What Scots towns looked like before photography

A painting of Edinburgh's Grassmarket
A painting of Edinburgh's Grassmarket
Share this article
Have your say

Examining old photographs of our villages, towns and cities can unlock vital clues to the histories of our urban landscapes. Recognisable buildings and landmarks connect us to the past, while unfamiliar details – shop signs which have long since been painted over, old vehicles, blurred figures in period clothing – give us an insight into the lives of the people who walked our streets before us.

But what of the days before photography, the years before the camera’s lens captured buildings since demolished and streetscapes since altered? A new book, Painting the Town: Scottish Urban History in Art gathers together, for the first time, a visual record of contemporary images of Scotland’s towns and townspeople before photography, offering key insights into our urban heritage.

Published by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, and grant-aided by Historic Scotland, the book gathers together more than 200 paintings, engravings, sketches and maps – many of which have never before been published – and pairs them with commentary from some of Scotland’s foremost experts in conservation, archaeology and urban history. The end date for inclusions coincides with the popular adoption of photography in the third quarter of the 19th century.

Examining Scotland’s urban past in close detail, it features images from archives, museums and galleries from across Scotland and beyond. Some are by prominent artists, others are by relative unknowns, but all have been included because of the information they reveal.

“Scotland’s towns have rich, complex and dynamic histories and this book sheds new light on our urban past,” says Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Fiona Hyslop. “Photography tells only part of the story, but in bringing together paintings, maps, sketches and engravings from as early as the 16th century, we are given a unique insight into the development of Scotland’s towns and the lives of townspeople over the last 500 years,” she says.

“The fact that many of these works were produced and subsequently housed locally has meant that the bigger picture of the genre of townscape painting in Scotland has been somewhat overlooked until now,” adds co-author Dr Stuart Eydmann.

“The images contain a wealth of ethnographic material, including costume, vernacular architecture, craft, popular music and entertainment which has outstanding value as an educational resource.

“Historic townscape paintings are also of importance to those planning and managing change in the historic environment today, and an awareness of the beauty, and otherwise, of our towns in the past can inform how we make places in the future.”

The book documents scenes both grand and unassuming, imagined and accurate. A last glimpse of medieval Edinburgh (1550) is depicted by one of its earliest Protestants while in exile, framed by Arthur’s Seat and the Port of Leith. An 1880s representation of a quiet street in Dunblane features a handful of residents navigating the wet cobbles after a rain shower. A colourful, imaginative depiction of Inverness from 1840 might have come out of a tourist brochure for the town.

It is, perhaps, when the motivations behind the paintings featured in the book are examined in greater detail that the most interesting revelations come to light. Just as early portraiture commissioned by wealthy patrons often portrays its subjects in a particularly flattering light, so, too, do paintings of our towns and cities in the 18th and 19th centuries tend to steer clear of a ‘warts-and-all’ approach.

“A commissioned painting of an urban landscape should by no means be considered an accurate likeness,” says co-author Michael Lynch. “Despite enormous industrial changes in most Scottish towns in the first half of the 19th century, few artists chose to accurately portray townscapes complete with factories, chimneys and commercial development. Instead they often edited their subject matter carefully to suit their requirements.”

“While such paintings can be scant on factual accuracy, their inaccuracies often serve to reveal so much more about social attitudes at the time, changing fashions, the vanity of the individuals who commissioned them or the personal motivations of the artists.

“There were, of course, a number of notable exceptions to this. The works of John Fleming, John Clark, Thomas Carsell and John Knox include many faithful representations of townscapes. Clark was commissioned by a London publisher to produce a series of paintings of Scottish towns and the results are picturesque, but accurate, depictions of towns including Dumbarton, Falkirk and Paisley.

