More Photographic Treats

The white chocolate shortbread may be gone, but this week has been a good one for feeding my early photography obsession.

calotypepairFirst of all Rob Douglas, the contemporary calotyper who I met in St Andrews,  sent me prints of his own calotypes. I apologise for giving you a poor digital version of Burnside Farm and the Spindle Rock  taken exactly as they would have been by  John and Robert Adamson in 1843.   Rob’s originals, on plain paper of course, are much more detailed and evocative. Take a look at his website for bigger and  better versions.

I’ve also been deeply aware in the last few weeks or how long it is since I read Sara Stevenson’s Personal Art of David Octavius Hill, the definitive work on his calotypes and which I had at one time on (very) long loan from Bath Spa University Library. Surely no serious writer on the subject should be without this book.

So yesterday it arrived and even before dipping back into the text I was bowled over by the number and quality of the plates .



No wonder it inspired me.  If only I’d had it before I went to St Andrews I could have got Sara to sign it (name-drop alert, I did meet her you know) . How amazing that would have been. But at least I have it in its rightful place on my bookshelf – some of the other books on it are  listed here. 

Finally yes, I did read Silver Harvest – inspired by the cover image of Sara’s book – on Monday evening at the Cheltenham Literature Festival and loved being there with the Stroud Short Stories gang. I’ll  put up a longer report later.  But for now I’d like to leave you with something Rob said yesterday in an email:

The sun shone this afternoon and I managed 3 decent Calotypes which are hanging up to dry now.

This gave me goose-bumps – as if  the ghost of John Adamson had  entered the room.

Magical –  and better than shortbread.


To healthy obsessions

photo courtesy ASM Media-PR

photo by Alan Morrison, ASM Media-PR

Going to the first ever St Andrews Photography Festival was such a thrill, only part of which was having my first ever one woman show.  I’m happy to say the show was everything I wanted it to be with an attentive and appreciative audience. But in a way the real thrill was discovering I wasn’t the only one obsessed with the lives of a small group of people (all of whom died over 100 years ago) and their photographs. Which of course I knew to be the case. But it was quite something for my obsession to be making me part of something and to discover a shared obsession could manifest itself in so many amazing ways.

Obsessives are undeterred by rain

Obsessives are undeterred by rain

On my first day, on a rain-soaked photo tour led by Rachel Nordstrom (head of University Photographic Collections, organiser of everything and everybody) I met a collector and producer of stereoscopic photographs who in a gap between showers whipped out an i-pad  and  treated us to some of his creations. At the evening talk by world authority Dr Sara Stevenson (mentioned here)  I was approached by someone trying to uncover the whole of D. O. Hill’s early (pre-calotyping) life.  Then at dinner,  (gulp – I was slightly star-struck to be in the company of several early photography luminaries) I sat opposite Rob Douglas who creates his own modern-day calotypes according to John Adamson‘s original instructions. Finally, at my own event on Friday evening there were people who had come to the same point from completely different angles:  a lady who was interested in Hill and Adamson because of  photographs taken by her great grandfather, and a descendant of one of  the ministers who sat for D.O. Hill’s Disruption painting.

What all of us came to find was the sudden the ability to air or  unpick details of  St Andrews in the 1840s without having to explain or defend our interest. And we could learn from each other far more effectively than consulting a library or internet site. Rob Douglas – whose hands-on workshop I had missed – had already shone a new light on just what a painstaking business it is to produce a single calotype negative and  Sara Stevenson made a sincere plea for anyone to contribute any materials or knowledge they might have stored away in a dark corner.  And of course there were those special moments when a complete stranger echoes your own long-held thoughts – like the audience member who saw the image on my programme and sighed deeply,  ‘Oh, poor Chattie!’  As if Hill’s daughter were a family friend. Because, of course, to us that’s what she is.

