Robert Adamson & David Octavius Hill

Robert Adamson & David Octavius Hill

1802-1870 | 1821-1848


David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson secured a place in the history of photography and art history with their accomplishments with Calotype portraits. Their portraits were noted for their simple composition, their straightforward lighting, their quiet dignity, and their ability to catch the distinctive qualities of the sitter.

David Octavius Hill was born in Perth, Scotland in 1802, the son of a book publisher. He was educated at Perth Academy and the School of Design in Edinburgh. Hill was an acceptable landscape painter and illustrator (illustrating some novels for Sir Walter Scott). Always involved in the art world, he helpedorganize the Royal Academy of Scotland and served as secretary from its inception until his death in 1870. He was a respected artist in his time, but not one that would be recognized today had he not become involved with Robert Adamson.

Robert Adamson was born in 1821 in St. Andrews, Scotland, the son of a farmer and the brother of a physician, John Adamson. He had ambitions to become an engineer but poor health forced him to leave his studies.

The Hill and Adamson story is somewhat analogous to the ingredients in a fine recipe.

John Adamson was a practicing physician and curator of the museum at St. Andrews University. Sir David Brewster, a renowned physicist (inventor of the kaleidoscope and the stereoscope) was the Principal of St. Andrews University and a colleague of John Adamson. Brewster was also a friend and advisor of Henry Fox Talbot, the English inventor of the Calotype positive/negative system of photography. In 1841, with the aid of Brewster’s correspondence with Talbot, John Adamson printed the first Calotype in Scotland. Talbot, interested in commercializing his invention, enlisted the aid of Brewster and Adamson; they in turn trained John’s brother Robert in the Calotype process. Robert opened a studio at Rock House, Calton Stair, Edinburgh, producing Calotype portraits.

David Octavius Hill was present in 1843 at the meeting of the Church of Scotland and witnessed the succession of 457 ministers to reassemble as the Free Church of Scotland. Hill was so moved he pledged to paint a portrait of all 457 ministers together. Sir David Brewster, who had studied for the clergy of the Church of Scotland was also at the meeting. He suggested the use of the Calotype as a sketching tool.

Adamson, who had opened his studio at Rock House just weeks before, entered into a joint venture with Hill to photograph all 457 men of the new Free Church of Scotland. The subjects were posed outside. One set was designed to appear indoors but was actually outdoors with furniture and drapery against a wall of the building.


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Hill and Adamson made Calotype documentary portraits that beautifully speak of their time. They photographed not only the churchmen, but also a variety of subjects: landscapes, architecture, friends and family. Their environmental portraits were among the earliest recorded, utilizing the new medium of photography. They worked together on their project for four and a half years, until Adamson’s early death in 1848 at the age of 27.

Adamson’s role has always been questioned: Was he merely a technician taking direction from Hill, or was he a talented photographer? The latter must be assumed because even though Hill worked with two other photographers after Adamson’s untimely death, his work never again achieved the excellent quality of the Hill and Adamson calotypes.

Hill did finish the painting of the ministers but not until 1866, just four years prior to his death. Both Hill and Adamson were inducted into the Photography Hall of Fame in 1978.

By Vi Whitmire, For IPHF

Mountains 1998, Jane Doe