The partnership between David Octavius Hill (1802 - 1870) and Robert Adamson (1821 - 1848) was formed in Edinburgh in July 1843, just four years after the invention of photography was announced. In the four years that followed they produced a remarkable body of work that included portraits, landscapes and social documentary. Their work had an enduring influence on photography worldwide and stands as one of the earliest and most important contributions to the artform.
In the 1840s there were two competing photographic processes: the Daguerreotype, invented in France by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, and the calotype invented in England by William Henry Fox Talbot. It was Talbot’s invention, introduced to Scotland thanks to the scientist Sir David Brewster, that Hill & Adamson took up. Through his correspondence with Talbot, Brewster was able to pass on knowledge of the process to others in his St Andrews circle. It was Dr John Adamson, Robert’s elder brother, who became the first person to successfully produce a calotype in Scotland. John then instructed his younger brother, who became ‘well drilled in the art’ by August 1842.
Robert had suffered from ill health since boyhood, which had left him too frail for his chosen career as an engineer. Photography offered a less physically demanding alternative. So, in May 1843, he moved to Rock House at the foot of Calton Hill in Edinburgh, with the intention of setting himself up as a photographer.
In contrast, David Octavius Hill was already an established landscape painter, and twenty years older than Adamson, when the two met. Born in Perth in 1802, he moved to Edinburgh at the age of 16 to study painting and established himself as an excellent landscape and genre painter, becoming the secretary of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1843.
As Adamson was setting up his Edinburgh studio at Rock House, Hill was about to undertake his most ambitious painting to date, a large-scale work depicting the signing of the declaration of the Free Church of Scotland. Hill had been moved to create this work by the sacrifice of the ministers who, in protest at state intervention in affairs of the Church, had given up their stipends, churches and homes on a matter of principle. To reflect the democratic nature of the newly formed Church, Hill conceived of a painting that would depict each of the hundreds of signatories of the deed of demission as equals.
With over four hundred signatories to depict, Hill faced the unenviable task of obtaining a likeness of each participant. It was Sir David Brewster who suggested that Hill engage the photographic services of the newly arrived Adamson.
Although initially incredulous, Hill soon became fascinated with the possibilities offered by the new medium; in particular with the painterly quality of the calotype. The pair quickly set to work photographing the signatories of the declaration and Hill, together with his daughter Charlotte, moved in with Adamson at Rock House.
The strong sunlight needed to produce a successful calotype meant that Hill & Adamson were required to work outdoors, skillfully employing props and furnishings to transform their garden terrace at Rock House into a convincing interior space. Having an open, secluded garden close to the city centre meant that Hill & Adamson had access to both bright sunlight and a relaxed atmosphere in which to work. This made Rock House an the ideal location for a photographic studio.
Early photographic portraits often involved long exposures which required the sitter to hold their pose for long periods, frequently held in place by use of clamps and supports. The portraits of Hill & Adamson, however, contain a spontaneity and vitality that often belied the artifice and rigour involved in composing the scene. Their portraits seem remarkably fresh even today; in some cases there is a sense of having just stumbled upon an intimate gathering.
Edinburgh in the 1840s was home to a vibrant artistic, literary and scientific community and the portraits that Hill & Adamson made at Rock House present a roll call of many of the influential figures of the day.
Hill’s connections at the Royal Scottish Academy meant that there was no shortage of artists climbing the narrow steps to Rock House, among them Sir William Allan, Thomas Duncan, William Etty, Sir George Harvey, Horatio McCulloch, David Roberts, William Bell Scott and his brother David Scott.
The portraits made by Hill & Adamson demonstrate a sometimes surprising diversity. In addition to the many portraits of ministers they also recreated scenes from the literary works of Sir Walter Scott, tapping into the Scott mania of the time, using artists and friends as models. The photographs of friends and family members provide a contrast to the sober images of ministers that took up much of the partnership’s early work.
Hill & Adamson made ambitious plans to produce a series of six publications each with a different theme. Although the publications did not see the light of day one of these planned publications, The Fishermen and Women of the Firth of Forth, saw Hill & Adamson travel to Newhaven, a small fishing village on the outskirts of Edinburgh, and resulted in some of their most enduring images.
The men and women of Newhaven were known throughout Edinburgh and beyond. Their distinctive costumes and reputation for bravery helped make the fisherfolk a part of popular culture in the nineteenth century.
Hill & Adamson were working when photography was still a new art. In every respect they were pioneers of the medium and their views of Newhaven are considered to be the first social documentary photographs.
During the 1840s there was much political turmoil and social unrest all over Europe, yet Hill & Adamson’s photographs show Newhaven as an exemplar community, one that is hard-working, educated and religious. Whether it was a desire to document the community for sociopolitical reasons or simply to explore picturesque subjects, the Newhaven photographs remain one of their greatest achievements.
The mid 1800s was not only a time of religious and social change in Edinburgh but also physical changes to the city. When Hill & Adamson began their partnership, construction of the Scott monument had been underway for two years. This gothic tribute to Sir Walter Scott, the largest monument to a writer in the world, has since become an iconic part of the Edinburgh landscape. Hill & Adamson charted its progress until completion in 1846, photographing both the construction and the masons at work .
The most frequently photographed Edinburgh location, however, was one with strong connection to the city’s past. Greyfriars cemetery was the scene of the signing, two hundred years earlier, of the National Covenant, and as such was site which would have resonated with the newly formed Free Church.
The cemetery had also been the subject of a painting by Hill and the photographs that followed take a similar approach, depicting groups of people (often friends and family members) gathered among the monuments.
The partnership was, in effect, only together for four and a half years, and even then the requirement of working outdoors in natural light meant that it was not a solid twelve months of work each year. Adamson typically retired to St Andrews during the winter months, as he did in November 1847. Sadly, his death in January of 1848 meant he would never return to Rock House. He was only 26 years old.
The loss of his partner and friend was a bitter blow for Hill, who wrote following his friend’s funeral that Adamson had “not left his like in his art of which he was so modest”. Adamson’s contribution to the partnership was so significant that with the exception of a brief partnership with Alexander McGlashan in 1860 there is little evidence to suggest that Hill made any serious attempt to continue photographing without his partner. However, Hill did not abandon photography completely. In 1852 he entered works in the Great Exhibition and was disappointed that he did not receive a medal, writing to David Roberts that “it would have been some consolation for much time and money spent, I hope not foolishly, in making the art respectable”.
Although Hill’s partnership with Adamson lasted only a few years, the painting that brought them together would take over 20 years to complete. By the time he had finished, Hill had begun to add grey hairs to some of the figures depicted to suggest the passing of time.
Thomas Annan had been engaged by Hill to photograph the completed Disruption painting ensuring that the painting that began with photographs also ended with them. Annan later came into possession of many of Hill & Adamson’s negatives. His son, James Craig Annan, would play a crucial role in cementing, even enhancing, Hill & Adamson’s international reputation.
In the early years of the twentieth century James Craig Annan, already a prominent photographer in his own right, made a series of beautiful photogravures from Hill & Adamson’s calotype negatives. Their publication in Alfred Steiglitz’s influential journal Camera Work brought the partnership’s work to a new international audience and served to reinforce their place in the history of photography. It also brought their work to the attention of Steiglitz protégé, Paul Strand, one of many photographers who have been profoundly influenced by the remarkable work produced by Hill & Adamson.
The exhibition A Perfect Chemistry | Photographs by Hill and Adamson will be on show at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery until Sunday 1 October 2017.
A fully illustrated catalogue is available to buy from our shop.