On the other hand, an early view of Stirling Bridge (1703-07) painted by John Berrihill celebrates the natural features and abundant resources of the town, revealing the artist’s desire to ingratiate himself with the town council. A representation of Aberdeen by William Mosman, commissioned by the town council and painted in 1756, has been embellished with larger-than-life people, animals and boats. Indeed there are a number of examples of works which have later been embellished with ‘staffage’ – people, animals or objects – to create a more pleasing scene.

In the 1830s and 1840s, industrialisation and a growing population, combined with the introduction of the provision of street lighting, cleaning and drainage, allowed Scottish towns to be depicted in a particularly flattering light. Paving and street lighting began to feature heavily in art, although in reality such urban luxuries often extended only to the streets where the new minority electorate lived.

Parallel to this, new fashions were closely reflected in street scenes. Scottish towns in the early 19th century were a world of ‘long coats, gartered trousers and top hats’, as depicted in Joseph William Allen’s portrayal of Aberdeen’s Castlegate in 1839.

The impact of rapid industrialisation and the introduction of railways also features prominently. An 1829 view of Greenock by John Fleming contrasts sharply with an 1854 painting by Thomas Carsell from the same vantage point. In the latter, a steam engine puffs through the middle of the town and chimneys punctuate the skyline.

Perhaps the contrast between the artistic licence sometimes taken by painters and the relative honesty of early photography is no more apparent than in representations of the poor. A mid-19th century sketch of Edinburgh’s over-crowded Canongate depicts a deceptively jolly, bustling scene. While the slums themselves were represented relatively accurately in art, their occupants tended to be either sanitised or caricatured.

Just a few years later, Thomas Annan was commissioned by the Glasgow Improvement Trust to photograph the city’s slums before they were demolished. His lens tells a more visceral story, and indeed in the 1850s and 1860s photography became an agent of social change.

Drunkenness, lechery and debauchery, however, were popular themes in painting and are utilised to comic effect in William Thomas Reed’s 1859 depiction of Leith Races. In the foreground, one racegoer despairs, his hands in his pockets, because he’s lost all his money. Another pours himself a large drink while yet another lies prone on the ground, a flask to his lips.

In addition to early attempts to capture city slums, imaginative recreations of such scenes sprung up in the second half of the 19th century and were seen in pastiche in the ‘Old Edinburgh’ section of the 1886 Edinburgh Exhibition.

Before the 19th century, less-than-respectable scenes were rare. Native painters, once deprived of ecclesiastical work after the Reformation tended to confine themselves to the lucrative trades of portraiture, heraldic painting and the internal decoration of country houses. As such, many of the best early views of Scotland came from foreign artists, particularly Dutch painters.

Patronage was vital to the development of the art of the townscape, and artists often pandered to aristocratic tastes, by placing noble houses at the centre of their paintings, or including aristocratic figures in the foreground.

The artist John Clark was acutely aware of his publisher’s warning that they would subject his paintings ‘to the inspection of Gentlemen of taste, resident upon the spot’, and as such a number of his paintings feature the same local gentlemen of taste and fashionably dressed 

While Clark’s work tended to accurately portray its subject matter, he may have been appealing to noble tastes by placing the grand Duff House in the foreground in his 1824 view of Banff. By contrast, a painting of Banff by James Wales which was commissioned by the town council in 1775 eschewed Duff House completely, focusing instead on the town’s new bridge.

Old paintings and photographs of the towns and cities where we live and work connect us to our past. There’s a comfort and a continuity in seeing depictions of buildings and streetscapes which remain relatively unchanged today, and a sense of curiosity in seeing the people who occupied them before us.

Knowing that artistic licence has featured heavily in such paintings, and that the people and places they depict may, in part, have been plucked from the imagination of the artist, needn’t alter that sense of connection.

On the contrary, such information offers vital clues about the lives, tastes, fashions and attitudes of the people who have lived in our towns and cities over the last 500 years, and that itself is an unassailable connection to our urban past.

• Painting the Town: Scottish Urban History in Art is available from www.socantscot.org, £25.