Image result for Coburn, Woman in a Kimono with Sunflower
Alvin Langdon Coburn, Woman in a Kimono with Sunflower (1908, RPS)

There are only a few days left for you to visit the Tate’s autumn show, Painting with Light. If you haven’t yet been, it may well be down to the various reviews you’ve read and I am afraid this one is unlikely to rouse your interest.

The FT writes: ‘Tate has treated Victorian painting (Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, 2012) and photography (Salt and Silver, 2015) expertly in recent exhibitions, but the melange here, over-curated yet under-selected, diminishes both.’[1] The Telegraph describes the show as ‘steadfastly cautious and academic’ concluding, for ‘a show about photography, there surely should have been more flash’.[2] The Guardian didn’t seem to bother reviewing the exhibition at all, merely regurgitating the press release, and it is really only The Evening Standard who is more positive, claiming the show ‘manages to never be in the slightest bit boring’.[3]

So what is it about this show which meant that there were only two other people in there when I visited, one of them being the steward, one Thursday?

Firstly, there have been many other impressive exhibitions to attend this year.  Secondly, there is the cost. And thirdly, there is the title. It is possible you have over-indulged in Pre-Raphaelitism this year, after all there has been an impressive series of Victorian exhibitions including: Edward Robert Hughes (BMAG), Marie Spartali Stillman exhibition (Watts Gallery), Beauty and Rebellion (Walker Gallery), Pre-Raphaelites on Paper (Leighton House) and now the just opened Victorians Decoded (Guildhall).

It would seem this is the year of Pre-Raphaelitism, and yet ticket prices are creeping up. Compare the costs of standard entry for the ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ shows of 2016:

£7 for Edward Robert Hughes

£9.50 Marie Spartali Stillman

£7 for Beauty and Rebellion

£10 for Pre-Raphaelites on Paper

FREE for Victorians Decoded

£18 for Painting with Light

So, when you can pay nothing to see a wonderfully intelligent exhibition like Victorians Decoded, will you freely part with £18 (without donation £16.30) to see Painting with Light? Is it worth it?

The short answer is no, and the reason why? Well, many (no, not all) of the works are regularly displayed in the Tate’s general collection.

So, before reflecting upon the exhibition let us consider the final issue, the title: Painting with Light – Art and Photography, from the Pre-Raphaelites to the Modern Age. ‘Painting with Light’ is a poetic, charming title which in itself suggests an exploration into the processes and uses of light (within photography and painting) but the ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ appendage firmly asserts in the visitor an expectation they will see Millais, Hunt, Rossetti etc. The Tate blurb reinforces this message:

‘Spanning 75 years across the Victorian and Edwardian ages, the exhibition showcases the experimental beginnings of photography right through to its flowering as an independent international art form. These are displayed alongside the paintings which they inspired and which inspired them.

This is the first time works by John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, J.A.M. Whistler, John Singer Sargent and others will be shown alongside photographs by pivotal early photographers such as Julia Margaret Cameron and Alvin Langdon Coburn’.

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Rossetti, detail from Proserpine (1874, Tate)

So, the expectations are set. The visitor assumes there will be an indulgence of Pre-Raphaelitism, from Rossetti to Cameron. The exhibition guide (a rather brief, paltry affair) even shows Rossetti’s Proserpine (1874, Tate) alongside Zaida Ben-Yusuf’s The Odour of Pomegranates (1899, Tate) – note the Tate owns both of these works. So the Tate has encouraged our approach to the work as being rooted in Pre-Raphaelitism, albeit with the caveat of the show exploring photography up ‘to the Modern Age’.

So if you arrive with this invited expectation, you will spend the entire first room wondering why you are stood facing one of the most dreadful pieces of documentary painting, David Octavius Hill, Disruption Portrait (The First Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland signing the Act of Separation and the Deed of Demission on 23rd May, 1843 (1843 – 1866, Free Church of Scotland).

The Telegraph’s ‘steadfastly cautious and academic’ accusation is perfectly exemplified here.  The Disruption Portrait is an enormous (almost twelve foot long) painting which defies all subtleties in its effort to capture each individual’s features. The sheer stalwart effort it took to complete this work (twenty three years) is no doubt part of the awkwardness of the resulting work. Some of the figures look out of place and some look as if they have been stuck on, and the resulting effect is a rather distasteful landscape of faces, none of which we can engage with due to the blinding full focus approach. Hill was no Jacques Louis David.