In the word ‘obsession’ there’s a hint of the pejorative, and I guess the adjective most commonly used of it would be ‘unhealthy’. You can certainly recognise an obsessive by a certain gleam in the eye and a tendency to catch you by the sleeve if you try to walk away. Yes, they can become boring.   But I think we are mostly harmless and although some obsessions might have a touch of the dark side, most of them are good for us.  They give us a a reason to learn and to connect with fellow obsessives. They lead us to places and experiences that help us grow. I have a friend who’s into Lord Nelson and another hell-bent on discovering all there is to know about Lady Ottoline Morrell. Why? Well why not? Although I’ve tried to unpick the origins of my obsession, it doesn’t really matter where it came from. These interests give us, if not a reason to go on, something to fall back on at least. Maybe this is what they call a hinterland.

Since coming home from St Andrews I’ve been to see the  Painting with Light exhibition at Tate Britain where the  Disruption Painting has been on show.  The commission for this painting was Hill’s original motivation for trying out the use of calotypes and the beginning of his partnership with Robert Adamson, but having begun it in 1843 he didn’t complete it until 1866, close to the end of his life. I thought this journey might be a kind of final leg or even post-script to my research in to Hill and Adamson, but of course it might just be a new chapter.


Rodger’s photo of Hill on a biscuit – unreliable evidence?

The picture raised so many questions for me, not least the troubling issue of the colour of D. O. Hill’s hair which I’d previously mentioned to  John Fowler, author of Mr Hill’s Big Picture, in which Hill is described as having ‘flowing blond locks’. Really? From the calotypes you would say that Hill is dark-haired, and in this Thomas Rodger portrait of 1855, possibly grey. In London I got as close to the picture as I possibly could to make my own assessment and I now I’m not sure. Brown with blond streaks I would say. Or has something been painted over?

Oh dear  I am boring you now, but these things matter to obsessives like us.  Mr Hill’s hair is definitely something to discuss next year in St Andrews.


Cheltenham Litfest, Monday October 10th: a late show not to be missed

alibstroud162-001First of all this post is not about me, because Stroud Short Stories Greatest Hits  is not about me, even if I do happen to be in it, which of course makes me absurdly pleased very time I think about it.
As pleased as the Ugly Duckling when he saw himself reflected in the water and said, ‘Me? A swan?!’

sss_chelt_black_blue-a4_240816_v3-pdfBut that’s not the point. I am urging all writers and readers within reach of Cheltenham on Monday Oct 10th  to get themselves along  because the event is a celebration of  the Stroud Short Stories series of events and the brainchild of its organiser John Holland who as well as writing his own particular brand of mordant fiction finds time to give boundless support to other writers and their writing.

As a result I can promise it will be an evening (actually night, it starts at 9 pm  –  we swans can stand a bit of darkness) of brilliant  short stories  in an incredible range of styles, voices and  genres.

Feeling serene

Feeling serene

From the sublime to the ridiculous pretty much covers it, so whether you like comedy, tragedy, mystery or any blend of the aforementioned, you will be royally entertained. Yes, this is a promise, because  I’ve read or heard every one of the stories, in most cases performed as they will be on the night by the authors themselves.

So here are my fellow performers (who mostly attained swandom long before me):

Andrew Stevenson, Bill Jones, Katherine Hunter,
Mel Golding, Philip Douch and Rick Vick

Stroud anthology

Some of the stories and many more besides are in the anthology which  I’m sure will be on sale on the night.

There’s a previous one of mine in there too, but the one chosen for Cheltenham is Silver Harvest, one of my ‘St Andrews collection‘.

And to hear it you’ll just have to be there.

As for my St Andrews adventure, you will be hearing about it, but it can wait.

Because Cheltenham tickets are on sale now, here. 

Like I said, a late show not to be missed.

St Andrews Photography Festival – being part of it

“Celebrating 175 Years of Photography in the home of Scottish Photography”.


By invitation!

