David   Octavius   Hill

(Perth, 20 May 1802 - 17 May 1870, Edinburgh)


Scottish painter and arts activist. He formed Hill & Adamson studio with the engineer and photographer Robert Adamson between 1843 and 1847, to pioneer many aspects of photography in Scotland.

David Octavius Hill was born in 1802 in Perth. His father, a bookseller and publisher, helped to re-establish Perth Academy and David was educated there as were his brothers. When his older brother Alexander joined the publishers Blackwood's in Edinburgh, David went there to study at the School of Design. He learnt lithography and produced Sketches of Scenery in Perthshire which was published as an album of views.

His landscape paintings were shown in the Institution for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Scotland, and he was among the artists dissatisfied with the Institution who established a separate Scottish Academy in 1829, with the assistance of his close friend Henry Cockburn. A year later Hill took on unpaid secretarial duties. He sought commissions in book illustration, with four sketches being used to illustrate The Glasgow and Garnkirk Railway Prospectus in 1832, and went on to provide illustrations for editions of Walter Scott and Robert Burns. In 1836, the Royal Scottish Academy began to pay him a salary as secretary, and with this security he married his fiance Ann Macdonald in the following year, but she was not strong and after the birth of their daughter she became an invalid. He continued to produce illustrations and to paint landscapes on commission.

Clergymen who had been at the Assembly, photographed at Dumbarton Presbytery in 1845, as the basis for their portraits in the top left row of the painting. Clergymen who had been at the Assembly, photographed at Dumbarton Presbytery in 1845, as the basis for their portraits in the top left row of the painting.

Hill was present at the Disruption Assembly in 1843, when over 450 ministers walked out of the Church of Scotland assembly and down to another assembly hall to found the Free Church of Scotland. He decided to record the dramatic scene with the encouragement of his friend Lord Cockburn and another spectator, the physicist Sir David Brewster who suggested using 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. Hill and Adamson took a series of photographs of those who had been present and of the setting. The 5 foot x 11 foot 4 inches (1.53m x 3.45m) painting was eventually completed in 1866.

Their collaboration, with Hill providing skill in composition and lighting, and Adamson considerable sensitivity and dexterity in handling the camera, proved extremely successful, and they soon broadened their subject matter. Adamson's studio, "Rock House", on the Calton Hill in Edinburgh became the centre of their photographic experiments. Using the Calotype process, they produced a wide range of portraits depicting well-known Scottish luminaries of the time, including Hugh Miller, both in the studio and in outdoors settings, often amongst the elaborate tombs in Greyfriars Kirkyard.

They photographed local and Fife landscapes and urban scenes, including images of the Scott Monument under construction in Edinburgh. As well as the great and the good, they photographed ordinary working folk, particularly the fishermen of Newhaven, and the fishwives who carried the fish in creels the 3 miles (5 km) uphill to the city of Edinburgh to sell them round the doors, with their cry of "Caller herrin" (fresh herring). They 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 untimely death of Adamson in 1848. The calotypes faded under sunlight, so had to be kept in albums, and though Hill continued the studio for some months, he became less active and abandoned the studio, though he continued to sell prints of the photographs and to use them as an aid for composing paintings. In 1862, he remarried, to the sculptress Amelia Robertson Paton, some twenty years his junior, and around that time took up photography again, but the results were more static and less successful than his collaboration with Adamson. He was badly affected by the death of his daughter and his work slowed. In 1866, he finished the "Disruption" picture which received wide acclaim, though many of the participants had died by then. The photographer F.C. Annan produced fine reduced facsimiles of the painting for sale throughout the Free Church, and a group of subscribers raised 1,200 to purchase the painting for the church. In 1869, illness forced him to give up his post as secretary to the R.S.A., and he died in May 1870.

Hill is buried in Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh - one of the finest Victorian cemeteries in Scotland. He is portrayed in a bust sculpted by his second wife, Amelia, who lies buried alongside him.



Hill & Adamson


Composite photographs of Hill (left) and Adamson. Both circa 1845.