The work is significant in its documentation of the four hundred and fifty odd faces, and the democratization of the Free Church is amplified by the sea of faces, whose individual statuses range from members of the Scottish aristocracy to Newhaven fishermen. Free Church of Scotland curator Colin Morrison remarks upon the timely display of the Tate’s inclusion of this piece, it being the 150th anniversary of its completion.

Morrison says of the painting: “It features many people of note from the Victorian era, from the well-known Free Church ministers such as Thomas Chalmers and Thomas Guthrie; influential missionaries like Alexander Duff and ‘Rabbi’ Duncan; and many other important figures such as Sir James Young Simpson (discovered the use of chloroform as an anaesthetic), Hugh Miller (geologist and writer) and Henry Duncan (founder of the first savings bank). There is also the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, a nephew of Robert Burns, and the inventor of the kaleidoscope!”

Why do you need to know this, why should you even care, is this even of interest to the general visitor? Maybe. The academic thinking behind the inclusion of the Disruption Portrait is brave and strong, but does it work? Yes, academically.

The history within the painting feels as impenetrable as the painting itself. One notable figure Robert Adamson, who established a photographic studio where David Octavius Hill took more than two thousand photographs, can be seen in the centre of the Disruption Portrait, surrounded by his equipment.

It is the process of photography being placed within the act of painting that the curators have attempted to bring out in this first room, with some of Hill’s studio photographs being displayed alongside the painting. These are of more interest than the painting itself, although that response seems to be an unfortunate simplification of the curatorial intention.

Underpinning the selection of the Disruption Portrait and topological images of Edinburgh which are displayed alongside two Turners (a watercolour and an engraving) is the point that the invention of photography in 1839 contributed to a period of change throughout the visual arts in Britain. Art and photography became a partnership of sorts, both permitting a revisiting and a re-looking at the world around and at the new conversations available within an evolving visual language. Carol Jacobi, curator of Painting with Light, says the show “offers new insights into Britain’s most popular artists and reveals just how vital painting and photography were to one another. Their conversations were at the heart of the artistic achievements of the Victorian and Edwardian era”.[4]

Atkinson Grimshaw ‘Bowder Stone, Borrowdale’, c.1863–8
Atkinson Grimshaw, Border Stone, Borrowdale (1863, Tate)

The mid-nineteenth century photographic innovations became part of a debate about ‘truth’ and meaning. Cue Ruskin (after all, we have already had Turner) and some of his ‘photographic’ drawings of St. Marks, Venice from the Ashmolean. Also cue the display of another Tate owned work, Atkinson Grimshaw’s Bowder Stone, Borrowdale (1863, Tate). This work is beautiful and quite rightly exemplifies Ruskin’s diktat ‘go to Nature … rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing’.[5] The Borrowdale watercolour is mirrored in the wonderful photograph Bowder Stone, Borrowdale (circa 1863-1868, Tate) which is displayed nearby. Ruskin and Grimshaw knew each other and it is in the display of this work that the exhibition’s Pre-Raphaelite hand begins to be shown.

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Bowder Stone, Borrowdale (circa 1863-1868, Tate)

The fine Pre-Raphaelite eye, which explored the tiny details of the landscape, are further explored in the inclusion of Millais’ The Woodman’s Daughter (1850 – 1851, Guildhall). This work is actually a glorious piece of Pre-Raphaelitism, awkward in its overtly Catholic styled-line (see here). The Woodman’s Daughter is one of several paintings by the Pre-Raphaelites that explores thwarted love and social class, such as John Roddam Spencer Stanhope’s Thoughts of the Past (1853, Tate). The painting is drawn from the 1844 poem of the same title by Coventry Patmore which tells the story of Maud and her decline. Maud falls in love (seduced?), by a wealthy squire’s son, who we see in Millais’ painting dressed in bright red.  Maud and the Squire’s son have a child, but because of their couple’s class difference, they can never marry. Maud drowns their illegitimate child and goes mad.

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Millais, The Woodman’s Daughter (1850 – 1851, Guildhall)

Millais’ interpretation is fascinating, for he depicts the two figures in their childhood, before the seduction, which is only foreshadowed by the handful of strawberries. Strawberries connote purity, passion and healing, but there will be no healing for Maud. She stands here, innocently holding her hands out to accept the strawberries which take on a bold, heightened symbolism of her own downfall. Maud becomes both victim and participant. The Squire’s son foreshadows his own role as seducer, as destroyer of the innocence of Maud. The poem recalls us to the scene in Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1897) where Tess is fed strawberries by her seductress, Alec. There is nearly fifty years between the two texts but one cannot help wonder if Millais’ pastoral vision was a catalyst for Hardy’s scene.