When I found out about the first St Andrews Photography Festival taking place this summer, I had a pang of regret that I wouldn’t be there to see it. However, in an unexpected  turn of events, I will actually  be part of it as I’ve been invited to read my historical fiction in a festival event on September 9th. I can’t think of anything more special than to take my work to the place where the story began, and present it to people who share my enthusiasm for early photography and its exponents.

I realise most of you will know about this via my outpourings on social media, but with the festival kicking off on August 1st (my event is Sept 9th) I thought it would be good to post about it here, especially for those who aren’t on Facebook where the festival has its main site.

Here’s a link to the full programme of exhibitions and events put together by the University Library Special Collections Department and running from August 1st to September 11th.


Please share it with anyone you know who has an interest in early or contemporary photography, especially if they happen to be in or near Fife.

And here’s a description of my event.

hillbell_st andrews

In Sunshine and In Shadow
Stories surrounding the photographs of Robert Adamson and David Octavus Hill, 1843-48

Fiction writer and St Andrews graduate Ali Bacon brings her own words to the calotypes of Hill and Adamson and lends a voice to those who sat for them.
In this series of readings you will meet Elizabeth Johnston Hall of Newhaven, Jane Adamson (sister to John and Robert) and literary critic Elizabeth Rigby, and hear how an encounter with early photography changed all of their lives.
Presented with illustrations from the University Special Collections.

It’s on Friday September 9th, 5.30 – 6.30 pm,
Martyrs Kirk Research Library
80 North Street, KY16 9 Saint Andrews

Again, I know very few of you can be there, but do spread the word. If you can be there, please register for a free ticket.

This post will be top of my blog page for a few weeks to come!


We all love Andy now

Last year in Dunblane. Andy's bench.

Last year on Andy’s bench in Dunblane  (he probably needed a haircut too).

Some of my friends think I’m ridiculously attached to Andy Murray. This post from 2013 explains why.

Growing up in Scotland and loving tennis is a difficult path to follow and I should know.  In my home town not a million miles from Dunblane, the weather  was always rubbish. A lot of my school tennis  memories involve looking out of the window hoping the  puddles on the court would  evaporate by the afternoon gym period.  I watched my first ever grass court match at Craiglockart under a brollie.

To get to Wimbledon even as a spectator (8 hours on two trains at least and where would you get a ticket?)  was unheard of  – as for playing…! But for some reason there was never any lack of passion. My Mum and dad were glued to Wimbledon for the entire fortnight and didn’t begrudge me junior membership at the local tennis club when every other penny was spoken for.

Maybe it has got a bit easier since the sixties – I suppose there are some  indoor courts  now, and clever ways of teaching kids to hit a ball, but any way you look at it it’s not an obvious sporting choice for a Scot.  What I’m trying to say is that I think Andy Murray’s achievements so far are even more remarkable when you think of where he came from.

Talking of which, it’s so great that Dunblane – a place of horror to the new generation-  has so much to celebrate now. And yes that’s one of the reasons that Dunblane plays a small part in  A Kettle of Fish – as a tribute to those who suffered.  The fact that Andy also gets a mention too is clearly nothing less than  providential😉

But seriously. This is why I support Andy and why I hope the entire nation will get behind a supreme sportsman and national hero.

andy 2013After that match in 2013 (which I could hardly bear to watch) I bought the video and occasionally bring it out for comfort viewing  in the way other people hark back to favourite films or box sets. I don’t think yesterdays’ match had quite the elemental intensity (or long rallies) but Andy clearly finds the win even sweeter and you can see why.

Best of all, the nation has seen beyond his sometimes gruff exterior and he is more comfortable in front of a camera and in his  own skin of husband, dad and champion.

So we all love Andy now.  Of course some of us always did.


Another Flash in the Pen or, ‘Is that a ukulele I can hear?’

Suddenly it’s summer – on the calendar if not in the air right now, and here’s something to celebrate. Authors Electric, where I blog on the 22nd of each month (latest is here) have published a new anthology to accompany last year’s Flash in the Pen with something in it by me –  light-hearted, seasonal, and no ukuleles (or ukulele players) were harmed in the making thereof!

