Hill and Adamson

Grave of David Octavius Hill in Dean Cemetery. The bust of him was sculpted by his wife.

Grave of David Octavius Hill in Dean Cemetery. The bust of him was sculpted by his wife.

Buried in the beautiful Victorian Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh is David Octavius Hill, a painter who, along with Robert Adamson, pioneered in Scottish and aesthetic photography. They founded the Hill & Adamson Studio in 1843, Scotland’s first photographic studio, when the medium of photography was still very much in its infancy. And from this partnership, the pair produced perhaps the first ever collection of photographs that were purposefully taken in an artistic style.

David Hill was witness to the Disruption Assembly in the May of 1843 –  a schism in the Church of Scotland, which led to the founding of the Free Church of Scotland when 474 ministers walked out because they were extremely unhappy with the Church’s relationship with the State – and Hill, with the encouragement of friend and other witness Lord Henry Cockburn, wanted to paint the historic event. Hill admired the ministers’ great personal risk they were taking, and so wanted to sketch a likeness of each one to put into his painting. Another witness to the Disruption was the eminent physicist Sir David Brewster, and when he realised Hill’s desire to sketch nearly 500 ministers before they headed back to their respective homes across Scotland he suggested that Hill might like to use the services of Robert Adamson to create photographic images of the men instead. Initially Hill was quite reluctant to use this new art form, but after he first met Adamson and discussed the logistics of it all he was quickly won over to the idea and within weeks the two had formed a close working partnership. Hill and Adamson took photos of the setting of the Disruption as well of those who had been there. Hill had a great eye for composition and lighting from his skill as a painter, and positioned each sitter how he envisioned them to be in the finished painting, whereas Robert Adamson, the photography enthusiast, had considerable dexterity when it came to handling the camera, as well as being very genial in nature, which put the sitters at ease and allowed them to act naturally in front of the camera.

A Hill & Adamson picture titled 'His Faither's Breeks'

A Hill & Adamson picture titled ‘His Faither’s Breeks’

Their collaboration proved to have been very successful and they went on to produce portraits of well-known Scots of the time, both outdoors and in their studio at “Rock House” on Calton Hill. They would quite often use the grand tombs in the kirkyard at Greyfriars in their portraits. But it wasn’t only the famous or well-to-do that Hill and Adamson photographed; they also took landscape pictures locally and around Fife to the north, as well as photos of normal working people, most notably fishermen and women around Newhaven village and harbour.

However, David Octavius Hill’s partnership with Robert Adamson was to last only four and half years. Adamson fell ill in late 1847 and died, at the age of just 26, in the January of 1848. Together the pair produced thousands of groundbreaking portraits and landscapes as well as worked on improving the technology of photography.

Hill's Disruption of 1843 painting

Hill’s Disruption of 1843 painting

After Adamson’s death the studio became less and less active, and Hill eventually returned solely to painting, selling prints of his photographs as a way to earn a living. He finally finished his painting of the Disruption Assembly nearly two decades later in 1866 to much acclaim.


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4 thoughts on “Hill and Adamson

  1. Frances

    I am researching my grandfathers name Coburn and it led me here. How can I find out more about this clan? Thank you in advance.


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