Pioneering Victorian Edinburgh photos on display

The Royal High School 1843 photographed by Robert Adamson.. Picture: Neil Hanna/The National Galleries of Scotland
The Royal High School 1843 photographed by Robert Adamson.. Picture: Neil Hanna/The National Galleries of Scotland
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THEIR pioneering partnership is revered as one of the most significant in the history of photography.

The images of Victorian Edinburgh captured by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson were among the very first pictures to be created anywhere in the world.

Now the groundbreaking work they carried out using the then-new “calotype” process at their studio on Calton Hill is to take centre stage in a major new exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland.

Little-seen photographs of 1840s Edinburgh, which the pair worked on from Scotland’s first photographic studio on Calton Hill, will be going on display next year as part of the attraction’s biggest ever celebration of Victorian photography.

The show, Photography: A Victorian Sensation, will trace the development of photography back to 1839, and the cross-channel competition between two rival pioneers—Frenchman Louis Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot, the Dorset-born inventor.

Covering a 60-year period, it will tell how photography moved swiftly from being an exclusive art form available only to the wealthiest echelons of society to a staple of the Victorian drawing room, and how early processes allowed photographs to appear in newspapers and magazines for the first time.

National Museums Scotland officials say the exhibition will allow visitors to discover “how the Victorian craze for the photograph transformed the way we capture images today and mirrors our own modern-day fascination for recording the world around us.”

Dr Alison Morrison-Low, principal curator at the museum, said: “The exhibition will give a completely different angle on photography. We’re really telling the story of the early pioneers and how they impacted on society.

“The Victorians just couldn’t get enough when this new technology, and indeed a new art form, came over the horizon. It was tremendously exciting at the time.

“As soon as anybody was able to afford to purchase photographs of their nearest and dearest that’s exactly what they did.

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“It won’t be a po-faced telling of photography, there will be a lot of fun elements in the exhibition and a lot of the material we will be putting on display will simply not have been seen before.”

The exhibition will also feature some of the equipment that talented painter Hill and trained engineer Adamson used, look at the impact they made just four years after the art of photography was invented, producing around 3000 photographs, and examine the stories behind some of their subjects.

It will also showcase work produced in the studios of other early Scottish pioneers like Aberdeen photographer George Washington Wilson, who famously worked for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and Dundee-born James Valentine, whose company won worldwide fame for producing picture postcards.

“We have a magnificent album, which was presented by David Octavius Hill to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1851. It has 110 of their photographs in it, including some particularly splendid images.

“We have some of Hill and Adamson’s equipment and are really fortunate to have been donated a collection of material which was owned by William Henry Fox Talbot, including some of his cameras, a photographically-illustrated book, which he released in 1844.

“We also have a very large collection of Victorian photographic equipment and prints from Bernard Howarth-Loomes, which was kindly loaned to us by his widow shortly after he died around 10 years ago.

“We felt this was a really good opportunity to show how well it dovetails with the material we have in our permanent collection. It has some cracking items in it which we’ll be able to put on show for the first time.”

Dr Gordon Rintoul, director of National Museums Scotland, added: “The exhibition is really about the birth of photography, utilising some of the collections that we have here that have been very little seen over the years.”

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

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