‘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.

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



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.


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. 






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.

B is for … Brewster

Sir David Brewster
Sir David Brewster photographed by Hill and Adamson

Today the St. Andrews trip goes a long way back in time, in fact to 1838, when Sir David Brewster arrived to be Principal of  St. Andrews University. By this time Brewster, originally trained in theology, was already an eminent man of science who had become famous chiefly for his invention of the kaleidoscope. Brewster would be in St. Andrews for twenty years but it was early on in his tenure that he became a key figure in the development of photography.  

The timing of Brewster’s arrival was crucial, because in 1839 his friend W.H. Fox-Talbot succeeded in producing the first true photographic images,  and although ‘The Fox’  guarded his secrets jealously, he trusted his friend Brewster with the details of the process he had used. Brewster’s area of scientific expertise was the study of light, and he was determined to replicate if not improve on Fox-Talbot’s work.  He gathered a group of university and townsmen to help him do this of whom John Adamson,  helped by his brother Robert, was the first to have real success.

It would be a few more years before Brewster introduced Robert Adamson to D.O. Hill, the provider of artistic momentum in their famous partnership,  but Brewster’s early intervention explains why St. Andrews has provided some of the earliest examples of photography and why the university library has one of the richest photographic collections in Scotland. 

Hill and Adamson’s relationship with Fox-Talbot seems to have been an awkward one, and I often wonder where Brewster stood in this. Anyone interested in a creative exploration of how it might have felt to be part of the Adamson family when Brewster was around can have a look at this tiny piece of historical fiction which  I’ve called The Fox and The Rooster.  

I’ve also written a factual article that outlines the full story of Brewster, Hill, Adamson and the moment  that brought them together. Anyone interested, please leave a comment and contact details.

Many more images by Hill and Adamson can be viewed on the National Gallery of Scotland photostream on flickr.

Fun in the Sun

These writing obsessions take us to strange places.
I thought I’d missed my chance ever to see Sun Worshippers, shown on BBC Scotland in 2002, but in a moment of enthusiasm I contacted Caledonia films who still had it in their vaults and were able to send me a copy.
I watched it last night. Billed as a drama documentary it interspersed dramatised scenes from the Hill and Adamson partnership with comments from experts and cameos of contemporary photographers engaged in portraiture, art photography and documentary. Their work in many cases bore direct comparison to that of Hill and Adamson, proposing in a fascinating and insightful way that the pair really did lay the foundations of modern photography, unless you take  Lord Snowdon’s view that photography has limitations as an art form, and that in any period its subjects will tend to be the same. Either way the factual side of the film far exceeded my expectations. Its experts included Sara Stevenson, the authority on photography of the period, and there were stunning shots – old and new – of Edinburgh, Fife and St. Andrews.

St. Andrews Cathedral by John and Robert Adamson

As to the drama, it had its moments. But  after nearly a year of intermittent research,  I have constructed my own mental pictures of Hill, Adamson and co. and, perhaps not surprisingly, neither the cast nor the costumes of this production did it for me. Today I find myself still trying to erase the memory of those hats and wigs (and some disturbingly coquettish behaviour from ‘the thrice worthy Miss Mann’)so as to get back to the comfort of my own constructs. They may of course be totally wrong, but I’m not ready to give them up just yet.

Still, I shall certainly keep the DVD among my souvenirs and hope it hasn’t been entirely pointless to review a production that none of you has ever seen. If you do feel like giving it a go, I can only urge you to offer £10 to Caledonia TV – or ask me very nicely!