‘Poor Chattie’ comes to Novel Nights

D.O. Hill’s daughter Chattie is best known from the  iconic portrait  taken near the start of her father’s partnership with Robert Adamson, but we have very few further calotype images of her (calotyping was too expensive for regular ‘family shapshots’) .

All we know from the playful letters, notes and sketches her father made for her, is that she remained central to his  busy life and that her early death marked the beginning of his declining years.

When I was talking to other Hill and Adamson fans last year in St Andrews, one long-time aficionado exclaimed ‘Poor Chattie!’ and a  collective sigh went up in recognition of a father’s grief and a young life snuffed out to soon.

Of course in historical fiction, the less we know about someone the easier it can be to incorporate them into the story we want to tell, and I’ve been thinking for a while that Chattie’s voice could be a useful vehicle for her father’s story if only because she provides a unifying thread,  from the ‘Adamson years’  through the 1850’s, when she and D. O. shared Rock House with his sister Mary and an extended family of cousins. This  was also when D. O. Hill grew particularly close to the artist Joseph Noel Paton, an alliance that would  have repercussions on D.O.’s personal and professional life.

Next week  I’m reading the beginning of a story set in 1854 when Chattie would have been fifteen and attending the first ever  Edinburgh school for young ladies. By now she is old enough to take a view on her and her father’s situation. I wonder what she made of it all, and what D. O. made of her? I imagine her confident, articulate and well brought up. But we all know how teenagers can jump to conclusions …

nnaudienceIf you’d like to hear my version of the (not so poor) Chattie, Novel Nights is taking place on Wednesday Jan 25th in its new venue at The Berkeley Square Hotel, Bristol at 8pm.

Several other local writers will be reading their work and there is a talk by historical fiction expert Celia Brayfield (also mentioned here).

Don’t forget to get your ticket in advance.

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The Berkely Square Hotel, Bristol

Looks like a lovely venue.  I think Chattie will be in her element!

 

*Calotype of Chattie Hill by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson,  Scottish National Galleries collection https://art.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/42236/112194?overlay=download

 

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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 .

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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.

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Adamson family grave

 

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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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St Andrews Photography Festival on Facebook

 

The Fishwives’ Tales

Hamptons deliNext week my guest here will be Debbie Young whom I met after she had read Kettle of Fish while on holiday (appropriately) in Scotland. As we chatted in the excellent Hamptons of Chipping Sodbury (we know how to live!) she told me about her visit to the Scottish Fisheries Museum in Anstruther which  gets a brief mention in Kettle (even though I haven’t been there!) and also the amazing Fishwives Choir (yes, think Military Wives but different) who are celebrated this week on her blog. Do take a look.

As it happens I’ve been thinking recently how the fishy theme  came to be such a big part of my own novel, and how it also led me to Project Three, as I call the book I’m writing now (which sounds v. self-important but springs from the fact I didn’t quite know what I was dealing with for a while!)

Because of Ailsa’s interest in the sea, about half way through the novel I have her pick up a leaflet about an exhibition of photographs of the fisherfolk of Newhaven. This was, or had been, a real exhibition in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery of the work of early Victorian photographers Hill and Adamson. Mildly curious I followed this up and discovered many of their photographs  online. So began my latest obsession.

Elizabeth Johnson Hall
Elizabeth Johnson Hall of Newhaven

The photographs of 1840 show the strength and character of these women which lives on in the fishwives of today. But of course, for all their beauty and dignity, these women led exceptionally hard lives, always doing the bulk of the work on land, gutting the fish and taking them to sell. In summer the men travelled for weeks at a time as far as Wick to fish from small boats and so the women, then as now, were left alone.* When the price of fish was high, they would remind buyers, ‘It’s no fish ye’re buying, it’s men’s lives.’ So let’s here it for fishermen and their wives everywhere.

saltsplashedcradleSince we’re on the topic, there are two other  books (well one is a play) I’ve come across that touch on the Scottish fishing industry in very different ways,  Catherine Czerkawska’s The Price of a Fish Supper, which I enjoyed very much on radio a few years ago and Chris Longmuir’s The Salt Splashed Cradle – a spirited historical novel about life and love in a fishing community near Montrose.

Both are well worth reading.

*Reference: Facing the Light, The Photography of Hill and Adamson, Scottish National Portrait Gallery 2002.

Northern Highlights

Edinburgh view
Edinburgh from Calton Hill

To show you I didn’t spend all my recent trip with my head in a book, I’m posting a few photos of Edinburgh including some sculptures in and around the Dean Gallery. I’d been to the Dean and the Gallery of Modern Art before  (which explains why The Water’s Edge has some scenes there)  and was looking forward to reacquainting myself with its distinctive style and atmosphere, especially the fantastic Vulcan who stands two stories high and is surmounted by an intricate ceiling by the same artist.
A lot of modern art leaves me cold, as does most science fiction, and so it’s a bit of a surprise to like this, but I do.

No photos were allowed in the gallery, but in the grounds I stumbled upon this Master of the Universe, thought to represent Isaac Newton, a version of which is also outside the British Library in London.

The Dean Gallery stands next to a cemetery where I made a point of seeking out the grave of David Octavius Hill. The bust is the work of his wife, Amelia Paton, who is thought to have studied in Rome in the mid 19th Century, and so the classical style is to be expected. To me it conveys not just Hill’s character as described in the inscription but also something of the scuptor’s fortitude in working to create a permanent memorial to her husband.

Grave of D.O. Hill