In 1843, painter David Octavius Hill joined engineer Robert Adamson to form Scotland's first photographic studio. During their brief partnership that ended with Adamson's untimely death, Hill & Adamson produced "the first substantial body of self-consciously artistic work using the newly invented medium of photography." Watercolorist John Harden, on first seeing Hill & Adamson's calotypes in November 1843 wrote, "The pictures produced are as Rembrandt's but improved, so like his style & the oldest & finest masters that doubtless a great progress in Portrait painting & effect must be the consequence.

Hill was present at the Disruption Assembly in 1843, when over 450 ministers walked out of the Church of Scotland assembly and down to another assembly hall to found the Free Church of Scotland. He decided to record the dramatic scene with the encouragement of his friend Lord Cockburn and another spectator, the physicist Sir David Brewster who suggested using 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. Hill & Adamson took a series of photographs of those who had been present and of the setting.

Their collaboration, with Hill providing skill in composition and lighting, and Adamson considerable sensitivity and dexterity in handling the camera, proved extremely successful, and they soon broadened their subject matter. Adamson's studio, "Rock House", on the Calton Hill in Edinburgh became the centre of their photographic experiments. Using the Calotype process, they produced a wide range of portraits depicting well-known Scottish luminaries of the time, including Hugh Miller, both in the studio and in outdoors settings, often amongst the elaborate tombs in Greyfriars Kirkyard.

They photographed local and Fife landscapes and urban scenes, including images of the Scott Monument under construction in Edinburgh. As well as the great and the good, they photographed ordinary working folk, particularly the fishermen of Newhaven, and the fishwives who carried the fish in creels the 3 miles (5 km) uphill to the city of Edinburgh to sell them round the doors, with their cry of "Caller herrin" (fresh herring). They 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 untimely death of Adamson in 1848. The calotypes faded under sunlight, so had to be kept in albums, and though Hill continued the studio for some months, he became less active and abandoned the studio, though he continued to sell prints of the photographs and to use them as an aid for composing paintings. en.wikipedia


John Adamson (1810-1870)



DAVID OCTAVIUS HILL, R.S.A.

1802 - 1870

Few men have done so much to advance art in their native country as this well-known landscape-painter. "During the checkered and sometimes stormy period while our Academy, now so happily and firmly established among us, was contending for existence, and afterwards for position and independence, he held the prominent position of secretary. His zeal amounted to enthusiasm for the cause of the Academy and of Scottish art, and was never wanting. He never wavered under any amount of difficulty or discouragement; and along with such allies as Sir William Allan, (Sir) George Harvey, now the president, and Mr Thomas Hamilton, the architect of the High School, who was called the Achilles of the Academy, Mr Hill fought the battles of the Academy with a singleness of purpose, and a devotion of time and talent, which in effect impaired his efforts towards attaining the first-rate place in art otherwise within reach of his fertile and felicitous genius."

In such terms his services in the cause of advancing the position of art in Scotland were recognised by the public press on the day afler his death. Apart firom this, he led a quiet and unevent- ful life in his home at Calton Hill, the familiar resort for many years of some of the best and most cultured people in Edinburgh. Courant, 18th May 1870.

