Little-seen archive casts new light on Victorians

THEY are some of the earliest photographs ever taken in Scotland, by the ground-breaking pioneers whose techniques paved the way for a technological revolution.

The National Museum of Scotland will host the major exhibition. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor
The National Museum of Scotland will host the major exhibition. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor

Now the little-seen images produced by the 19th-century trailblazers are finally being proper recognition, more than 150 years after they were taken.

The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh is honouring their contributions as part of a new exhibition charting the evolution of photography, from the earliest experiments in France and England to the social media-fuelled explosion over the last decade.

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Most of the show, which opens today, focuses on the 60 years after the cross-channel competition between Parisian pioneer Louise Daguerre and the Dorset-born scientist and inventor William Henry Fox Talbot. It features highlights of a tour around Scotland taken by the latter in 1844, which included Loch Katrine, in the Trossachs, Melrose Abbey and Walter Scott’s home at Abbotsford, in the Borders and the monument to the author, while it was still under construction on Princes Street, in Edinburgh.

Dr E W Pritchard and family of Glasgow, 1865. Picture: Contributed

The exhibition showcases the talents of the Edinburgh-based duo David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, who produced some of the earliest photographs of Edinburgh city centre.

The show explores the work of the duo – who had a studio on Calton Hill – to chart the “fisher folk” of the Newhaven area, recalls how Adamson is likely to have died young because of his exposure to photographic chemicals and includes a lavish album presented by them to the Society of Antiquaries in 1851.

The exhibition features work produced by the Aberdeenshire-born photographer George Washington Wilson, who made a name for himself as a photographer of Britain’s middle classes and landed gentry, before being asked by the Royal Family to document the building of 
Balmoral Castle.

Some of the earliest known photographs of the Isle of Skye, Orkney and Shetland are also featured in the exhibition, which relives the use of stereoscopes that allowed people to view 3D images of scenes from around the world from the comfort of their own homes. The exhibition is the biggest-ever celebration of Victorian photography to be staged by the museum and includes a rare chance to see some of the world’s oldest photographic equipment, as well as the first jewellery, trinkets and other possessions people carried their most treasured photographs around in.

Alison Morrison Low, principal curator of science at the museum, said: “Photography is roughly 175 years old this year, so it seemed like a good idea to have an exhibition like this.
“We already had a fantastic collection here, but in 2002 we were leant a huge amount of Victorian photography material by the widow of the collector Bernard Howarth-Loomes.

“People probably don’t think of us first of all when it comes to great photographic collections. But this show is about how the Victorians really embraced it.

“There’s a really strong 
Scottish strand running through the exhibition, which goes right back to when William Henry Fox Talbot came up here for three weeks in 1844 and turned the photographs he took on the trip into a book. We also have a whole album of photographs by the Edinburgh Calotype Club, which is said to be the world’s first photographic society.”

Photography: A Victorian 
Sensation, runs until 22 November. The exhibition is accompanied by a new book exploring the first 30 years of photography in Scotland.