The white chocolate shortbread may be gone, but this week has been a good one for feeding my early photography obsession.
First 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.
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.
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.
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.
Every 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.
Right 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!
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.
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.
So, mission accomplished in more ways than one.
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.
I’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 …