Artist and photography specialist Caroline Douglas sheds light on a pivotal moment in early photography and social history in nineteenth-century Scotland.
Frederick Douglass is back in Edinburgh. His radical campaign for abolition and freedom first brought him to Scotland in 1846, and his time here is at last gaining the attention it deserves. Douglass held Scotland, particularly its landscape and literature, in high regard. He named himself after a character from Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake (1810) and was devoted to the work of Robert Burns. But there is at least one chapter in the story of Douglass and Scotland that has yet to be written.
As Douglass arrived in the capital in 1846, a revolution in visual culture was underway. Scotland had free use of the patent for William Henry Fox Talbot’s ‘calotype’, a remarkable invention that followed in the wake of the birth of photography in 1839.
The calotype is a photographic process using a paper negative that is reproducible in the form of a positive salt print. Between 1843 and 1848, Robert Adamson and David Octavius Hill pioneered this method as an art form from their studio at Rock House in Edinburgh. Together with their assistant Jessie Mann, they produced a collection of portraits that are today known as one of the foundational works of nineteenth-century photography.
Their subjects were drawn from different social classes, from Edinburgh high society to the working fishing community of Newhaven. When Douglass first set foot in Scotland in 1846, calotype production was in full swing at Rock House.
Douglass was deeply interested in photography. His own biography was closely connected to the emergence of the medium. He escaped slavery in the United States in 1838, a year before Talbot and Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre each declared the invention of photography.
By 1843, as a self-liberated man, Douglass had already sat for at least two daguerreotype portraits. Even at this early stage, he understood the potential of photography and the significance of placing himself within the frame. Remarkably, he would go on to become the most photographed American of the nineteenth century and purposefully used photography to advance the cause of abolition and emancipation.
Significantly, Douglass was an early theorist of photography, authoring a series of articles and lectures on the subject. Taken together, they represent a major theoretical engagement with the photograph and its capacity to be harnessed for social change. Long overlooked, this body of work is finally gaining a wider readership.
Isaac Julien’s Lessons of the Hour presents us with an opportunity to examine Douglass’ time in Scotland through the lens of photography. By turning to calotypes held in the National Galleries of Scotland collection, these histories of abolition, enslavement and photographic production can be drawn together.
From its inception, photography was intimately bound up in empire. As Ariella Aïsha Azoulay has argued, the arrival of photography ‘didn’t halt the process of plunder but accelerated it and provided further opportunities to pursue it’. She reminds us, for example, that the daguerreotype was welcomed in the French Chambre Des Deputies in 1839 by Dominique François Arago, who noted the ‘extraordinary advantages’ of photography for the colonial administration.
But what of the calotype in 1840s Edinburgh? The Hill and Adamson partnership was forged in a major disruption of Scottish society. In 1843, a group of ministers broke from the Church of Scotland to form the Free Church. Hill, a painter, was present at its inaugural meeting and was moved to capture the scene. Also present was the physicist David Brewster, who introduced Hill to Adamson, suggesting that he make use of the newly invented ‘calotype’, which could serve as an aid for his painting. And so their partnership was born. In the months that followed, Hill and Adamson set about assembling a series of portraits of the ministers who had been present at the formation of the Free Church. Meanwhile, the Church had solicited funds from white enslavers in the United States, and it is here that Frederick Douglass enters the fold. While in Scotland, he threw himself into the campaign to ‘Send Back the Money!’, denouncing the Free Church for accepting the ‘price of blood into its treasury’ and ‘holding fellowship with traffickers of human flesh’. Douglass clashed with several of Hill and Adamson’s sitters, including Thomas Chalmers, leader of the Free Church, who insisted that ‘being a slave holder in itself is no sin.’
One of Hill and Adamson’s early significant subjects was the geologist Hugh Miller. Miller was a close friend of Hill’s and took an early interest in photography.
In his essay ‘The Calotype’, published in July 1843, he described the invention as a ‘magic art’ of reflection and suggested its qualities were to be found ‘only [in] the highest walks of art.’
By the time Douglass was in Edinburgh three years later, Miller was regularly denouncing him and his fellow campaigners for their ‘irreligious brand of abolitionism’ which, he claimed, was ‘not indigenous to Britain.’
Miller also took aim at women activists of the time, calling them ‘female dragoons emancipated from matrimonial thrall’ who ‘assailed unnatural rebellion from within’.
While in Scotland, Douglass worked closely with women abolitionists, in particular Eliza Wigham and Elizabeth Pease, two prominent figures in the Edinburgh Ladies Emancipation Society.
Wigham invited Douglass to Edinburgh and played a crucial part in planning his antislavery lectures. She and her associates promoted the cause of abolition and emancipation, supporting figures of black female resistance, including Harriet Tubman in the United States.
On 1 May 1846 at the invitation of the ‘Edinburgh Ladies Emancipation Society’, Douglass delivered a rousing speech at a meeting ‘crowded to excess’ at the Waterloo Rooms.
Meanwhile, at this time Hill and Adamson were regularly engaged in outdoor calotype activity at Rock House, situated at the foot of Calton Hill and directly above the hall where Douglass was speaking. From the vantage point of their garden studio, they would have had a clear view of the assembling crowds below.
It is quite possible, then, that as Douglass was addressing his packed audience at the Waterloo Rooms, just metres away, Hill and Adamson were calotyping those Free Church ministers who were the object of his searing critique.
These themes of abolition, enslavement and calotypes were brought together in the pages of the Witness, a twice-weekly newspaper set up to support the establishment of the Free Church. In May 1846, readers would find an advert inviting Free Church ministers to Hill and Adamson’s studio in Rock House. On the very same page they would also encounter an article by Miller attacking the ‘Send Back the Money!’ campaign. The connections are there to see, and they present a mixed picture. At Rock House, Hill and Adamson photographed abolitionists as well as the leading defenders of the Free Church. This portrait of the Dundee Presbytery becomes more poignant knowing ministers in Dundee voted unanimously to send the money back. It never was.
Shortly after the first calotypes were produced by Hill and Adamson, Hugh Miller wondered if photography ‘is content, in its infancy, to thrive in silence’. Though silent, the calotypes were witness to these events. By returning to these extraordinary images and placing Douglass, Hill and Adamson together, we can trace the links between early photography and Scotland’s role in both empire and abolition.