‘Painting with Light’ at Tate Britain

There is a general opinion that using photographs as a resource for painting is somehow cheating, that drawing or painting from life is purer. The snobbery connected with using photos for reference is a subject that came up when I interviewed Sadie Lee about her portraits of Holly Woodlawn. Here at Tate Britain is a show Painting with Light, that should dispel this misapprehension for good.

‘This exhibition celebrates the visual links between early photography and British art, bringing together fascinating vintage photographs and stunning paintings including Pre-Raphaelite, aesthetic and impressionist works.’ TATE Britain

Throughout the rooms in the show, we see photographs and the paintings they inspired. The work spans the first 75 years of photography in the Victorian and Edwardian period, and starts by looking at the photographer Robert Adamson and his collaborations with the painter David Octavius Hill in the 1840s. It was a surprise to see photos of St Andrews, my hometown, on the walls of the Tate. When I was growing up the University photographer was called Peter Adamson, and I wondered if he was a descendant of the pioneering man. It turns out that it’s just one of life’s little coincidences, as he grew up in Edinburgh.

Throughout the show, we see pairings of photos and images that directly relate to each other, landscapes, nudes, portraits, exotic places, and more – a huge variety of subjects. And yet overall I felt a little disappointed. Why? Well I have been thinking about it since seeing the exhibition a few days ago. Firstly I suppose I must mention the cost of entry. As a Tate member, the exhibition was free, but wth ticket price of £18 I would expect to be blown away, and I wasn’t. I may be being a bit ‘Scottish’ but that’s a lot of money for a ticket, and I don’t think that the show lives up to the price.

Secondly, as a photographer and art lover, this should have been my perfect show, but I kept waiting in vain to be surprised and entranced. The small scale monotone sepia photos don’t really stand a chance against the large colourful canvases, and the photography comes across as a second class servant to painting, whereas both these art forms pushed each other forward over this period. The equality and the mutually challenging relationship of painting and photography doesn’t come across. By the nature of the hanging, photography gets a bit of a ‘bum deal’.

So what on paper should be a wonderful, engaging and interesting exhibition, actually comes across as a bit dry, a little bit skewed, and definitely (in my opinion) a wee bit overpriced. I wanted more. Having said all that, it was fascinating to see these paintings and photos together, and if you are at Tate Britain, it is definitely worth a look.

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