David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, Scottish, Perth 1802 - 1870 Edinburgh; St. Andrews 1821 - 1848 St. Andrews
Mark Napier, c. 1845
Inscription in pencil upper right 1
Salted paper print from calotype negative on original mount
Image: 7 7/8 x 5 11/16 in. (200 x 145 mm)
Mount: 14 ¾ x 10 5/16 in. (375 x 262 mm)
Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Photography Fund, 1994
This arresting calotype portrait was created during the earliest moments in the history of photography. One of perhaps three thousand photographs produced in Edinburgh by the short-lived partnership of Hill and Adamson, it represents their successful fusion of painterly convention and up-to-date technology.
In 1843 David Octavius Hill decided to paint a vast canvas recording "The First General Assembly of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland," with portraits taken from life of nearly five hundred delegates.2 A friend suggested that this daunting task might be significantly easier if Hill took advantage of a recent invention, Henry Fox Talbot's calotype, which could capture likenesses of people mechanically.3 Hill soon began working with Robert Adamson, who at twenty-one was one of the first to become experienced in the new process. In the next three years before Adamson's tragically early death, the two men created some three thousand images recording the leadership of Edinburgh and its surroundings at a moment of notable vitality in Scotland's history.
The Oberlin portrait depicts Mark Napier (1798-1879), a lawyer who became deputy sheriff of Dumfriesshire in 1844. His varied interests were characteristic of the intellectual energy found in Edinburgh at this time: he wrote legal treatises and historical biographies, and his fascination with the new art form of calotype is evident in his membership in Edinburgh's Calotype Club, and in the fact that he sat for a Hill and Adamson portrait.4
In the effort to capture the best possible likeness, Hill and Adamson would frequently make a number of portraits of a single sitter, varying the composition slightly in each. The Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, has five slightly different likenesses of Sheriff Napier, including both the Oberlin image and one taken two days later.5
The Hill and Adamson images were taken in the garden of Rock House on Calton Hill, somewhat beyond the smog of Edinburgh, so they could take full advantage of the sun as their primary light source. Since the exposure time was at least a minute in length, props were an important means of physical support for the sitter. These props, as well as the backgrounds, costumes, and figural poses, were arranged by Hill, who based the compositions on longstanding traditions in British portraiture. In the Oberlin work Mark Napier leans on large folios, revealed in another exposure to be copies of the Plays of Beaumont and Fletcher and J. M. W. Turner's Liber Studiorum, of which the museum has many plates, and perhaps alluding to the sitter's interests in theater and art. Other Hill and Adamson works are clearly influenced by the work of such near-contemporary portraitists as Sir Thomas Lawrence and Henry Raeburn.
Whether these mechanically produced images could be considered as works of art remained a charged topic throughout Europe and the United States for many years. One contemporary critic wrote in The Quarterly Review that "to Mr. Fox Talbot the happy invention is owing, but the artistic application of it, which has brought these drawings to their present picturesque perfection, required the eye of an artist, and for this the public is indebted to Mr. D. O. Hill of Edinburgh, in conjunction with Mr. Adamson, a young chemist of distinguished ability."6 Hill himself wrote, "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. They look like the imperfect work of man...and not the much diminished perfect work of God."7
Hill was a leading figure in both Edinburgh society and artistic circles. He was the secretary of the Society of Artists and of its successor, the Royal Scottish Academy, until his death. Active as a painter, Hill created historical subjects, landscapes, and portraits. He is best known, however, for his partnership with Robert Adamson. Hill's vision as a painter was influenced by his experience with photography; similarly, his work as an artist made his calotypes into compelling pictures.
Adamson had a superb understanding of the potential of the camera and provided technical expertise with the chemical processing. Infirm from childhood, he was unable to pursue the engineering career planned for him. Naturally reclusive, he was quickly attracted by the technique of the calotype, which he learned from his brother John. Robert's career as a photographer was short-lived, since he died when he was only twenty-seven. Nonetheless, working with Hill, he created a distinguished body of work.
Ford, Colin, and Roy Strong. An Early Victorian Album. New York, 1976.
Stevenson, Sara. David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson. Catalogue of Their Calotypes...in the Collection of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Edinburgh, 1981.
McEwan, Peter J. M. Dictionary of Scottish Art and Architecture. Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1995.
Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh (1840s-1975)
With Thackrey and Robertson, San Francisco
Collection Dr. Joseph Monsen, Seattle
With Charles Isaacs, Malvern, Penn., from whom purchased in 1994.
Stevenson, Sara. David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson. Edinburgh, 1981, p. 95, Mark Napier calotype a.
This photograph was taken from Adamson's Size 4 camera 8 and printed from a calotype negative on salted paper. There are several small areas of retouching, probably done by Hill, in water-soluble media. Overall it is in good condition, with some adhesive staining to the right of the figure. The Scottish Royal Academy collector's mark is stamped on the lower right recto (Lugt 2188 or 2189).
1. Inscription in pencil upper right: 5312 v[?] R/2/15; lower right in ligature: RSA.
2. In a dispute over clerical appointments, some 150 ministers withdrew from the traditional Church of Scotland and formed the Free Church. For more on their dramatic departure, see Sara Stevenson, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson (Edinburgh, 1981), pp. 6-10, where Hill's painting (completed in 1865; Edinburgh, Free Church Assembly Hall) is reproduced (fig. 4).
3. At first incredulous, Hill was soon convinced of the merits of the process, and, as reported to Fox Talbot, planned to enter "into a partnership with Mr. Adamson...to apply the Calotype to many other general purposes of a very popular kind, and especially representing diff. bodies and classes of individuals...[and]...fine groups of Picturesque personages." From letters from Sir David Brewster to Fox Talbot, 9 July and 18 November 1843, quoted by Sara Stevenson in David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson (Edinburgh, 1981), p. 10.
5. Sara Stevenson, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson [Edinburgh, 1981], p. 95. The Oberlin calotype is identical to Stevenson's calotype a; calotype b was taken on 19 May. A sixth pose is illustrated in Heinrich Schwarz, David Octavius Hill: Master of Photography (New York, 1931), pl. 65.