Scottish Victorian Photographer David Octavius Hill (1802-70)
“The rough and unequal texture throughout the paper is the main cause of the calotype failing in details before the Daguerreotype…and this is the very life of it. The look like the imperfect work of man…and not the much diminished perfect work of God” David Octavius Hill in a letter dated January 17, 1848
David Octavius Hill (1802-70) was a respected painter and secretary of the Royal Scottish Academy before he entered into the famous partnership with Robert Adamson becoming a photographer as well. A handsome, sociable and cheerful man, Hill was much loved within Edinburgh society. In 1837 he married his first wife, Ann Macdonald, who died in 1841, leaving him a widower with an only child. Charlotte, nicknamed Chatty, was born in 1839 but died in her early twenties.
This photograph shows the affection Hill felt for his daughter. At the same time, this particular pose provided a practical way of holding the child still, as exposure times for the early calotypes could run into several minutes.Hill used a medium of photography referred to as Calotype meaning ‘beautiful image’. To make a calotype, high-quality writing paper was first coated with a solution of silver nitrate. After dying, the paper was treated with potassium iodide. Before exposure, a mixture of acetic and gallic acids and silver nitrate was applied. The image caught on the resulting negative was talent, requiring development with silver nitrate, acetic and gallic acids. Once completed, the negative was placed on top of a second sheet of treated paper and both were left in direct sunlight. This form of contact printing meant that the print size correlated to that of the negative. Waxing the negative increased its transparency and strengthened the durability of the paper. Calotypes could be likened to engravings or mezzotints because the image was soaked into the paper fibers causing a slightly blurred almost painterly effect.
David Octavius Hill was born on 20 May 1802 in Perth, Scotland, the eighth of 12 children to Thomas Hill, a bookseller and publisher, and Emilia Murray.
Hill studied drawing at Perth Academy under David Junor and was admitted to the School of Design in Edinburgh in 1818, where he studied painting under Andrew Wilson. Hill began as a landscape painter, publishing lithographs, Sketches of Scenery in Perthshire, an album published in Scotland under his father’s imprint. During the 1820s, Hill exhibited at the Royal Institution several times. From 1831 to 1840 he earned a reputation as a book illustrator, sketching and painting, for some of Scotland’s famous authors including Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns. He achieved success in 1840 with his popular painting of 61 landscapes, The Land of Burns, setting his status as secretary of the Royal Scottish Academy (1830-1869).
A fateful meeting in 1843 with Robert Adamson was to change Hill’s life forever. They formed a partnership from 1843 to 1848 producing commissioned portraits and selling prints through Alexander Hill’s gallery on Princes Street in Edinburgh, Scotland. They produced about three thousand photographs and exhibited at the Board of Manufacturers in 1843, the Royal Scottish Academy in 1844/45, and after Adamson’s death in 1848, their last exhibit took place at the Crystal Palace where Hill exhibited solo in 1851.
Adamson never married and died in St. Andrews on 14 January 1848. Hill became a member of the Photographic Society of Scotland in 1856 and ran a studio with Alexander McGlashan from 1861 to 1862 publishing Some Contributions Towards the Use of Photography as an Art. Hill sold the remnants of his studio with Adamson in 1869. He married Ann McDonald in 1837 and had two daughters, though only one survived birth. His wife died in 1841 and in 1862 he married the sculptor Amelia Robertson Paton. David Octavius Hill died on 17 May 1870 at Newington Lodge, Mayfield Terrace, Scotland.
The studio that Hill and Adamson used was called Rock House in Calton Hill, as the building stands today.
Label adhered to mount, recto, BL, printed in green ink: "No. 1, - A DIFFICULT PASSAGE IN TENNYSON./INSCRIBED TO J.E. MILLAIS, A.R.A."
DAVID OCTAVIUS HILL and ROBERT ADAMSON. The Misses Binny and Miss Monro, c. 1845. Calotype
Miss Ellen Milne, Miss Mary Watson, Miss Watson, Miss Agnes Milne, and Sarah Wilson
Edinburgh Ale: James Ballantine, Dr. George William Bell, and D.O. Hill (far right)
I wanted to share just a few of some beautiful 19th century photographs that I think give an accurate representation and feel for the Scottish lifestyle during the Victorian era. The lives of Hill and Adamson were fascinating yet sad. What I realized was that essentially the British had Julia Margaret Cameron's photographs representing themes of Tennyson's poetry and the Scottish had Hill and Adamson providing themes of their author friends Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns.
One of the final photographs of David Octavius Hill later in life
Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century Photography, Volume 1, By John Hannavy.
Hill and Adamson: In Focus: Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum by David Octavius Hill, J. Paul Getty Museum, Robert Adamson.
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