His father was a bookseller in Perth, where the artist's boyish efforts in art induced his parents to send him to Edinburgh to study at the Trustees' Academy under Andrew Wilson, and where he made rapid progress. His earliest productions were a series of views in Perthshire lithographed by himself, and his first appearance on the walls of an exhibition was in 1823, when he exhibited some landscapes. Subsequently to this he attempted figiure-painting, when he produced several domestic pictures, among which were a "Scotch Wedding" and a scene from the "Gentle Shepherd," but soon after returned to pursue the path on which he first entered, and his name is now exclusively connected with pictures of Scottish scenery, more especially the localities referred to in the works of Robert Bums, or places with which the poet was associated. For about forty years he was secretary to the Academy, and in 1869 resigned the position on account of ill health, when, in recognition of his services, the members resolved to continue his salary for life, at the same time commissioning his portrait from Mr. Herdman for their library. During all these years he was a regular contributor to the Academy's exhibitions, the most prominent among his pictures being a little "Lonely Shore," and the "Valley of the Nith,' in 1850; "Fotheringay Castle" and a "Sunset on a Highland Shore with the Departure of an Emigrant Ship," in 1852; "Ruins of Dunfermline Palace," in 1854; "Dunsinane," in 1855; well-known large "Windsor Castle." From the sparkling nature of their effects, his works were remarkably well adapted for the purpose of engraving, and his name has been spread far and wide by the sixty illustrations to the Land of Bums, published by the Messrs. Blackie, a work of very great merit. The originals of these, painted in oil, were exhibited in Edinburgh in 1851-1852, and it was the intention of the painter and publishers to present them towards the formation of a Bums gallery near the poet's birthplace; but it was not carried out, on account of funds for the necessary building not being forthcoming. He was the first to suggest the idea of the Association for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Scotland, which was heartily taken up by his friends John Steell, R.S.A., and Sherifif Henry Glassford Bell, who devised its constitution in the fonn of an Art Union. The las -mentioned gentleman was the first to make the scheme publicly known, which thus became the parent of the numerous progeny since appearing in Scotland. The late Thomas Hill, who was the artist's brother, was a print-seller in Edinburgh, and it was owing to the efforts of David that he was induced to extend and develop his business by publishing a laige number of beautiful and costly engravings. Among other pursuits which he followed in addition to his professional labours, he practised the recent invention of photography, and in conjunction with his fziend Mr R. Adamson, assisted in developing the Talbotype process, in which he produced many artistic results, among which were portraits of some of his brother artists, such as Sir William Allan, and Henning the Elgin-frieze restorer -- both remarkable for their picturesque treatment and character. These were published in 1844. In 1866, he completed his large and laborious picture of the "Signing the Deed of Demission and Act of Separation," which was suggested by and commemorative of the "Disruption in the Church of Scotland," by which nearly 500 clergymen, on a point of principle, voluntarily resigned their manses and livings as ministers of the Established Kirk in 1843. The picture includes 470 portraits, and represents the first meeting of the Free Church in Tanfield: it is now in the Hall of the Free Church in Edinburgh. Such a work afforded no scope for artistic treatment, and Sam Bough used during its progress to indulge in his practical joking, by making it known privately to everybody, that he had composed a poetical description of the picture, to be published simultaneously with its exhibition. Regarding the value of this picture, Sir George Harvey set it down at 3000 guineas. As considerable dissent from this was expressed, Sir George's letter, addressed to Mr. John Miller of Millfield as representing the committee, was made public, in which he thus explains himself: ''The work has been in hand rather more than twenty-one years; but say ten of these have been occupied upon it, which is, I consider, a moderate estimate, and in the circumstances the price, exclusive of exhibition and copyright, which Mr. Hill reserves, could not possibly be less than 3000 guineas. This sum, supposing it had been paid by instalments during the progress of the work, would have been 300 guineas a year, less expenses -- surely a moderate return for the exercise of the talents of so gifted a person as Mr. Hill during the very best period of his life."

He was in 1840 appointed by the Government one of the Commissioners of the Board of Manufactures in Scotland, which has the control of the School of Art and the National Gallery, and died on the 17th of May 1870.

There is no Scottish artist so many of whose works have been engraved. The greater number of them were painted with this object in view, and consequently are less valuable as paintings than as subjects for interpretation by the engraver. In addition to his numerous book illustrations, his View of Edinburgh from the Castle, and his Windsor Castle, both engraved on a large scale, are familiar to alL

In personal appearance he was remarkable for his striking, classical, and manly features, perpetuated by Mr. Herdman's portrait, and the marble bust executed by his talented and fondly attached wife, the sister of Sir J. Noel Paton. "As a friend and companion, he will ever be remembered by those who knew him as one possessed of admirable talents for promoting the happiness of the society in which he moved, combining kindness, wit, and humour, with an innate modesty which never allowed him to say anything hard or uncharitable of any one." Art Journal, [Contemporary obituary notice].

Art in Scotland: Its Origin and Progress, By Robert Brydall, Master of the St. George's Art School of Glasgow, William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh and London, 1889 [MDCCCLXXXIX]


View artist's work: David Octavius Hill (1802-1870)

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