David Octavius Hill, painter and pioneer of photography, died on the 17th of May, 1870.
With a name like David Octavius Hill, he was surely destined to become famous, but his partner, Robert Adamson deserves equal credit for the pair's photographic achievements, despite the lack of an intriguing middle name. According to Malcolm Daniel, of the Department of Photographs at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (at least he was in 2000), Hill and Adamson “pioneered the aesthetic terrain of photography and created a body of work that still ranks among the highest achievements of photographic portraiture.”
Others have written that the complementary skills of Hill and Adamson achieved results with the primitive calotype process that have served as a standard and challenge to later photographers. Complementary is the best word to describe Hill and Adamson as each brought his own talent and skill to the partnership – Adamson, the technician and Hill, the artist – a perfect team; being greater than the sum of their parts. It has also been written that Hill and Adamson demonstrated a masterly sense of form and composition and a dramatic use of light and shade. No exaggeration then, to say that, before Adamson's untimely death at the age of twenty-seven, their four-and-a-half years partnership had produced some of the greatest photographic portraits of the 19th Century.
In the mid-1840s, the newly invented medium of photography was an undoubted novelty. Thankfully, however, William Henry Fox Talbot's patent restrictions on the process known as 'Talbotype' or more commonly, 'calotype', did not apply in Scotland. Furthermore, according to Daniel, Talbot actually encouraged its use in Scotland, corresponding with, amongst others, the physicist Sir David Brewster. Brewster was primarily responsible for introducing Robert Adamson to the techniques of paper photography and he was also the man who introduced Hill to Adamson.
Together, Hill and Adamson produced nearly 3,000 photographic images, including many views of Edinburgh and small fishing villages such as Newhaven. Perhaps the most famous result of their collaboration is the painting Hill made of the 'Disruption' of 1843. That momentous event in the history of the Kirk in Scotland, at a time of great dispute over the role of the crown and landowners in appointing ministers, was the catalyst for Hill's introduction to Adamson.
On the 18th of May, 1843, the Kirk of Scotland met in General Assembly at the Church of St. Andrew, in George Street, Edinburgh. Early in the proceedings, the moderator, the Rev. Dr. David Welsh, read an Act of Protest following which, over a third of the Ministers and perhaps half of the lay population were led out of the Assembly by Dr. Thomas Chalmers and Robert Smith Candlish. The famous procession wound its way down the hill to the Tanfield Hall, at Canonmills, where the Disruption Assembly was then held. The outcome of that was the establishment of the Free Church of Scotland.
Both David Octavius Hill and Sir David Brewster were present to witness the events of the disrupted Assembly. Hill greatly admired the action, which he saw as morally highly significant. When he advertised his intention to commit the historical event to canvas and finance his painting with the sale of engravings of the finished work, Brewster introduced Hill to Adamson. As Hill had intended to laboriously produce sketch portraits of “the most venerable fathers, and others of the more eminent and distinguished ministers and elders” to aid his composition of his painting, Brewster's logical thinking was that Adamson's calotype skills would save Hill a great deal of time and trouble. He was right.
Hill's famous, 5 foot x 11 foot 4 inches (1.53m x 3.45m) painting was eventually completed, two decades later, in 1866. It contains 450 individually recognisable faces, each listed in a key, and stands as a magnificent, if fairly dull, record of the day 'The Disruption' occured. Using photography to make his sketches was a far more efficient and productive method than making individual drawings of all those 'Free Kirk' worthies.
David Octavius Hill was born in Perth, in 1802. Davie was educated at a recently re-establish, thanks in part to his father, Perth Academy and afterwards, he went to Edinburgh, to study art at the Trustee's Academy. In Edinburgh, Hill also learnt lithography and, by the time he was nineteen, he had published a series of lithographs in an album of views entitled 'Sketches of Scenery in Perthshire'. By the mid-1820s, Hill had became an accomplished portrait and landscape painter and his early landscape paintings had been shown at the Institution for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Scotland. However, he fell out with the Institution, for some reason, and in 1829, Hill helped established a separate Scottish Academy.
In 1830, Hill took on unpaid secretarial duties for the new Academy and, in order to make a living, sought commissions in illustration. In 1832, four of his engravings were used to illustrate The Glasgow and Garnkirk Railway Prospectus, the first time an artist had recorded railway engines with such meticulous precision. Hill also painted three pictures of the railway viaduct, built at Ballochmyle by railway engineer, John Miller. Significantly, in terms of his status as an artist, Hill provided illustrations for editions of Walter Scott and Robert Burns. In 1836, a year after Hill had exhibited three paintings of scenes at Newhaven beach, the Royal Scottish Academy as it had become, began to pay him a salary as secretary, but Hill continued to produce illustrations and to paint landscapes on commission. Hill was also a founder of the National Gallery of Scotland.
Hill and Adamson clearly understood the value of their calotypes as works of art in their own right and sought to promote their images by sending a portfolio to London and attending a meeting, in York, of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The pair had an ambitious plan to publish six volumes of calotypes on various Scottish themes, such as the fishing life of the Firth of Forth, centred on Newhaven, where Hill had painted many of his pictures. Although none of those titles was never published, around 120 photographs survive. Hill's picture of the Linlithgow Railway is believed to be the first ever photograph of a railway scene and many of the photographs depict Scots luminaries such as the Rev. Dr. Thomas Chalmers and Hugh Miller.
David Octavius Hill died at his home in the Newington district of Edinburgh, on the 17th of May, 1870. Hill was buried in Edinburgh's Dean Cemetery.