Early photographs of Edinburgh to be shown in new National Galleries show

Boatman Sandy Linton pictured at Newhaven Harbour.
Boatman Sandy Linton pictured at Newhaven Harbour.
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Their partnership was to last just over four years but their contribution is revered as one of the most important in the history of photography.

A dramatic schism in the Kirk was the fateful event which brought together engineer Robert Adamson and artist David Octavius Hill to begin experimenting in their studio high up on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill.

The collaboration – forged just four years after the invention of photography in 1839 – was credited with creating some of the most sophisticated images in the world.

Now a host of their early images of Edinburgh – which include some of the first depictions of working-class people to be captured anywhere in the world – are to take centre stage in a major new exhibition.

The National Galleries, which boasts the world’s largest archive of material by Hill and Adamson, says it will show how “two Scots had mastered the new medium and were producing works of breathtaking skill, in extraordinary quantities”.

The exhibition, which will be made up of around 100 photographs, including original paper negatives and salted paper prints, will recall how Hill and Adamson were brought together after Hill decided to create a vast painting to commemorate the breakaway of 400 ministers from the Church of Scotland in May 1843.

Hill was introduced to Adamson by Sir David Brewster, a physicist who had introduced the calotype photographic process to Scotland.

Their partnership, which lasted until Adamson’s death at the age of just 26, produced more than 3,000 images, of the city’s landscape and members of Victorian high society.

However, among the highlights of the show, which will be staged at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery from May to October, will be the images the pair captured in the fishing community of Newhaven.

Curator Anne Lyden said: “Hill and Adamson started up very early in the history of photography. The exhibition looks at what brought these two individuals together for a very short period of time, their perfect chemistry and partnership, and the events that conspired to create an amazing output of photographs.

“We have the largest collection of Hill and Adamson photographs anywhere in the world. This will be a rare opportunity to see these really beautiful salted paper prints and paper negatives.

“We’re so used to the fluidity of sending images around the world now. But if you try to imagine what it was like in the 1840s, photography was a lot more like cooking.

“You had to follow a recipe and go through all these laborious steps and processes. In spite of all that, they managed to create these amazing records. Their images are so intense and rich in detail, even though they had to work outdoors all the time.

“They’re best known for their groundbreaking work in Newhaven, which at the time was a small fishing village on the outskirts of the city which had a very individual character at that time. Around Europe during this period there was a lot of revolution and a sense from the middle classes that change was afoot. With that came a sense of fear.

“Hill and Adamson chose a working class community that was noted for its bravery and heroism, as well its literacy and its religious faith. A lot of the imagery created by Hill and Adamson brought this narrative together, but in a very pictureseque way.”

Other shows in the National Galleries line-up next year include the first major celebration in Scotland of Caravaggio, the painter it describes as “the bad boy of 17th century Italian art”.