No one could have imagined at the time that a purely chance meeting between David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson would culminate in the formation of Scotland's first photographic studio. In a brief four-year period from 1843 to 1847, the partnership of Hill & Adamson introduced the world to the rustic beauty of the Scottish countryside and celebrated both its aristocratic and working-class roots in portraiture.
David Octavius Hill was born in Perthshire, Scotland on May 20, 1802, and was the eighth of 12 children born to book retailer Thomas Hill and his wife Emilia. After studying drawing at Edinburgh's School of Design, he became a successful illustrator and published his own text entitled Sketches of Scenery in Perthshire at the age of 19. In 1830, he became secretary of the Royal Scottish Academy, a position he would hold for nearly four decades. Robert Adamson was born to Alexander and Rachel Melville Adamson on April 26, 1821 in Fife, Scotland. He became interested in science and technology at an early age, and learning photography under the tutelage of his older brother was a natural progression. He opened his first studio at Edinburgh’s Rock House in May of 1843.
That same month, Mr. Hill attended the general assembly of the Church of Scotland that was being held in Edinburgh. He created a large-scale painting commemorating the event, which caught Mr. Adamson's attention. Despite their differing personalities, the gregarious David Octavius Hill and quiet perfectionist Robert Adamson soon entered into a professional relationship. Their studio specialized in commissioned portraits and sold prints through the Princes Street gallery owned by Mr. Hill's brother Alexander.
Hill & Adamson became known for their sleek portraits that made powerful use of light and space that was reminiscent of the Dutch painter Rembrandt. Although their early reputation was built upon their mastery of daguerreotype techniques, it is in the calotype process that the pair truly excelled. They transformed the negative artistic limitations of calotype into a positive by emphasizing its graininess and forcing the viewers to provide the missing details of the calotype with their own imaginations. Their portrait specialties were adult and children's groups, but their crowing achievement was their collection of portraits featuring the daily lives of Newhaven fishing families. Photographs such as "Willie Liston Redding the Line," "Bringing in the Catch" and "Mrs. Barbara (Johnstone) Flucker Opening Oysters" was a sentimental documentary of a village that remained committed to its moral and social fabric despite the intrusion of the Industrial Revolution.
Although their publishing attempts floundered, their photographic partnership flourished, and within a four-year period, they produced an impressive 3,000 photographs, which were exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy in 1844 and 1845. However, this prolific output was diminished significantly when Mr. Adamson's health began to fail. He returned to his family's home in St. Andrews to recover, but died on January 14, 1848 and the age of 26. After his death, the Hill & Adamson studio ceased operations, and Mr. Hill subsequently entered into a brief partnership with Alexander McGlashan. He also became a member of the Photographic Society of Scotland and published the text Some Contributions Towards the Use of Photography as an Art. He died three days’ shy of his sixty-eighth birthday on May 17, 1870. Currently, Hill & Adamson photographs are on display at such media institutions as the National Galleries of Scotland, London’s National Portrait Gallery, and the George Eastman House of Rochester, New York.
1904 The American Amateur Photographer, Vol. XVI (New York: The American Photographic Publishing Co.), p. 532.
2008 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 657-661.
2004 Photographers of Genius at the Getty (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Trust), p. 38.
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