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Calotypes by Hill and Adamson

Calotypes by Hill and Adamson

The famous Hill and Adamson partnership resulted directly from the aspirations of Talbot, who asked his scientific colleague Sir David Brewster if someone could be found to practise his invention, the calotype, professionally in Scotland. Brewster had already introduced the process to John Adamson, a doctor; and in 1843 they established Adamson's younger brother Robert (1821-1848) in a calotype studio at Rock House, Edinburgh. Within a few months he had acquired a creative partner in the person of David Octavius Hill (1802-1870), a painter.

Hill's intention was to use calotypes as sketches for a near-impossible commission - a vast group portrait of the nearly 500 participants in the 'Disruption' of the Scottish Church. At this event in May 1843 a large proportion of Scottish clergy and lay elders seceded from the established Church of Scotland and created the Free Church of Scotland. Brewster himself and many in his circle of acquaintances were present, and many Scots saw it as a defining moment in their national history. Hill's painting was not completed until 1866, but it was based closely on the calotype portraits and groups made between 1843 and 1847. Several figures from the Museum's photographs are found in the painting.

But the collaboration went beyond this, achieving what is acknowledged as being, after Talbot himself, the first great expression of photography's creative potential. Many photographs were taken unconnected with the painting, while the portraits merely intended as sketches turned out to be far superior to the painting itself. They captured and refined the pictorial taste of the period; but even serious critics have gone further, comparing them for instance to the work of Rembrandt. This is partly due to the lighting, texture, and colour that are natural to a good calotype; but there is equally no question that the creative collaboration of Hill and Adamson introduced something very distinctive and powerful into the new medium. The relative contributions of the technically skilful young photographer and the experienced painter who 'directed' the activity and posed the sitters is simple enough to understand in practice. How this gelled into the creative spark that animated their collaboration and infused their images with such impact and appeal is more elusive. On the one hand Adamson's youth and Hill's undoubted pictorial intelligence suggest that Hill's understanding of the technical possibilities of photography was greater than mere 'artistic direction'; on the other, the lacklustre results of Hill's later collaborations with other photographers suggests that Adamson's photo-artistic eye contributed more creatively to the partnership than might be expected.

Between them in a mere four and a half years - and in fact mostly in the three years 1843-46, after which Adamson's health deteriorated - they established one of the new art's most admired and enduring bodies of work. One of their most frequent subjects, Elizabeth Rigby, later Lady Eastlake, wrote that 'No photographic picture that ever was taken ... is destitute of a special, and what we may call an historic interest. Every form which is traced by light is the impress of one moment, or one hour, or one age in the great passage of time'. 'The most transitory of things, a shadow, the proverbial emblem of all that is fleeting and momentary, ... may be fixed for ever', was how Talbot expressed it in 1839. It is partly this, and that they were among the first to demonstrate this new way of seeing, that lends impact to the images of the early photographers, and most particularly to their portraits.

There must be some photographs, within or outside the received Hill and Adamson canon, that represent Adamson's work during the early months of 1843 before Hill joined him. One strong candidate is the portrait of his scientific mentor Sir David Brewster (1781-1868) contained in the Hartwell House commonplace book (11893). No other copies of this photograph are known, though it is accompanied by two undoubted Hill and Adamsons; the source of all three is Brewster himself. It would hardly be surprising for Brewster to have been one of the first patrons of Adamson's studio. The straightforwardness of the pose is in contrast to the more painterly poses imposed by Hill; though in age and dress Brewster appears much as he does in the known Hill and Adamson photographs of him. The image is somehow haunting, though perhaps made more so by the extensive yellowish fading - caused in fact by the glue which was used to stick it into the album in the 1850s.

Another famous Scot and leading man of science and letters, the stone mason turned geologist Hugh Miller (1802-1856), is depicted in one of the other Hartwell House photographs, along with his friend John Robertson. Miller is wearing the traditional Lowland country dress and blanket that was his characteristic attire. His pose and dress were transferred from here to the Disruption painting, in which he is one of the dominant figures. Miller was a significant influence on the foundation of the Free Church through his radical journalism; but he is best remembered for his classic geological study The Old Red Sandstone (1841).

