhibition is the album of photographs of the Royal family which goes on show here for the very first time.
From left to right: (a) Chatterton, by Henry Wallis. 1856. (b) John Robert Parson's photograph, albumen print on paper, of Jane Morris. 1865. 39 x 33. (Victoria and Albert Museum). (c) Rossetti's Mariana of 1870. 109.8 x 90.5. (Aberdeen Art Gallery). The last two pictures were photographed by the author by kind permission of Tate Britain.
But when photography took paintings for its subject, there was a new problem: the first art copyright cases were fought over stereographic reproductions of Henry Wallis's Chatterton. Illustrators as well as printmakers could see photographers as rivals — or could adopt what Henry Peach Robinson called "pictorial photography" for their own purposes (qtd. p. 66). Cameron's illustrations for Tennyson are well known, but Walter Crane's use of photography to promote a new "freedom of dress" will be new to many (p. 69). Such early photographs are, of course, a fabulous resource for social as well as art historians.
None will begrudge the space given in the book to history, context, and such matters as staging and poetic focusing. But it is in the next room (5: "Whisper of the Muse") that the exhibition itself really captures the imagination. Here, for example, is Rossetti's Mariana of 1870, brought from Aberdeen Art Gallery, about three times the size of John Robert Parsons' photographic portrait of Jane Morris with which it is matched, and glowing with the brilliant blue of the dress. The photograph is beautiful in its subtlety of tone and the dreaminess of its subject, also because of the contrast between the crisp folds of the dress and the soft background; but (as pointed out in the book) it was the painting that introduced a whole new idea of beauty by emphasizing Morris's distinctive features, something no photograph could have achieved (see p. 82). Other large impressive paintings follow, including landscapes in the next room (6: "Life and Landscape"), such as Millais's daring, glowing, almost impressionistic (despite the stalks of grass in the foreground) Dew-Drenched Furze of 1889-90; and a lovely river-scene by Thomas Frederick Goodall, The Bow Net (1886). Again, in the treatment of nature, the influence of photography is clear; but it is more diffuse here than in Brett's glacier painting. There are some wonderful etchings as well, including two by Whistler, in which the intensity of the artist's gaze is subordinated to tone and line, almost to the point of abstraction. Impact is not always a matter of vibrant colour, let alone size or definition.
"Atmosphere and Effect"
Left to right: (a) John Singer Sargent's oil-painting Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. 1885-86. 174 x 153.7. (Tate). (b) Rossetti's oil-painting of Proserpine. 1874. 125.1 x 61. (Tate). (c) A version of Proserpine in coloured chalks. 1880 (not in the exhibition). The first two pictures were photographed by the author by kind permission of Tate Britain.
There is another Whistler in the seventh room ("Atmosphere and Effect"): Three Figures: Pink and Grey (1868-78). Very different from the previous ones, this is something of a curiosity. With its variety of sources "facilitated by photographs" (p. 111), it was intended to decorate a music room. But now photography itself bursts into colour, and in the adjacent room (8: "Into Light and Colour"), influence flows more markedly the other way. In particular, there is something haunting about the way photographer John Cimon Warburg captures the atmosphere of John Singer Sargent's lovely Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885-6). His autochrome portrait of his young daughter, Peggy in the Garden (1909), echoes the glowing lanterns and dresses of the painting in the oranges of his Riviera garden, and Peggy's flounced blue-white frock, against a similarly dark leafy background. These two artworks are among the highlights of the exhibition, even though there is so much more to enjoy in the final room.
For, unlike the book, in which the last three sections are all put together under the heading of "Atmosphere and Effect," the exhibition has not only an eighth room, but a ninth: "Out of the Shadows." This is not a tailpiece, but a climax. It features among others a gentle Burne-Jones drawing (Study of a Woman's Head, 1870) and two iconic Rossettis — (Monna Pomona, 1864, and Proserpine, 1874). The Pre-Raphaelites have never been more popular. At the time of writing, two other exhibitions are celebrating them from different perspectives. "Pre-Raphaelites on Paper," just finishing at Leighton House Museum, focuses on their often exquisite drawings, while "Pre-Raphaelites: Beauty and Rebellion," at the Walker Gallery in Liverpool, looks closely at how local patronage helped them to thrive. At the Tate, in the context of how art and photography interacted in the Victorian and early twentieth century periods, they are pivotal, seen to have influenced later artists of all kinds much as, or more than, earlier photographers had influenced them. Proserpine in particular, "itself remade in eight versions," had a rich afterlife, and is not only the highlight here, but the subject of a fascinating commentary by Jacobi (p. 126).
Scholarship has proliferated, especially on popular subjects like the Pre-Raphaelites and Julia Cameron, and many gallery visitors have expectations with regard to this as well as to seeing important artworks with their own eyes. They come armed with notebooks and a desire to learn, and will leave an exhibition such as this with a satisfying supply of both new impressions and new knowledge. After a deceptively low-key beginning, "Painting with Light" gathers momentum. In the end, it seems that the curators have got the balance just about right.
Jacobi, Carol, and Hope Kingsley, with contributions by Elizabeth Jacklin. Painting with Light: Art and Photography from the Pre-Raphaelites to the Modern Age. London: Tate Publishing, 2016. Paperback. 127 pp. £14.99. ISBN 978-1-84976-402-5.
Created 31 May 2016