Nineteenth Century British painting, let’s face it, wasn’t exactly the edgiest moment in art history. But this new Tate Britain considers the period afresh by examining how it responded to the arrival of photography. And guess what? It hit the ground running.
Two Scotsmen are to thank for painting’s first dialogue with photography. David Octavius Hillwas commissioned to paint the ‘Disruption Portrait’ (1843-66), a document of the rebel assembly that founded the Free Church of Scotland. It was decided that to honour the historic event, each of the 450-odd people present had to be committed to canvas. So Hill enlisted the services of photographic pioneer Robert Adamson, who took a picture of every last assembly member for him to work from. The final 12-foot picture, a sea of scowling, mutton-chopped faces, is the painted equivalent of a dodgy Photoshop job. A photo of the occasion might have been more appropriate (and wouldn’t have taken 23 years either), but cameras weren’t up to it yet.
In those early years, photography was seen more as a useful tool than an art form in itself. When landscape painter Thomas Seddon visited the Garden of Gethsemane outside Jerusalem in 1853, he camped there for 120 days to absorb the full holy vibe before returning to his studio. But he also made use of James Graham’s photographs of the same place: religious fervour can only do so much to help with remembering those pesky details.
Similarly, Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s portraits of Jane Morris are among his most famous works – but here we also get to see the photographs he hired John Parsons to shoot of his muse and lover. And it worked the other way: when James Robinson saw ‘Chatterton’, Henry Wallis’s painted ode to artist suicide, he decided to shoot what some might call a photographic homage – others a shameless rip-off. Unsurprisingly, legal action was brought against Robinson soon after.
By the late 1800s, photography had become a commercially viable medium that was flexing its own muscles. What’s curious is how it aped the conventions of painting –perhaps for some artistic credibility. Take painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler and photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn’s images of London at night, for example. They’re both dazzling, abstracted compositions of soot and gaslight. But hung side by side they cancel each other out: rivals, not conspirators.
Between Arthurian scenes, twee moral fables and Orientalist dress-up, there’s a lot of eyewatering schmaltz on display here – courtesy of both the brush and the camera. But hey, that’s the Victorians for you. And whatever you think of the artists of the age, it’s fascinating to see how they took this newfangled invention in their stride – in a no-nonsense, sleeves-rolled-up, very British way.