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Film still from Polanski’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1979)

Millais’ image is striking, the bright gaudy red of the Squire’s son instantly sets him at odds with the forest they stand in. Millais presumably chose the colour red for its contrast with the green, which dominates the scene, but also for its replication of the strawberries, and its obvious display of wealth. The painting is photographic in its detail, and demands immersion in each leaf, each sapling, and each branch. The painting is bright, it is ‘painted with light’, full light, glaring, bright, white light. It is a wonderful choice, and as the Victorian Web points it is displayed ‘perhaps just in time to perk up Pre-Raphaelite fans’.[6]

Another work that defies all reproductions is Brett’s The Glacier at Rosenlaui (1856, – yes, you’ve guessed it, another Tate collection piece). Stand up close and revel in its Ruskinian detail: behold the hand of the grand designer. This painting is displayed alongside Friedrich von Marten’s photograph of The Glacier at Rosenlaui (c. 1858, Alpine Club Photo Library, London) and these couplings are where the exhibition really shines.

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Brett, The Glacier at Rosenlaui (1856, Tate)

Other comparisons include William Holman Hunt’s paintings of Nazareth and photographs which evidently acted as an aide memoire. I thoroughly agree with this statement from Jacqueline Banerjee: ‘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’.[7] Immersion, looking, seeing are so integral to this exhibition that one has to take time to engage with the smaller details within each work, it is also important to note that aside from the jaw dropping proportions of the Disruption Portrait, many of the works on display are rather small, often tiny.

Be warned about immersing yourself too closely when using the stereoscopes provided though, for the Tate stewards are Pitball-like in their guarding of the works throughout this exhibition. One lady was told she should sit down if she needed to use her phone to check her email, when she was actually looking at google maps to fully understand the panoramas of Edinburgh on display. Whilst the panic displayed was no doubt related to photography and copyright concerns, there really needs to be some sort of consensus about what is expected / permitted in galleries. Or what is expected / permitted within the same gallery: go into other rooms of the Tate and you are invited to use tablets to engage with the paintings! Some galleries embrace photography whilst some do not, but I have noticed that visitors are become increasingly confused at the inconsistent messages they are receiving.

Stereographs sold for a few shillings and people of all classes collected. In 1859, Oliver Wendell Holmes’s essay ‘The Stereoscope and the Stereograph’ celebrated their invention:

The two eyes see different pictures of the same thing, for the obvious reason that they look from points two or three inches apart. By means of these two different views of an object, the mind, as it were, feels round it and gets an idea of its solidity. We clasp an object with our eyes, as with our arms, or with our hands.

However, the stereoscopes are not particularly effective but I suspect this is in part due to our over-refined, over-pixelated expectations – an aspect that could have been at least an addendum exploration to this exhibition. I fear some of these inconsistencies and over-worked messages are again what The Telegraph review was referring to:

But, by prosecuting its argument via a series of neat, compare-and-contrast juxtapositions, the exhibition feels too much like a lecture, and not enough like, well, an exhibition. At points, it is even amusing to read some of the excitable contemporary reactions to early photographs, which were compared, rhapsodically, to Old Master paintings. The truth is that what seemed marvellous and novel in, say, the 1850s can now appear wraithlike.[8]

‘In the Studio’ and ‘Tableaux’ rooms attempt to focus the visitor on the changing landscape of the visual arts, and introduce big names like James Elliot (of Fry and Elliot fame), Roger Fenton, a pioneering photographer whose reputation has been somewhat unfairly overshadowed by the more showbiz (as in ‘Pre-Raphaelite’) Julia Margaret Cameron, who is also on display here.

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Fenton, The Water Carrier (1858, Wilson Centre for Photography)

Fenton’s The Water Carrier (1858, Wilson Centre for Photography) is a beautiful piece of photography, and although it would please the Western Imperial eye to think this was a snapshot of exotic beauty, it is in fact a choreographed scene as evidenced by the wires holding the ewer in place. Fenton posed his models in his London studio, dressing them in exotic costumes, using Asian props such as coffee pots and water pipes to add the desired ‘Oriental’ / exotic look. This particular model appears in many of his Orientalist photographs.

