Scotland

How Scots helped to shape the world of photography

David Octavius Hill (left) and Robert Adamson Image copyright National Portrait Gallery London
Image caption David Octavius Hill (left) and Robert Adamson

One hundred and forty five years ago this Sunday, 17 May, an artist and photographer called David Octavius Hill passed away.

His name may not be a household one to most Scots, but his influence in the world of photography is worthy of remembrance.

Octavius Hill's life, and that of his creative partner Robert Adamson, is defined by a four-year period where the pair took thousands of pictures of key figures, working people and landmarks in 1840s Edinburgh.

Their resulting body of work, which according to the National Portrait Gallery contains the first ever photographic documentation of the working classes in the world, continues to influence portrait photography today.

Image copyright National Portrait Gallery, London
Image caption Blind Irish harpist Patrick Byrne sat for the photographers, while the next image - simply entitled 'Edinburgh Ale' - feature Octavius Hill himself on the far right
Image copyright National Portrait Gallery, London
Image caption John Lane posed in 'Indian dress' for the pair, while a deerstalker from Colonsay called 'Finlay' sat for other portraits
Image copyright National Portrait Gallery, London
Image caption Peter 'Kahkewaquonaby' Jones, a Canadian chief in traditional dress, while this fisherman and the boys is one of many pictures of the fishing industry in Edinburgh's Newhaven

Octavius Hill was born in Perth in 1802.

He later moved to Edinburgh to study at the School of Design, and found success after the Institution for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Scotland exhibited his landscape paintings.

He went on to produce illustrations for books, with works by Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns in his portfolio.

Then, in 1843, Octavius Hill was present at the 'Disruption' Church of Scotland Assembly, where 450 ministers - upset over the issue of the church's relationship with the state - left to form the Free Church of Scotland.

Octavius Hill decided he would record the event with a painting. David Brewster, of St Andrews University, suggested the artist contact Adamson, who could take pictures of the clergymen.

This, the men believed, would help Octavius Hill achieve a likeness to those who were at the meeting.

Together, over the next four years, they took about 3,000 pictures including images of the clergymen.

Sadly, their partnership came to an early end when Adamson died in 1848 after suffering ill health. He was 26.

In their short but influential partnership, Octavius Hill and Adamson created a body of work which is still renowned in artistic circles today.

Image copyright National Portrait Gallery, London
Image caption This picture of a fishmarket in St Andrews is one of the first times in the world where working people were the subject of a photograph
Image copyright National Portrait Gallery, London
Image caption McKenzie's Tomb, Greyfriars and Leith docks, pictured in the mid-1840s
Image copyright National Portrait Gallery, London
Image caption Edinburgh Castle, pictured around 1844. George Meikle Kemp, the designer of the Scott Monument, is thought to be one of the men in the forefront.

Anne Lyden is the International Photography Curator at the National Galleries of Scotland.

For her, the partnership of Octavius Hill and Adamson was "pioneering".

"Photography was only announced in 1839, and by 1843 Hill and Adamson had set up their studio in Edinburgh," said the academic.

"Many people had not even seen a photograph. For them to strike out, and to be so good at it, was quite remarkable."

Ms Lyden believes the depictions of working people, especially their social documentary of fishermen and fish wives in 1840s Edinburgh and St Andrews, was compelling.

"In the short time they worked together, they produced a phenomenal amount of work when you put it into context of how they were made - mixing all the chemistry together, all had to be done outside," she added. "It shows the tenacity they had, and they elevated the medium.

"The work in Newhaven was the first of its kind, looking at the working class community and celebrating that hard-working ethos."

Image copyright National Portrait Gallery London
Image caption John Knox House, circa 1844
Image copyright National Portrait Gallery London
Image caption Scott Monument, circa 1846 - the year it was completed.

As well as portraits of the Scottish clergymen, the men took portrait pictures of artists, writers, philanthropists, teachers, and visitors to Edinburgh.

They also took some of the earliest known pictures of landmarks in the city.

With the help of his pictures with Adamson, Octavius Hill finally completed his painting of the Disruption in 1866, 23 years after the event.

According to the University of Glasgow, it was the first painting in the world where the artist was assisted by photographs of the subjects.

"I think Octavius Hill and Adamson are very relevant to photography today," added Ms Lyden.

"A lot of the techniques they used in the 1840s - such as lighting and props to allude to the sitter's personality and intellect - are still being used today.

"Their photographs possess a naturalism and spontaneity that is beguiling to us as a contemporary viewer."

Image copyright National Portrait Gallery, London
Image caption Robert Bryson (left), who was watchmaker to Queen Victoria, and James Glencairn Burns - son of Robert Burns - sat for the photographers.
Image copyright National Portrait Gallery, London
Image caption Alexander Monro (left), an apparently uninspiring teacher of Charles Darwin, and John Murray, who published the naturalist's seminal work Origin of Species
Image copyright National Portrait Gallery, London
Image caption Robert Stephen Rintoul (left), founder of The Spectator magazine, and leading sculptor Sir John Robert Steell, who created the statue of Walter Scott in the Scott Monument, also posed for Octavius Hill and Adamson.
Image copyright Free Church of Scotland
Image caption David Octavius Hill's painting of the 'Disruption' Church of Scotland Assembly was finally completed in 1866.

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