My historical novel In the Blink of an Eye was written to illustrate and honour an iconic photographic partnership between two men, D.O. Hill and Robert Adamson, but when it came to writing their story, I found myself focussing on the women who surrounded them. This arose from the writer’s instinct to look for the parts of the story which hadn’t been told, and not surprisingly it was the voices of the sisters, daughters and wives I thought needed to be heard.
Some of these women, like Elizabeth Johnson Hall, a fisherman’s wife, were brought into the limelight only by the images that celebrated them. Others, like Jessie Mann, a photographic assistant, remained until recently clouded in obscurity. Amelia Robertson Hill is a different case, but I’d be surprised if many of my readers have heard of her.
Amelia Paton (as she was at birth), born in my home town of Dunfermline, was daughter of Joseph Paton, a designer of the damask linen for which the town was famous and his wife Margaret, both of them lovers of art and history.
Amelia’s brother Joseph Noel Paton (Noel) changed tack from textiles to painting and studied at the Royal Academy in London, where he flirted with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, then rose to prominence in the Scottish art world and was appointed Queen’s Limner (a sort of artistic poet laureate) in 1865.
Here you see father and son celebrated in the Dunfermline library exhibition.
You see how I am slipping into Noel’s story while telling you about his sister? This is the trap of a history in which men’s acievements are always to the forefront!
So Amelia (she and Noel were close in age) was born into a relatively privileged and artistic family (a younger brother also became a painter). She exhibited at least once in the Royal Scottish Academy annual exhibition in the 1840s and so must have had artistic ambitions from an early age, but we hear very little about her until the 1860s when she married artist and photographer D. O. Hill, a close personal friend of her brother and long-time secretary to the Royal Scottish Academy. There are hints that in the interim she looked after her sick mother and certainly lived in Dunfermline until close to the time of her marriage.
The marriage was crucial. Although she began by helping her husband complete his large-scale Disruption Painting, from this time on she begand to gain commissions as a sculptor. For this she must have undergone some period of study, of which next to nothing is known. Clearly marriage to Hill, with his network of artistic connections, gave her the platform she needed to make her entrance on to the artistic scene, although it was after his death in 1870 (he was twenty years her senior) that the majority of her best-known works were completed.
If you are thinking ‘best-known’ is a relative term, I can tell you that Amelia Robertson Hill’s work does not lack star quality. Her sculptures include the statue of David Livingstone, one of the first monuments sculptures to be seen by visitors to Edinburgh who arrive at Waverley Station and other additions to the adjacent Scott Monument. She has a number of portrait busts (including one of her brother) in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and her statue of the poet Robert Burns stands in Dumfries. How many more might she have completed if she had begun, like her brother, in her twenties? And despite the patronage of two eminent artists, her brother and her husband, Amelia still faced the constraints of the artistic establishment. Membership of the Royal Scottish Academy was denied to women and as a result she went on to help found the Albert Institute of Fine Arts with studios and exhibition spaces available to all, a significant if short-lived enterprise which closed as women gained entry to the RSA.
David Livingstone by Amelia Roberstson Hill
Photo by Jonathan Oldenbuck via Wikimedia Commons:
A newspaper interview published in 1895 (when she was in her seventies) depicts Amelia as a strong and lively character with a variety of artistic and scientific interests. What surprises me (or maybe it doesn’t) is that although she was a trail-blazer for women artists and the artistic equal of her male contemporaries, there are very few visitors to Edinburgh, or I’m ashamed to say, her fellow townspeople, who will have heard of her.
In her era, as in so many others, women had to wait their time and divest themselves of other duties before they could take up the paintbrush, the chisel or the pen. As one writer observes:
On her death in 1904, while acknowledging she achieved “not a little fame as a scuptor,” the obituary paragraphs concentrate on her marriage to Hill and the fame of her brothers. While it is common to come across such laudatory statements, their generalised nature make it difficult to form an accurate assessment of her achievements.’The Patons, An Artistic Family, Patricia de Montford, Crawford Arts Centre St Andrews, 1993
However Amelia is at last being given some belated credit. I was delighted to find that since last year she has been properly celebrated in an online walking tour of her works in Edinburgh. Do have a look for a real idea of what this woman achieved.