But apart from me, there are some great authors in there, all well worth a look.

Heads-up! The price of the e-book is only 0.99 during June.
(Paperback £8.50 – still a lot less than a round of drinks!)

Here’s everything else  you need to know.


St Andrews in a New Light: the Adamson family

DSC00905Every now and then we go back to St Andrews and always find things have changed. I already knew  my old hall of residence had become luxury apartments (!) but it was somehow even more of a culture shock to find Fatface , Costa  and Waterstones rubbing shoulders with more – um, traditional establishments. But  each time we go we have a new purpose and see the place in a new light. This time I was on a bit of a research mission.

standrews_flickrRight from the start, my interest in Hill and Adamson was piqued by knowing the places where they lived and worked, especially St Andrews where many early calotypes were made, some of them without the help of D. O. Hill.


Because if Robert Adamson was the unsung hero of their partnership, his brother John was also a strong influence. It was John who took on the development of the calotype process from Sir David Brewster, and roped in his brother who was unsuited to outdoor work. Together they perfected the technique and set up the business in Edinburgh where Robert was to fall in with Hill. Although John remained in St Andrews and never worked as a professional photographer, he continued to make calotypes and other forms of early photographs long after his brother’s death and had a longer association with the medium than either his brother or D. O. Hill.

I also had a desire to see Robert Adamson’s grave, which I knew to be in the cathedral churchyard but had never been able to find a picture of. And so last week, as part of a holiday in Scotland, I decided to see if I could find anything relating to John or Robert in the town. I haven’t been actively researching this for quite a while and stupidly didn’t think to bring any of my old notes along with me (doh!) but I’d recently turned up a description of the family grave  in Robert Crawford’s fascinating The Beginning and End of the World . So all I had to do was find it!

St Andrews cathedral

St Andrews cathedral today

Arriving in the early evening the omens were not good. The cathedral grounds were closing for the night, so no chance to go searching,  and a close examination of a good stretch of South Street gave me no clue as to where John might have lived. In the morning we’d already had a fruitless visit to Perth Art Gallery where none (none, what’s that about!) of Hill’s work is on public display and I was suddenly less than optimistic about finding the grave or anything else.

the Adamson restaurant

the Adamson restaurant

But back in our B&B  I did some Googling and discovered John’s house had been pretty well staring me in the face, in the shape of The Adamson – Scottish restaurant of the year, no less! –  occupying 127 South Street, just past where I’d given up looking earlier on! So no problems of knowing where to look next day.



Returning to the cathedral was equally problem free, as after a five minute wander I stumbled on just what I’d been looking for.


Adamson family grave











So, mission accomplished in more ways than one.



North Street, St Andrews

North Street, St Andrews

Along the way I also noticed these houses at the east end of North Street which bear a resemblance to Hill and Adamson’s Fishergate pictures and answered a question in my mind as to why fishermen and women would have lived and worked in North Street which to me was closer to the golf courses and rugged cliffs than the harbour.

But of course this far end of the street  is much closer to where boats would have put out, so suddenly these pictures make more sense.

DSC00914I’ve always had a soft spot for John Adamson, of whom D. O. Hill wrote,

‘his brother the doctor … has watched him as a child during his long illness. I have seldom seen such a true and manly sorrow’

and so I’m glad he’s been acknowledged by his home town – not to mention the fine dining community! But it does seem odd that Robert, in many ways the more famous brother, isn’t recognised here at all, unless of course there’s something else I missed …

St-Andrews-exhibition-e1465483542589This is John’s later picture of the house.  And as I write this blog I discover her’s going to be a St Andrews photography festival later this year. Fantastic!




adamsonsglaThe Adamson family  in an earlier calotype by D. O. Hill. John is top left, Robert seated. There’s a better version on the National Portrait Gallery site. 






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