The Millers depicted in another photograph (51366) are of a different family: James Miller (1777-1860), another Free Church clergyman, and his son Samuel. The other Hartwell House photograph, also badly affected by glue, is of Brewster's friend John Fleming (1785-1857), Scotland's leading naturalist and zoologist of the time, and again a participant in the Disruption. Fleming lost his post at Aberdeen University as a result, but became professor of natural history at the new Free Church college. The striking profile portrait (46512) of James Inglis, a physician from Halifax, Yorkshire, was taken when Hill and Adamson ventured out of Scotland to attend the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at York in 1844. There they met other photographic pioneers, including the inventor himself, Talbot.

Portraiture was at the centre of Hill and Adamson's enterprise, and 7 of the 8 photographs in the Museum's collection appropriately represent it. But their oeuvre extended to equally well framed or posed urban landscapes, street and social documentation scenes, and genre or emblematic compositions. One of the most famous of the latter, sometimes called 'The Artist and the Gravedigger', is a study of the Dennistoun monument in Greyfriars' Churchyard, Edinburgh, with posed figures (30681). The left-hand figure is Hill himself. It is the kind of archetypally Victorian picture that suggests (and is meant to suggest) something numinous or deeply contemplative (or slightly morbid), different yet in spirit similar to Rejlander's morality tableau 'The Two Ways of Life' (75713), and to the still-lifes made up of mementos mori and symbols of learning and contemplation (as in the stereoscopic daguerreotype 18382).

The pièce de résistance among the Museum's small group of Hill and Adamsons is undoubtedly the group photograph of six young Scottish clergymen or student clergy involved in the Disruption (94956). These young men were risking a great deal by leaving the established church. Luckily the secession was so enormous and involved men of such influence that their careers were not forfeit, and the Free Church soon had its own career structure and training college. The leader of the group in the photograph, Alexander Campbell Fraser (1819-1914), became professor of logic there in 1846, and the photograph is sometimes called 'Professor Campbell Fraser's Class'. He went on to become one of Scotland's most eminent philosophers of religion and philosophy teachers.

The positives of the calotype process (salted paper prints) were always contact printed, and this unusually large print (approximately 10 by 13½ inches) shows the complete edges of the original calotype negative, with a wide margin outside. Other surviving prints are generally trimmed, as well as more faded. Hill and Adamson were aware that light would fade their photographs, and recommended they be kept (and often supplied them) in albums - not realising the glue or paste would have the same effect. This unmounted example retains the rich brown colour that is the true original colour of a good salted paper print (made possible by Herschel's perfection of the hypo fixing procedure; see for instance 18871).

Campbell Fraser, seated left, is clearly, in some undefinable way, the anchor and focus of the group, in spite of his position. Most faces are turned to him of course, though it may also be to do with the position of his hand on the table, at the focal centre of the image. The ensemble pose is elegant, animated, even three-dimensional; they are real young men engrossed in debate or attentive to their teacher. Yet of course calotypes required fairly long exposures, so that sitters are routinely supported in some way to keep them still. Doing so without conveying stiffness or cluttering the set with unsightly supports became, for all early portrait photographers, one of the challenges peculiar to the new medium. The range of expedients used is very evident in the Campbell Fraser group - hands on shoulders and under chins, arms and elbows firmly supported, carefully placed chairs, several books, even a top hat. The ability to choreograph all these (and doubtless some hidden) tricks and still achieve such effortless, fluid, lively poses is certainly, in so far as Hill and Adamson's photographic artistry can be analysed, a very striking component of it.

This priceless masterpiece of early photography was one of three Hill and Adamsons generously given to the Museum in 1949 by Dr Ernst Weil, a scholarly dealer in scientific books and instruments. Two more had been given in 1929 by the Scottish newspaper proprietor Sir John R. Findlay, one of the Museum's first supporters and benefactors. Findlay collected fine European scientific instruments but was also very proud of his nation's contribution to the foundation of photographic art. The other three Hill and Adamsons in the Museum are those given by Brewster in 1851 to John Lee, of Hartwell House, Aylesbury, and found in one of the Hartwell House commonplace books. R. T. Gunther, the Museum's founding Curator, purchased these manuscripts (which contain a wealth of other things besides) from the Hartwell House sales in 1939; and after being on loan to the Museum for many years the Gunther collections were given in 1986 by his son Dr A. E. Gunther.

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