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Friday, 20 January 2012

D.O. Hill and Early Photography: Or: A Guest Post by Alison Bacon:

Most people know that Fox Talbot invented photography. Not so many are aware that its first real flowering took place north of the border. Alison Bacon unravels the events that brought an artist into the frame at just the right moment.

The Scottish connection
In 1839 William Henry Fox Talbot found a way of capturing an image on light-sensitive paper and rendering it stable. The negative/positive process allowed any number of prints to be produced from a single ‘calotype’, and so modern photography was born. 
With competitors snapping at his heels, Fox Talbot was quick to protect his invention with patents, but he entrusted the details to his close friend Sir David Brewster. Brewster, an eminent if irascible scientist (now best known for inventing the kaleidoscope) was at that time Principal of St. Andrews University.

St. Andrew's Cathedral & Rule's Tower
Brewster gathered around him a group of academics and townsmen, all interested in the new science of making images from light. One of these was John Adamson, a local doctor. John enlisted the help of his younger brother Robert, a talented engineer dogged by ill-health. After many false starts, the Adamson brothers managed to replicate Fox Talbot’s methods. When the inventor saw their results, he agreed not to extend his patents to Scotland and allowed Robert Adamson to set up a photography business in Edinburgh.

Enter the artist
In the spring of 1843, Edinburgh was galvanised by a crisis in the Church of Scotland over the right of congregations to appoint their own ministers. Earlier that year, appeals to the English parliament to uphold this right had finally failed, and Thomas Chalmers, the radical church leader, called on the General Assembly to assert the church’s independence from the state. On the 18th of May, only a week after Adamson’s arrival, Chalmers and some 450 ministers left the Assembly as it sat in Edinburgh and reconvened to form a new Free Church of Scotland.  This Act of Disruption was followed five days later by the formal signing of a Deed of Demission. Among the many onlookers was David Octavius Hill
Hill and Daughter

Hill was an established landscape artist who also held the position of Secretary to the newly formed Royal Scottish Academy. Like many others he was impressed by the moral courage of Chalmers and his followers. He offered to produce a commemorative painting, to include as many portraits as possible of the ministers who had signed the Deed. But his problem was one of time. To create portraits from life he needed to sketch the subjects, most of whom would leave Edinburgh within a few days.
Brewster was also present at the signing and learned of Hill’s intention. Seeing a perfect opportunity to promote Adamson’s work, he suggested Hill could eliminate the need for sketches by using calotypes instead  and persuaded him to visit Adamson’s studio on Calton Hill. Despite Hill’s initial scepticism, Adamson’s demonstration of the new technique quickly won him over.

Hill and Adamson
Although twenty years his senior, Hill struck up an immediate friendship with Adamson and after a few weeks he and his daughter moved in to share the Rock House studio. Hill’s wife having died a few years earlier, the two men and a five year-old must have made an odd household in Victorian Edinburgh.
'Edinburgh Ale' (1843) Left to Right - Ballantyne, Bell & Hill
 But Hill was a key figure in society. He saw that the calotype was much more than an artist’s short-cut and soon had Edinburgh ablaze with the notion of sitting for this new kind of portrait. The Demission painting was put on hold as writers, churchmen, actors and visiting dignitaries all rolled up to have a calotype taken.
The experience of sitting in bright sunlight for over a minute, as was then required, could be an ordeal, but Hill’s social and artistic skills produced results that were both pleasing and naturalistic. By July of 1843, Hill and Adamson prints were appearing in a gallery owned by Hill’s brother, and early the following year were exhibited at the RSA.
King Fisher

This dynamic and creative partnership lasted for four years and in that time Hill and Adamson captured around three thousand images taken not just in the studio but also around Edinburgh, St. Andrews and the fishing village of Newhaven. Some rate as significant works of art, others as social documents. Many are both. A large number can now de viewed online. (The images reproduced here are all from the National Galleries of Scotland Flickr photostream.)

The end of the affair
The partnership might have gone on to even greater achievements, but late in 1847 Adamson, still only twenty six, fell seriously ill. He went home to St. Andrews where he died in January 1848. By his own admission, Hill had never been interested in the technical side of the calotype. After Adamson’s death he failed to find another partner and withdrew to his original career as artist, teacher and administrator.
In the course of his public life, D.O. Hill experienced a series of deep personal losses, from the death of his wife Ann in 1841, to that of his ‘amiable friend’ Adamson and finally, in 1860, the loss of his beloved daughter Chattie. But in 1862 he finally married Amelia Paton, an artist, sculptor and family friend who supported him in his final years. With her help and encouragement he completed the Disruption painting begun almost twenty years earlier and in a touching anachronism included in it both himself and Robert Adamson, immediately recognisable as the man with the camera.
Hill's Memorial
 Hill’s love affair with photography turned out to be short-lived, but his impact was immense. It could be argued that he lacked the technical know-how of a photographer, but it was his energy, vision and compositional skill that placed photography on the artistic and cultural stage. Any good history of photography will make reference to the Hill & Adamson story. Further links and references can be found here.

Alison Bacon graduated from St. Andrews University a lifetime ago. Since then she has been a librarian, an IT trainer and more recently a writer. Back in the seventies she had a mild flirtation with early photography. Her current obsession with D.O. Hill looks like being the real deal. 

A huge thanks to Alison for this super post, writing about a subject I find fascinating, and that makes the Victorian period one of the best in history to study - photography.


  1. Great story!! Hill and Adamson's three thousand images of Edinburgh, St Andrews and surrounding areas must be historical treasures, to be carefully preserved and analysed. What a shame that the start of it all, the Disruption painting, took 20 years to complete. And what a shame that family and friends died so young :(

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  2. I am a lover of Victorian photographs, and have dedicated a little Tumblr blog to Victorian Street Photography, which you can find either by clicking the link at the top of my blog on the right hand side, just beneath my Twitter follow button, or just use this direct link:

    I had a few photo's by Thomas Annan, and posted those on there, all of Victorian Glasgow. These are great records, and I agree, should be kept safe and preserved.

    One of the saddening things about today is that everything is digital. Our ancestors left us all these books, newspapers and photographs, and nowadays they are all digital.

    If we are not careful we will leave nothing behind for our descendants but digital files.

  3. Yes, the move to digital is all very well, but what will become of all those images? Interestingly, my daughter, a keen photographer, thinks non-digital photography is 'more fun' and has gone off on holiday with a Kodak Brownie circa 1960 rescued from a car boot sale! BTW I believe Annan became the owner of Rock House and his son was instrumental in publicising Hill & Adamson's work.
    Glad this has been of interest.

  4. Fascinating photography! loved your blog

  5. Thanks for the link, Alison. I think Annan's photos are are magnificent, and are the kind of photos I really could spend hours looking at.

  6. I love the portrait of all three of them. See how they are posing and the smiles! Great shot

  7. It's a great photo isn't it? So natural, and its so refreshing to see a photo of Victorians who aren't sat bolt upright in a studio with a false background behind them, this shows that they were just like us, and enjoyed a laugh and a beer in the pub just as much as us.

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