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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

David Octavius Hill (1802–1870) and Robert Adamson (1821–1848)

In the mid-1840s, the Scottish painter-photographer team of Hill and Adamson produced the first substantial body of self-consciously artistic work using the newly invented medium of photography. William Henry Fox Talbot’s patent restrictions on his “calotype” or “Talbotype” process did not apply in Scotland, and, in fact, Talbot encouraged its use there. Among the fellow scientists with whom he corresponded and to whom he sent examples of the new art, was the physicist Sir David Brewster, principal of the United Colleges of Saint Salvator and Saint Leonard at Saint Andrews University, just north of Edinburgh. By 1841, Brewster and his colleague John Adamson, curator of the College Museum and professor of chemistry, were experimenting with the calotype process, and the following year they instructed Adamson’s younger brother Robert in the techniques of paper photography. By May 1843, Robert Adamson, then just twenty-one years old, was prepared to move to Edinburgh and set up shop as the city’s first professional calotypist.

As important as Brewster’s introduction of Adamson to the calotype was, another introduction proved even more consequential. Just weeks after Adamson had established himself in Edinburgh, Brewster saw an opportunity to send business his way. On May 18, 1843, the Church of Scotland met in General Assembly amid great dispute over the role of the crown and landowners in appointing ministers. As the Assembly opened, the moderator, Rev. Dr. David Welsh, read an Act of Protest and led 155 ministers—more than one-third of those present—from the Assembly and through the streets of Edinburgh to Tanfield Hall, where in the days that followed they signed a Deed of Demission, resigning their positions and livelihoods, and established the Free Church of Scotland. Their act of conscience, at great personal risk and sacrifice, seemed heroic to many who were present, including Sir David Brewster and David Octavius Hill.

Hill was a locally prominent and well-connected painter of romantic landscapes and secretary of the Royal Scottish Academy of Fine Arts in Edinburgh. With the encouragement of the new Free Church, he resolved to paint a large historical painting of the signing of the Deed of Demission and, as was often the case for works of this nature, proposed to finance his painting through the sale of reproductive engravings of the finished work. In his advertisement for the engravings, issued within a week of the Disruption (as the upheaval was called), Hill wrote, “The Picture, the execution of which, it is expected will occupy the greater portion of two or three years, is intended to supply an authentic commemoration of this great event in the history of the Church … will contain Portraits, from actual sittings, in as far as these can be obtained, of the most venerable fathers, and others of the more eminent and distinguished ministers and elders.”

Brewster, sensing that Hill’s intention to sketch each of the several hundred ministers before they returned to the far corners of Scotland would be close to impossible, suggested that the painter use the services of the newly established Adamson to make photographic sketches instead. “I got hold of the artist,” Brewster wrote to Talbot in early June, “showed him the Calotype, & the eminent advantage he might derive from it in getting likenesses of all the principal characters before they were dispersed to their respective homes. He was at first incredulous, but went to Mr. Adamson, and arranged with him preliminaries for getting all the necessary portraits.” Within weeks Hill was completely won over, and the two were working seamlessly in partnership. As artistic director, Hill composed each picture, placing his sitters as they might appear in the finished painting.

Adamson operated the camera and carried out the chemical manipulations. Hill and Adamson were a perfect team. Hill, twenty years older than Adamson, was trained as a painter and had important connections in artistic and social circles in Edinburgh; he easily attracted a distinguished clientele to the team’s portrait studio at Adamson’s home, Rock House. Most of all, he possessed a geniality, a “suavity of manner and absence of all affectation,” that immediately set people at ease and permitted him to pose his sitters without losing their natural sense of posture and expression. Adamson was young but had learned his lessons well. He was a consummate technician, excelling in—and even improving upon—the various optical and chemical procedures developed by Talbot. Both men had a profound understanding of the way the world would translate into monochrome pictures.

If in May Hill had been incredulous, by June he was convinced; by July he was proud to exhibit the first photographs as “preliminary studies and sketches” for his picture, and by the end of the year he and his partner had photographed nearly all the figures who would have a place in his grand painting. Their hundreds of preparatory “sketches” ranged from single portraits to groups of as many as twenty-five ministers posed as Hill envisioned them in his ambitious composition. Some portraits, such as that of Thomas Chalmers, first moderator of the Free Church, were used as direct models for the finished work. However, at each sitting, Hill and Adamson made numerous photographs in various poses, and many photographs of the ministers have no direct correspondence with the painting. Still other portraits, of people who were not present for the signing of the Deed of Demission—but whom Hill apparently thought should have been—were used as models for the painting.

“The pictures produced are as Rembrandt’s but improved,” wrote the watercolorist John Harden on first seeing Hill and Adamson’s calotypes in November 1843, “so like his style & the oldest & finest masters that doubtless a great progress in Portrait painting & effect must be the consequence.” In actuality, though, it was so easy to make the portrait “sketches” by means of photography that Hill’s painting was ultimately overburdened by a surfeit of recognizable faces: 450 names appear on his key to the painting. The final composition—not completed for two decades and as dull a work as one can imagine—lacks not only the fiery dynamism of Hill’s first sketches of the event but also the immediacy and graphic power of the photographs that were meant to serve it.

By August 1844, Hill and Adamson clearly understood the value of their calotypes as works of art in their own right and decided to expand their collaboration far beyond the original mission, announcing a forthcoming series of volumes illustrated with photographs of subjects other than the ministers of the Free Church: The Fishermen and Women of the Firth of Forth; Highland Character and Costume; Architectural Structures of Edinburgh; Architectural Structures of Glasgow, &c.; Old Castles, Abbeys, &c. in Scotland; and Portraits of Distinguished Scotchmen. Although these titles were never issued as published volumes, photographs intended for each survive, and those made in the small fishing town of Newhaven are a particularly noteworthy group.

In a time as pervaded as ours is by photographic imagery, it is difficult to conceive that within the first few weeks of their collaboration, Hill and Adamson made more photographs than the two together had ever seen. In four-and-a-half years and nearly 3,000 images, they pioneered the aesthetic terrain of photography and created a body of work that still ranks among the highest achievements of photographic portraiture. Their collaboration ended not because of any artistic falling out between the partners but rather because Adamson, sickly from childhood, fell ill in late 1847 and returned to Saint Andrews to be cared for by his family. He died in January 1848.