Hill and Adamson

— #23 St Andrew's Church

Overview Church Interior Dr James Fairbairn Hill and Adamson

A Photographic Revelation

At the dawn of photography, a partnership between an artist and a chemist brought about a revolution in the recording of social history.  They resolved to create a photo-essay on “The Fishermen and Women of the Frith [sic] of Forth” and in doing so made Newhaven famous nationally and, indeed, globally.

It could be said that artist David Octavius Hill  (20 May 1802 – 17 May 1870) and engineer and chemist Robert Adamson (26 April 1821 — 14 January 1848) “invented” Newhaven.

2_1039 A Pastor's Visit — Mrs Carnie Noble, unknown woman, Bessy Crombie, Mary Combe, Mrs Margaret [Dryburgh] Lyall, Rev Dr James Fairbairn and James Gall.

The year was 1843.

Only 17 years before, heliography had been invented by Frenchman, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, a technique he used to create the world’s oldest surviving example of a photographic process using a crude camera.

This was not photography as we know it today, but it inspired a number of people to improve on the slow and crude images that Niépce had managed to capture.  One of those people was an English scientist and inventor, William Henry Fox Talbot, who invented the calotype process, the precursor to photographic processes of the later 19th and 20th centuries.  

In 1839, he showed images he had taken in 1834 to the Royal Institution.  By 1840, he had discovered the latent image and the use of gallic acid as a developer.  By producing a negative image, multiple prints could be made. Photography had come of age.

The partnership of Hill and Adamson brought immediate success. Robert Adamson’s house, “Rock House” on Calton Hill, became their Studio where they established a reputation for the quality of their work, using Hill’s artistic talents and Adamson’s technical skills.  Using the calotype process, they produced a wide range of portraits of the great and good.  

However, as well as notable subjects they photographed ordinary working folk, particularly the fishermen and fishwives  of Newhaven.

Rev Dr James Fairbairn was a principal of the Disruption and David Hill arranged to take his portrait for his great painting.  Visiting Dr Fairbairn, Hill was taken with the picturesque attire of the Newhaven fishermen and fishwives — particularly the striking appearance of the women in their unique attire.  Hill and Adamson resolved to produce six volumes of calotypes, the first being “The Fishermen and Women of the Frith [sic] of Forth”.

These photographs of the Newhaven fisherfolk caught the attention of the wider community, including the potteries in Portobello and Prestonpans, who were always looking for novel subjects for figurines they could sell. The popularity of these statuettes influenced the Staffordshire potteries to do likewise, which in turn came to the attention of Queen Victoria herself.

In 1883, Newhaven fishwives were invited to attend the London Fisheries Exhibition, where their colourful costumes, with distinctive, multiple striped petticoats made a notable impression on Queen Victoria and her son, the Prince of Wales.

RIGHT: David Octavius Hill (left) and Robert Adamson (right).  A composite made from two separate images (George Eastman House, Public Domain)