Despite the evocative nature of many of Fenton’s prints, he was not very commercially successful. Having avoided commercial photography for many years, partly due to snobbery, partly due to the High / Low art debate, and partly due to the ideals of the RPS, Fenton met with an unwelcome decision by the organising committee for the International Exhibition in London, 1862. The exhibition took a decisive yet pejorative action by placing photography alongside tradesmens’ crafts, e.g. machinery and tools. Photography’s status was publicly diminished (Fenton sold his equipment and returned to law). The exhibition doesn’t pursue the status of photography, and one could easily be left with the view that photography was coupled with, or at least closely related to art, as in the High Arts. I presume this is in the emphasis upon photography’s effect upon art rather than an exploration of responses to the technology more broadly speaking. Fortunately reception is dealt with aesthetically here which makes for a more pleasurable exhibition, after all the title is ‘Painting with Light’. The debate about photography’s status relentlessly clouds readings and discussions about Cameron.

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Stone, Two’s Company, Three’s None (1860 – 1892, Manchester)

The exhibition does illuminate Royal interest in photography and the wonderful photograph of Princesses Alexandra and Victoria is a self-conscious pastiche of Marcus Stone’s painting Two’s Company, Three’s None (1860 – 1892, Manchester). This comparison is a wonderful addition to the show and the photograph is displayed underneath the painting in a Royal album not previously exhibited.

Princesses Alexandra and Victoria

Once photographs started to be taken of paintings, copyright instantly became problematic. The Death of Chatterton (1856, Tate) is the Jacobi’s chosen example. Having seen Wallis’ painting in Dublin, James Robinson conceived a stereographic series of Chatterton’s life. Within days of Robinson’s publication of ‘his’ The Death of Chatterton, legal proceedings began. Wallis’ printmaker claimed the picture threatened his income from producing copyrighted engravings. Robinson lost the case, and this is now referred to as the first real copyright case.

Robinson’s The Death of Chatterton (1859, Collection of Dr. Brian May) is a fascinating piece, the colour eerily tints the narrative elements of the piece. The stereoscope colouring ‘illustrates the way this uncanny quality distinguishes the stereograph from even the immaculate Pre-Raphaelite style of Wallis’s painting of the same subject…The backdrop was painted, but the chest, discarded coat and candle were real. Again, the light and colour appear crude in comparison with the painting but the stereoscope records ‘every stick, straw, scratch’ in a manner that the painting cannot. The torn paper pieces, animated by their three-dimensionality, trace the poet’s recent agitation, while the candle smoke, representing his extinguished life, is different in each photograph due to their being taken at separate moments. The haphazard creases of the bed sheet are more suggestive of restless movement, now stilled, than Wallis’s elegant drapery. Even the individuality of the boy adds potency to his death.[9]

Robinson, after Wallis, The Death of Chatterton (1859, Collection of Dr. Brian May)

This room is less about potency than middle-class tableaux, as illustrated by Walter Crane’s cloying ‘pictorial photography’ shows. The next room, the ‘Whisper of the Muse’, is likely where you will devote most of your time, having probably concluded the first room could have been entirely cut out of the exhibition and forgiven it as being ‘a deceptively low-key beginning’.[10] It is here that all the Pre-Raphaelite names promised and anticipated can be found, and one finally gains confidence in the curators having something to say.

The Rossetti curated photograph of Jane Morris by John Robert Parson (1865, V&A) is displayed alongside Rossetti’s Mariana (1870, Aberdeen). Mariana really is a joy to behold, as the attendant angel in the picture seems to suggest, and it is a pleasure to see the two works together. It seems visitors are asked to consider the limitations of photography, or at least compare them to the mythologising capabilities of the imagination, of the lover, of the painter. Rossetti inevitably wins this argument, but we must acknowledge his hand is felt in both the painting and the photograph, and the now lasting image of Jane.

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Rossetti, Mariana (1870, Aberdeen).

But just as one is started to luxuriate in the pace of the exhibition, you are drawn back again, into an entirely different manner of painting and photography. The ‘Life and Landscape’ room transports you into the 1880s amongst photographs, some of which herald from private collections, of labourers and fishermen alongside paintings by Thomas Goodall and George Clausen. Clausen’s Winter Work (1883, Tate) is a wonderfully moving piece, reminding one of the hard winter months when Hardy’s Tess worked for pittance in the fields. Stylistically you are transported away from the whispering muse of the previous room, into stark French realism. I accept the point but perhaps the order of display makes one lose much needed momentum, in what is a surprisingly large exhibition, albeit of predominantly smaller works.

Peter Henry Emerson, Setting the Bow-Net, in ‘Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads (1885, published 1887, Private Collection)

Without a shadow of a doubt, the most impressive landscape is Millais’ Dew Drenched Furze (1889, Tate). The painting is large and the colours soft and hazy, the painting instantly transports you, like a photo, to its scene. One can imagine the dew on the tips of one’s fingers, or on the skin of your ankle if you were to brush against the furze.

