Exhibition sheds light on pioneering work of Scots photographers

The Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow. Picture: Thomas Annan

The Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow. Picture: Thomas Annan

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Pictures by early champions of the art of photography in Scotland have gone on display in a collection of the first books to be illustrated using the nascent technology.

Central to the exhibition at the National Library of Scotland (NLS) is Sun Pictures In Scotland, published by William Henry Fox Talbot in 1845 – just six years after the creation of Louis Daguerre’s first photograph was announced in Paris.

Loch Katrine, sluices at inlet to aquaduct and Royal Cottage

Loch Katrine, sluices at inlet to aquaduct and Royal Cottage

Only 100 copies of the book, which captures locations linked to Sir Walter Scott, were printed. NLS has one of the few complete copies to survive.

In a slip attached to the title page Talbot wrote: “The plates of the present work are impressed by the agency of light alone, without any aid whatever from the artist’s pencil.”

Talbot, who invented the calotype process, was from Wiltshire, but his impact on the development of photography in Scotland was fundamental after he essentially gifted enthusiasts north of the border the right to experiment with his technique.

He was a close friend of scientist Sir David Brewster, a physicist and astronomer from Edinburgh, who convinced Talbot not to patent the calotype process – the forerunner to negative film – in Scotland, thereby enabling innovative techniques and processes to flourish.

Melrose Abbey. Picture: NLS

Melrose Abbey. Picture: NLS

Such was the appetite for this new art form that the Edinburgh Calotype Club was formed in the early 1840s – the oldest photographic club in the world. Brewster was one of its founder members.

Dr Graham Hogg, who curated the display at NLS, said: “I think Brewster was keen for these new photographic techniques to be developed in Scotland.”

The move had far-reaching consequences. “You have people such as Thomas Annan working in the old streets and closes of Glasgow, producing these superb images. Then there is John Thomson, of Edinburgh, the first western photographer to travel to the Far East,” said Hogg.

Thomson’s final foreign trip was to Cyprus, which resulted in a deluxe publication Through Cyprus With A Camera From 1879, which is part of the NLS display.

The Scott Monument under construction in the 1840s. Picture: NLS

The Scott Monument under construction in the 1840s. Picture: NLS

Another photographic enthusiast, William Notman, from Paisley, travelled widely and produced the book Sports Pastimes & Pursuits Of Canada.

“The Scots were very quick to see the commercial possibilities and some of them were very intrepid,” Hogg added.

Other photographers to feature include Dundee’s John Valentine, the founder of Valentine’s postcard company, and George Washington Wilson, of Aberdeen, both of whom took advantage of improving technology to produce prints of Scottish landscapes on a large scale. Both published illustrated books with photomechanical prints, which combined photography with existing commercial printing processes to create high quality reproductions.

David Octavius Hill, a well-connected Edinburgh painter, and Robert Adamson from St Andrews focused mainly on landscapes and portraiture in their studio at Rock House, Calton Hill Stairs, where the pair produced more than 2,500 portraits in just five years.

A Cypriot boy from by  Edinburgh phographer John Thomson. In the 19th century Thompson was the first western photographer to travel to the Far East

A Cypriot boy from by Edinburgh phographer John Thomson. In the 19th century Thompson was the first western photographer to travel to the Far East

They went on to capture images of soldiers, children and the fishing community of Newhaven with a body of work still considered among the highest achievements of photographic portraiture.

Hogg said: “These books hold an important place in the history of photography and helped to establish an art form that still thrives in Scotland today. They represent only a small selection of the library’s extensive holdings of photographically illustrated books relating to Scotland that were produced in the 19th century.”

Sun Pictures And Beyond runs until 
26 March