David Octavius Hill - Newhaven Fisherman, 19th century
Public domain photograph - David Octavius Hill, salted paper print, 19th-century Scotland, artistic early photography, free to use, no copyright restrictions image
David Octavius Hill was a Scottish painter and photographer. He was a pioneer of photography in Scotland and is best known for his collaboration with Robert Adamson in which they produced some of the most important early photographs of Scotland.
In 1843, Hill was commissioned to paint a group portrait of the leaders of the Free Church of Scotland, which became known as the "Disruption Assembly" painting. He then decided to photograph the same people in order to have a more accurate representation of the individuals. This commission led him to take up photography and he teamed up with Robert Adamson, who was a master of the new collodion process. Together, they produced a large body of work that depicted the people and landscapes of Scotland during the mid-19th century. Their photographs are considered some of the most important early photographs of Scotland, and are widely recognized for their technical excellence and artistry.
David Octavius Hill was born in 1802 in Perth, Scotland and lived mostly in Edinburgh. His father was a bookseller and publisher active in re-establishing Perth Academy so David and his brothers were educated there. David learned lithography in the School of Design and produced Sketches, landscape paintings, book illustrations, including illustrations for editions of Walter Scott and Robert Burns. He was present at the Disruption Assembly in 1843 when more than 450 ministers walked out of the Church of Scotland assembly to found the Free Church of Scotland. David and his friends Lord Cockburn and physicist Sir David Brewster wanted to record the dramatic scene. They came up with an idea to use the new invention, photography, to get likenesses of all the ministers present. Brewster was himself experimenting with this technology which only dated back to 1839, and he introduced Hill to another enthusiast, Robert Adamson. Their collaboration, with Hill providing skill in composition and lighting, and Adamson considerable sensitivity and dexterity in handling the camera, proved extremely successful. Adamson's studio, "Rock House", on Calton Hill in Edinburgh became the center of their photographic experiments. Using the calotype process, they produced numerous portraits, both in the studio and outdoors, often amongst the tombs in Greyfriars Kirkyard. They photographed local and Fife landscapes and urban scenes, including images of the Scott Monument under construction in Edinburgh. They photographed ordinary working folk, particularly the fishermen of Newhaven, and the fishwives, produced several groundbreaking "action" photographs of soldiers and - perhaps their most famous photograph - two priests walking side by side. Their partnership produced around 3,000 prints but was cut short after only four years due to the ill health and death of Adamson in 1848. Hill died in 1870 and is buried in Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh.
By the first half of the 18th century, Edinburgh was one of Europe's most densely populated and overcrowded towns. Various social classes shared the same urban space, even inhabiting the same tenement buildings with lower classes occupying cellars and garrets, and the more established classes occupied the more expensive middle stories. In the second half of the 18th century, the city was at the heart of the Scottish Enlightenment. It became a "hotbed of genius", a major intellectual center, "Athens of the North" because of its numerous neo-classical buildings and reputation for learning, recalling ancient Athens. From the 1770s onwards, the professional and business classes gradually deserted the Old Town in favor of one-family residences of the New Town, changing the city's social character. "Unity of social feeling was one of the most valuable heritages of old Edinburgh, and its disappearance was widely and properly lamented." Although Edinburgh's traditional industries of printing, brewing, and distilling continued to grow in the 19th century and were joined by new rubber works and engineering works, there was little industrialization compared with other cities in Britain. The Old Town became an increasingly dilapidated and overcrowded slum so Lord Provost William Chambers in the 1860s began the transformation of the central part of the city into the Victorian Old Town that exists today.