A Portrait of the Artist

Between the years of 1843 and 1847 David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson took a staggering number of photographs. Many of these have found their way into the National Galleries of Scotland which holds the largest collection of their work in the world. Of particular relevance to the national collection are the many portraits of artists that the pair made during this prolific period.

At this time Hill was secretary of the Royal Scottish Academy and counted many of Scotland’s finest artists as friends and colleagues. This was a paricularly vibrant period for Scottish painting and many of the artists who passed through Hill & Adamson’s Rock House studio also found their way into the national collection. Today we can enjoy many works by these great artists on the walls of the Scottish National Gallery. Hill & Adamson's photographs enable us to put a face to the name and in some cases assess the veracity of their own self-portraits.

Sir Willliam Allan (1782-1850)

Allan was president of the Royal Scottish Academy while Hill was secretary and appears in eight photographs by Hill & Adamson. During his travels in Russia, Allan collected armour and costumes to use in his romantic Eastern paintings. In this portrait we can see some of these props displayed on the chair on which the artist is leaning.

Allan was a renowned history painter and his works in the National Galleries of Scotland collection also include many with a literary theme, such as his portraits of Sir Walter Scott or The Celebration of the Birthday of James Hogg. The work below depicts one of the most famous events in Scottish history: the murder of Mary Queen of Scots' secretary, David Rizzio. A scene which today still inspires groups of school children to scour the floors of Holyrood Palace in search of the blood stain.

See more works by Sir William Allan

David Octavius Hill & Robert Adamson, Sir William Allan, 1843-1847
Sir William Allan, The Murder of David Rizzio, Exhibited 1833 (Royal Academy)

Thomas Duncan (1807-1845)

David Octavius Hill and Thomas Duncan were lifelong friends, having both been educated at Perth Academy. Duncan established a significant portrait studio, but he is better known for his narrative works inspired by Scottish history and the novels of Sir Walter Scott.

The self-portrait below was a highlight of the RSA’s annual exhibition of 1845. However, by the exhibition opening that February, he was terminally ill. The onset of Duncan's blindness was witnessed with extreme distress by Hill. When Duncan succumbed to a brain tumour aged thirty-seven, he was at the zenith of his career as a history and portrait painter. The self-portrait below, when contrasted with Hill & Adamson’s portrait, provides ample evidence of Duncan’s skill as a portrait painter.

See more works by Thomas Duncan

David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, Thomas Duncan, 1843 - 1845
Thomas Duncan, Self-portrait, Dated 1844
Thomas Duncan, Anne Page Inviting Slender to Dinner, 1836

William Etty (1787-1849)

Etty was a celebrated painter and Royal Academician. He was quoted as saying that ‘as all human beauty was concentrated in women, he would dedicate himself to paint her’. He chose subjects from the Bible and the great poets that required prominent female nudes. This prompted some critics to accuse him of using the naked form gratuitously.

In mid-October of 1845, Etty arrived unexpectedly in Edinburgh with his brother and his niece. He wanted to show them three of his major paintings, which had been bought by the Royal Scottish Academy. The academy hurriedly organised a reception for him and Hill took advantage of the occasion to invite the Ettys to Rock House to be photographed. Etty later used the resulting photograph as the basis for a self-portrait.

See more works by William Etty

David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, William Etty, 1845
William Etty, The Combat: Woman Pleading for the Vanquished

Sir George Harvey (1806-1876)

Harvey is best known for his Scottish history painting and contemporary narrative scenes. The work below depicts a minister and his family leaving the church house (manse) following the Disruption of 1843, when 450 ministers left their parishes over disputes about the sovereignty of the Church of Scotland. 

The Disruption and subsequent formation of the Free Church of Scotland was the catalyst that brought Hill and Adamson together. Their partnership was forged in order to photograph the ministers involved in the Disruption for Hill's epic painting depicting the signing of the declaration of the Free Church of Scotland. 

Harvey was one of the original associates of the Scottish Academy of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture (later the Royal Scottish Academy). Hill, who was secretary of the Academy at this time, knew him well.

See more works by Sir George Harvey

David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, Sir George Harvey and David Octavius Hill, 1843-1847
Sir George Harvey, Quitting the Manse, 1847

Horatio McCulloch (1805-1867)

McCulloch, from Glasgow, was influenced by John Knox's luminous paintings, Sir Walter Scott's vivid prose and the expressive pictures by John Thomson of Duddingston, Edinburgh. His large-scale paintings of Scottish scenery helped shape the Victorian perception of the Highlands as a wild, romantic place.

At the time of this portrait his standing as an artist was equal to Hill’s, but his later career established him as the better painter. Both Hill and McCulloch were interested in preserving for posterity aspects of Edinburgh that were disappearing or under threat. McCulloch recorded the crumbling houses of Edinburgh's Old Town while Hill and Adamson photographed buildings slated for demolition as part of the expansion of what was to become Waverley Station.

See more works by Horatio McCulloch

David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, Horatio McCulloch, 1843-1847
Horatio McCulloch, Inverlochy Castle, 1857

David Scott (1806-1849)

The older bother of William Bell Scott (also photographed by Hill & Adamson) David Scott painted serious historical subjects in a visionary style and had a strong interest in the supernatural. However, it was his illustrative work that proved to be more popular than his paintings. Always something of an outsider, Scott died prematurely in 1849.

William Bell Scott championed his older brother's work to those in his circle, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Writing about the succesors to William Blake (a major influence on Scott) Rossetti noted that ‘foremost among these comes a very great though as yet imperfectly acknowledged name, that of David Scott’.

As well as appearing in two solo portraits by Hill & Adamson, Scott was one of several artists and friends called upon to recreate scenes from the works of Sir Walter Scott. David Scott and fellow artists William Borthwick Johnstone (1804 - 1868) and William Leighton Leitch (1804 - 1883) can be seen dressed as ‘The Monks of Kennaquhair' from Scott's The Abbot.

See more works by David Scott

David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, David Scott, 1843-1847
David Scott, David Scott, 1806 - 1849. Artist, 1832
David Scott, Ariel and Caliban, Dated 1837

The artists profiled above represent just a handful of those who climbed the narrow steps to Rock House for a poratrait session with Hill & Adamson. Others include David Roberts, a close friend of Hill who appears photographed in Greyfriars kirkyard and James Drummond, whose painting The Porteous Mob illustrates yet another scene from the pen of Sir Walter Scott. Drummond was an admirer of the new medium of photography and would later become a curator at the Scottish National Gallery. 

The list does not end there. Anyone with a passing interest in the people who walked the streets of Edinburgh in the 1840s can enjoy a diverting afternoon trawlling the Hill & Adamson collection for other significant figures from the city's past.

20 September 2017