Tate Britain's exhibition on the birth of photography needs more flash - review

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The Woodman’s Daughter 1850-51 by John Everett Millais (1829-1896) 
Not a showstopper: The Woodman’s Daughter 1850-51 by John Everett Millais (1829-1896)  Credit: Tate

Painting with Light, the new exhibition at Tate Britain, should be a major, mouth-watering affair. After all, its subject, the impact of photography upon painting during the 19th century and into the Edwardian age, had important repercussions.

Arguably, the advent of photography resulted in the rise of modern art. Unfortunately, though, the Tate’s show, which features almost 200 artworks, downplays the thrill of this bigger picture. Instead, it remains steadfastly cautious and academic.

It begins, with one of the most bloodless and boring introductions to an exhibition that I can remember. We are taken back to Edinburgh during the 1840s, a few years after the invention of photography in 1839, when the pioneering photographer Robert Adamson was collaborating with the painter David Octavius Hill.

During a partnership that lasted four years, these two enterprising individuals produced several thousand photographs of historical importance. Hill and Adamson often took their cue from painting. One wall, for instance, is devoted to their vistas of the city, seen from the panoramic viewpoint of Calton Hill.

These were indebted to Turner’s watercolours from the same spot, which he had made decades earlier and had been reproduced as engravings. The trouble is, the photographs themselves are remarkably unexciting: a series of straitlaced visual documents, sickly-yellow with the sepia tint of nostalgia.

John Singer Sargent 1856-1925 Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose 1885-86 Credit: Mark Heathcote/Tate

Monuments to a bygone age, they are woefully short on gusto and charisma. Hill and Adamson must have felt like alchemists on the cusp of discovering the philosopher’s stone. Yet their photographs do not impart much, if any, of their fervour.

The supposed highlight of the first gallery is Hill’s Disruption Portrait, a vast historical oil painting, 12ft across, which marks the moment when the Free Church split from the Church of Scotland. Hill began the painting in 1843, the same year as the “Disruption” itself, and worked on it until 1866. This is the first time it has been seen outside Scotland in over a century.

The reason it is included here is because Hill used photographic studies, printed on salted paper, as sources for the many hundreds of portraits in the final composition. Indeed, Hill’s desire to use photography as an aid for this painting is why he was introduced to Adamson in the first place.

The elephant in the room, though, is the painting’s unequivocal strangeness. Because he was drawing upon photographic portraits, Hill gave crystal-clear clarity to every one of the 457 faces crammed across his canvas like oranges squashed willy-nilly in a crate. The resulting effect – like a 19th-century Scottish precursor of Where’s Wally? – is borderline insane: the painting has the understanding of pictorial space, and grasp of the natural dynamics of a large assembly of people, of a stiff Jacobean group portrait.

As for Hill’s Edinburgh Old and New (1846-47), an oil painting inspired by his photographic experiments, which occupies the most prominent sightline as you enter the exhibition, the idea that the skyline of the painting is “transfused with an opalescent Turneresque light”, as the curators suggest, is outrageous. The picture is just dull.

This, of course, is not to downplay the influence of Hill and Adamson’s work upon the development of photography. It’s just that the argument rehearsed in the opening gallery comes straight from the pages of a textbook, and hasn’t been altered to make an eye-catching exhibition. It’s a shame: the curators opt for chronology, but they should have come up with something stronger to grab, and sustain, our attention.

There aren’t really any showstoppers in the second room, either, which introduces the Pre-Raphaelites into the mix. A number of juxtapositions, pairing paintings with contemporary photographs exploring similar subjects, illustrates the general theme of the symbiosis of the two mediums.

Brooding: Thomas Frederick Goodall and Peter Henry Emerson photograph Setting the Bow-Net, in Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads 1885 Credit: Tate

The Woodman’s Daughter (1850-51) by Millais appears alongside crisp photographs of a forest taken by someone unknown. Paintings of glaciers and the Lake District hang next to photographs of similar subjects. A watercolour of Nazareth, executed by William Holman Hunt, is presented beside an almost identical view of the Levantine city captured by his travelling companion, the photographer James Graham.

The bigger point is obvious. Photography, with its ability to record tiny details with pinpoint accuracy, offered a challenge to painting. Artists attempted to meet this by introducing hyper-realistic details into their own work.

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.

In fairness, as the show develops, it also loosens up and improves. In part, this is because photographers – and the artists who responded to them – upped their game. There are brisk sections devoted to studio photography and the vogue for narrative “tableaux” (i.e. literary and historical subjects) – such as Marcus Stone’s popular Two’s Company, Three’s None (1892), which obsessed Victorian photographers as well as painters. 

Stone’s tableau, for instance, was imitated by an unknown photographer who documented a series of Shakespearean performances staged by the daughters of Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh, in the early 1890s.

Then we come to the crux of the exhibition, as the emerging Aesthetic Movement became more interested in summoning imaginative effects than recording specific details. Suddenly, photographers strove to capture the ambience of painters such as Whistler, rather than the other way around.

The general trajectory, if you like, was from accuracy to poetry – and I know which is likelier to deliver a strong exhibition. At last, we encounter lots of works of art worth looking at.

Some are well known, such as Whistler’s sumptuous Nocturnes. Others are not. Thomas Goodall and Peter Henry Emerson’s brooding series of photographs of life on the Norfolk Broads, for instance, has a bewitching power. Various “autochromes” – ingenious colour images captured on glass plates via a technique invented by the Lumiere brothers in 1907 – offer moments of revelation. Here are sexy vignettes revealing the full glitter and pizzazz of the Edwardians.

Meanwhile, Arthur Hacker’s Wet Night at Piccadilly Circus (1910) is a magically languid, dream-like evocation of central London illuminated at night by golden artificial lights, reflected in rain-slick pavements.

Despite the juxtaposition of Alvin Langdon Coburn’s 1908 photogravure of the Old Empire Theatre in Leicester Square, though, I was unconvinced that Hacker’s enchanting painting was a direct response to advances in photography. Surely, something in the zeitgeist compelled these artists to make their respective images. One wasn’t necessarily looking over his shoulder at the other.

There is no question that a great deal of scholarship lies behind Painting with Light. For the most part, however, the show proceeds by presenting a series of cut-and-dried case studies, informing us that A led to B. I guess it’s hard to object to the majority of these comparisons, but sometimes academic expertise isn’t enough to engender an entertaining exhibition. 

Powerful images shouldn’t be subordinate to arguments that look best on paper. For a show about photography, there surely should have been more flash.

'Painting with Light: Art and Photography from the Pre-Raphaelites to the Modern Age' is at Tate Britain from Weds May 11 until Sept 25. Information: 020 7887 8888  tate.org.uk