Tag Archives: St. Andrews

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

 

1 year on, or is it 600?

St. Andrews pier walkIt’s spring again (well April anyway) and we (that’s me and Mr. B. ) have just celebrated our anniversary. We met, as so many couples do, at uni, including  the rather more famous royals who sauntered up the aisle almost a year ago. Which was one of the things that prompted me  to take a bit of a nostalgia trip back to St. Andrews.

I’m ashamed to say this resulted in a rather paltry effort blogwise, but  it’s never too late to have another go, and this time I’m determined to breathe new life into my Remembering St. Andrews A-Z blog.

I’m really hoping some old St. Andrians will join me  for a backwards look at student days in the East Neuk and St. Andrews University 600th Anniversary  have even lent a hand.

I’m also taking the liberty of using their rather gorgeous photo of the pier walk. I’m thinking fifties, what do you think?

So,  1 year for the famous couple, well over 30 for us, and 600 for the old dear.

Do take a look. I’m trying to avoid the obvious, but gowns and golf  may creep in.

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.

An Alumnus Chronicle

StAndrews from StRules Tower

St. Andrews,  clinging to the edge of the Fife coast, is an oddity in so many ways.   With a skyline to die for and a wind you just want to avoid,  it’s  overrun for most of the year by students and for the rest of the time by those  who come to worship at the  mecca of golf.  And yet despite these shoals of visitors (not to mention royal affiliations) it somehow clings on to its small-town identity.

 And what does it mean to me? Born and brought up in Fife, I knew it first as the bearer of a bucket, spade and swimsuit.  Later, for four whole years, it became my alma  mater, and more recently I’ve found myself  drawn back there. A trip to Fife in 2007  sparked A  Kettle of Fish, which in turn sent me digging up events that took place there long before as part of a new novel.

But soon it will be in the news again for very different reasons, and I’m taking the opportunity to launch a series of blog posts about St. Andrews, to acknowledge and celebrate its importance in my life  as  well as the lives of so many others.  

Although I’ve missed the A-Z  blog challenge I’ll probably keep to the same format, but won’t promise to finish in any particular timescale (and certainly not by April 29th!) as  I’d like to take  time over a trip which will be mostly unashamed nostalgia with a few digressions along the way.

I think I’ll call it Alumnus Alphabet and I hope to begin in the next few days. Of course I’d love any other St. Andrians out there to  come along to add impressions or memories. Lords and  commoners are equally welcome. the Pier St. Andrews

I’ll try to keep embarrassing photos to a minimum, but you might like to try guessing the year this one was taken.