Exhibition reveals Victorian photos of Capital

GW Wilson's picture of the Scott Monument
GW Wilson's picture of the Scott Monument
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The passing of the years may have had a certain impact on these sepia-shaded Edinburgh scenes, but look closely enough and there’s no mistaking where they are.

There are no modern cars, not even any trams – indeed, hardly any people to clutter the view. And yet Edinburgh somehow seems as familiar in these fascinating old images as it is today.

A view of Princes Street looking east captured by GW Wilson

A view of Princes Street looking east captured by GW Wilson

Waverley Bridge, with wooden railway carriages lined up below, stretching towards the fairy-tale, castle-style turrets and towering tenements of the Old Town.

A cobble-stoned Princes Street, dotted with horses and carts, ladies in long gowns and gents with top hats. Rows of ornate gas lamps and, where today the grand Balmoral Hotel proudly overlooks the bustling station below, is just another building.

Meanwhile, back in the Old Town on the Royal Mile, St Giles’ just visible in the distance, a ramshackle collection of homes and shops is perched on the corner of what will become George IV Bridge and today’s Lothian Chambers – the registrar’s offices.

The images are among dozens from the early age of photography, captured by GW Wilson, the David Bailey of his day.

The corner of the West Bow by GW Wilson

The corner of the West Bow by GW Wilson

And while today they may look like everyday shots of Victorian Edinburgh folk going about their business, these are among the very first pictures of their kind anywhere in the world.

Along with snaps by pioneering David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, who worked from a studio at Rock House, Calton Hill, the pictures used a new “caloptype” process of photography which enabled shorter exposure times making portraits possible and provided scope to give pictures more depth, shade and shadow, transforming them into works of art.

And, as these little-seen images of Victorian Edinburgh show, they captured the city at a fascinating period, with one foot still in the past and the other on the cusp of change.

Soon the images, along with dozens of other exhibits portraying the birth of photography, will form part of a major new exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland.

Photography: A Victorian Sensation will examine the development of photography and the race among its leading lights to be first to create images, the likes of which people had never seen before.

Of course, it all seems a world away from today’s camera phones, digital wizardry and selfies.

Yet National Museums Scotland officials say the exhibition will guide visitors through how the Victorians fuelled our modern love for the photograph – and decades before Instagram, were the real pioneers when it came to notching up “likes” for a good snap.

Dr Alison Morrison-Low, principal curator at the museum, said: “[Wilson] was the most successful Scottish photographer in Victorian Scotland.

“He took photos all over Scotland and helped promote the country as a tourist destination.

“There would have been nothing better than looking at stereoscope in the warmth and comfort of your lovely middle-class drawing room and seeing the Trossachs or Edinburgh and thinking what a marvellous place, let’s go there for our holidays.”

Images like Wilson’s built on the success of Sir Walter Scott and opened up Scotland to travellers, she adds.

And his images were one of the reasons Queen Victoria set her sights on Balmoral.

“Victoria and Albert knocked down the old castle at Balmoral and built a new one. Wilson took photographs of the royal family there – which gave his career a huge boost.”

Hill and Adamson, meanwhile, are regarded as pioneering greats who set a high standard right at the beginning of photography.

“It’s like saying ‘who is the best dramatist in literature? William Shakespeare’. They are the Shakespeare of photography.

“Robert Adamson understood the chemistry very well, so he worked on that side of creating the image. Hill was an artist and had a very good sense of where to place people so the whole of the frame was used. The results were rather like a painting – they produced magic.”

Hill, an artist from Perth, and engineer Adamson, originally from St Andrews, joined forces in the early 1840s to set up Scotland’s first photographic studio. At its heart was an approach to photography as an art form, and during a prolific four-year spell they created more than 3000 images, from portraits of Newhaven fish wives and local people to city views.

Years before Photoshop and digital tricks, their first picture, The Signing of the Deed of Demission, was a composite which included no less than 474 miniature portraits and depicted the ministers present at the first General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland. Because some were not present on the day, images were taken separately and slotted in later to create a single portrait.

During their partnership, they created the most important single body of photography to have survived from that time, with pictures that include a half-built Scott Monument and scenes of Greyfriars graveyard which looks almost exactly as it does today.

The pair worked around the city at a time when photography was in its infancy, and when capturing a shot involved a highly technical process involving getting the chemistry right, picking the correct lens and making best use of the available light.

Adamson died aged just 27. Hill continued to produce photographs and artwork until his death in 1870. He is buried in Dean Cemetery.

As well as Wilson’s and Hill and Adamson’s work, the exhibition will tell how early pioneers like them impacted on society, creating a rush among Victorians to have their images captured. As demand soared and techniques became less complex, photography moved from being an expensive luxury to gaining popularity among the masses. The exhibition will also tell how processes eventually developed to allow photographs to appear in print for the first time, transforming society’s view of the world at large.

n Photography: A Victorian Sensation will run at the National Museum of Scotland from June 19 to November 22.