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Millais, Dew Drenched Furze (1889, Tate)

Between 1870 and 1890, Millais painted twenty one large atmospheric landscapes during his time spent in the Highlands. These works were based upon the local Scottish scenery near his home in Bowerswell, Perthshire and the estate at Murthly that Millais rented from 1881 for the purposes of recreational shooting and fishing – Millais being the consummate Victorian fellow. Dew Drenched Furze has an elegiac quality worthy of Swinburne, and surprising in Millais. This section of the room features numerous photographs of sublimely arranged landscapes, e.g. Francis Gresley’s At Winterdyne (1864, Wilson Centre for Photography) but they are drowned out by the sweet elegy of Millais. Because of this, the images of fishermen are more engaging than the landscape photographs.

At this stage of the exhibition, and possibly this review, you may well be running out of steam. There are nine rooms in this exhibition, not that quantity justifies cost as far as ticket price goes. You may well be fatigued by the time you enter the last stages of the exhibition, but no doubt Sargent’s Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose (1886 – 1886, Tate) will lift your spirits and if it doesn’t you can always come back after this exhibition finishes and see it on general display in the Tate anyway.

The Telegraph describes the general trajectory of the exhibition as being ‘from accuracy to poetry’ and I agree it is evident which is likelier to deliver a strong exhibition.[11] The Whistler Nocturnes on display are a pleasure as ever, e.g. Three Figures: Pink and Grey (1868- 1878, Tate) but one of the most delightful pieces is Arthur Hacker’s Wet Night at Piccadilly Circus (1910, Royal Academy). It is a dreamy, creamy, languid rainy scene full of golden light and carriages and recalls the painted photographs by Grimshaw, also on display.

A Wet Night at Piccadilly Circus
Arthur Hacker, Wet Night at Piccadilly Circus (1910, Royal Academy)

The work is juxtaposed with Alvin Langdon Coburn’s Leicester Square (The Old Empire Theatre) (1908, Wilson Cente). But by this stage of the exhibition, the contrasts and comparisons become rather unconvincing. It is not enough to merely draw comparisons and although I would not for a moment doubt the academia behind them, it doesn’t translate to the audience. Why are these visual patterns being replicated through the different mediums, what does it tell us about the conversations between the visual arts? Is this a latent thing or a self-conscious behaviour on the part of the artist or the photographer? These answers don’t seem to be offered clearly enough.

And this is the problem with the exhibition. One knows, because one is a veteran exhibition visitor, that these curators are intelligently minded, but at the end of these nine rooms there was a sense of dissatisfication. It is not for the lack of thought, or the lack of selection, but it is perhaps because of the lack of poetry. The rooms feel disconnected, and although there are some remarkable photographs on display, merely correlating them as pairs leaves the visitor unconvinced. A smaller, more succinct exhibition may well have benefited both the Tate and the viewer, for I don’t believe the ticket price warranted the experience, although I readily acknowledge it warranted the academic input and thought behind the exhibition, and the catalogue which is worth examining.

Coburn insisted photography ‘achieve victory by virtue of its own merits — by the unique subtlety of its tonal range and its capacity to explore the infinite gradations of luminosity, rather than by imitating the technique of the draughtsman’ and although I remain unconvinced the exhibition achieved communicating that, some of the more subtle images in the final room do. The are a few pieces which were definitely worth spending time on though:

John Cimon Warburg’s The Japanese Parasol (c.1906, RPS) and his Peggy in the Garden (1906, RPS)

Clementina Hawarden, Stereograph of Isabella Grace on the terrace (c.1861-1862)

Minna Keene, Decorative Study No. 1, Pomegranates (1906, RPS) and

Alvin Langdon Coburn, Woman in a Kimono with Sunflower (1908, RPS)

Painting with Light is on until 25th September at Tate Britain. The gallery is open every day from 10am-6pm. Tickets are £18 for adults (£16 for concessions) and under 12s are free.

'The Japanese Parasol', c 1909.
Coburn, The Japanese Parasol ( c 1906, RPS)

[1] Accessed 11:06 22/09/16

[2]  Accessed 11:11 22/09/16

[3] Accessed 11:15 22/09/16

[4] Accessed 13:19 22/09/16

[5] John Ruskin, E.T.Cook and A.Wedderburn eds., The Works of John Ruskin, III, pp.623-4

[6] Accessed 13:51 22/09/16

[7] As above.

[8]  Accessed 11:11 22/09/16

[9] Accessed 17:48 22/09/16

[10] Accessed 13:51 22/09/16

[11] Accessed 11:11 22/09/16