Pride of place in the first room of this exhibition goes to a vast and very odd painting, “The Disruption Portrait”, by the 19th-century artist David Octavius Hill. Twenty-three years in the making, it depicts the 457 men and women who formed the breakaway Free Church of Scotland in 1843. Among the sitters are the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, a nephew of Robert Burns and the inventor of the kaleidoscope. What’s notable about “Disruption”, though, isn’t the subject matter but the creative process behind it, because it’s thought to be the first painting made with the help of photographs.
From the start, photography, invented in 1839, was closely linked to its Sister Art (as the Victorians would put it) though to begin with it wasn’t so much the sister, more the maidservant, of painting. Early enthusiasts like John Ruskin and William Holman Hunt used photographs as an aide memoire and a shortcut. Ruskin, for example, is known to have worked up his studies of Chamonix in the French Alps (actually, they were mostly the work of his valet, Frederick Crawley) into drawings when he got home. Holman Hunt saved himself weeks of toil in the sweltering sun of the Holy Land by basing his view of Nazareth (1855) largely on the photographs of his friend James Graham. Atkinson Grimshaw painted his cityscapes directly onto photographic plates, although since they were daylight scenes and Grimshaw painted nocturnes, he would darken them, rather like the ‘day for night’ effects you see in 1960s cinema.
The aesthetics of early photography, on the other hand, essentially derived from painting (many early photographers had in fact been trained as painters). The artist William Etty praised the atmospheric qualities of one photographer’s output by proclaiming them worthy “revivals of Rembrandt, Titian and Spagnoletto”. And with no other prototypes to work from, who else could you turn to than the likes of Rembrandt, Titian and, er, Spagnoletto? Many early photographic techniques, too, such as using the blurring effect of long exposure to suggest movement, owed much to painting. Montage, however, was frowned on in the early days, because it was thought to betray the inherent “truth” of a photograph.
Gradually, though, as the exhibition reveals, photography emerged from painting’s shadow. The organisers do a good job of demonstrating how it touched on successive movements in Victorian art, first Turner and the Romantics, then the Pre-Raphaelites, and later the “Aesthetes” and other precursors of modernism. A surprising number of professional photographers were women, the most famous of whom, of course, was Julia Margaret Cameron. There’s a room here showing her links with leading artists of the day, including G.F. Watts and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, with whom she shared models, and who, like her, drew much of their inspiration from the work of Alfred Lord Tennyson. Cameron’s photographs were criticised at the time for being too soft focus and “poetic”, but her credentials as an artist weren’t seriously in doubt.
This is a big show, nearly 200 works in nine rooms, with all the hallmarks of a comprehensive and scholarly survey. It has to be said that in the encounter between the two art forms, painting usually comes off worst, perhaps because paintings that too closely resemble photographs are usually pretty terrible, whereas it’s no bad thing for a photograph to mimic the atmospheric effects in a painting. I think the curators realised this, because the best paintings here are the ones that have the least connection with the ostensible subject of the show. Knockouts they may be, but I can’t see any other reason why pictures like John Singer Sargent’s “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose”, for example, or James McNeill Whistler’s “Three Figures: Pink and Grey”, are included.
My only real criticism of this exhibition, though, is that it’s rather short on technical detail. More information on early photographic processes, such as daguerreotypes, salted paper prints, autochromes, etc. would have been helpful to those who, like me, know next to nothing about early photography.
I’m reminded that the interplay between painting and photographs continues to the present day. All the best-known contemporary figurative painters – Gerhard Richter, Marlene Dumas, David Salle, Eric Fishl and so on – work almost exclusively from photographs, albeit very creatively, though nowadays they’re mostly digitalized images taken from the internet. Indeed, these artists would never dream of working directly from nature: sorry folks, that’s for the Sunday painters.