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Issue 77 - Illustrating Scotland

Scotland Magazine Issue 77
October 2014

 

This article is 3 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Illustrating Scotland

John Hannavy looks back to the birth of photographically illustrated guidebooks

Viewed with today’s more sophisticated eyes, it is easy to be critical of the lack of detail in many early engravings. But in several cases, the illustrations in early travelogues have assumed an historical significance way beyond what their creators could ever have imagined, as the monuments they illustrate no longer exist. Duntulm Castle at the northern end of the Isle of Skye is such an example. When illustrators drew it in the late 18th century, it was still largely intact. When I first photographed it two hundred years later, only a fragment remained, and even that has largely now gone.

However remarkable the engravings of Scotland’s abbeys and castles – from Slezer to Billings and beyond – might have seemed in their day, they would in time be eclipsed by the camera. That would not happen immediately, however, as there was initially no practical or commercially viable means of printing photographs in books. Engravings would remain the simplest means of printing illustrations until the end of the century.

The first practical photographic processes appeared around 1840 – the direct positive daguerreotype in France in 1839 and the calotype paper negative in Britain in 1841.

The calotype was invented by Wiltshire polymath William Henry Fox Talbot who, recognising the potential of the medium he had created and patented, was responsible for the first publication containing photographic illustrations – The Pencil of Nature, published in parts between 1844 and 1846 – and for the publication of the first photograph of a Scottish castle in Sun Pictures in Scotland in 1845. The subject was Doune Castle, which would, five years later, be seen in Robert Billings’ beautiful engravings, and in countless photographs thereafter.

Talbot’s Sun Pictures in Scotland was conceived to popularise and celebrate Sir Walter Scott’s Scotland – Scott was already a significant tourist draw – and Doune Castle had featured in Scott’s first novel, Waverley, in 1814.

Sun Pictures in Scotland was not a book as we think of guidebooks today – it was a portfolio of mounted photographs, pre-sold on a subscription basis, but it established an interest which has grown consistently over the past hundred and seventy years.

Just a year later, in 1846, Thomas Cook organised his first package tour to Scotland – again using growing public fascination with the life and work of Scott as a unifying theme – and over the following two decades, interest in visiting Scotland grew enormously.

By the early 1860s, the touring public, keen to take home mementoes of their experiences, increasingly sought out places where they could buy photographs, immediately seen by the Victorians as being the absolute truth – ‘the camera cannot lie’ had very quickly become a commonly accepted (although hugely inaccurate) maxim – with a photograph being perceived as more accurate and authentic than engravings could ever be. In truth, the photograph was little more accurate than Billings’ engravings, and in many cases less informative. In creating his engravings, Billings had been able to distort lighting effects, lightening shadows to reveal detail, whereas early photography could not.

Early photographic processes were sensitive only to blue light, so reddish and yellowish stonework appeared darker than it appeared to the human eye, and there was little opportunity to reveal and include dramatic skies. Long exposures meant that moving clouds disappeared into an even tone, and if there was even a slight breeze, trees were equally ill-defined.

An additional hurdle was the nature of the photographic process itself – it was slow, cumbersome, and complicated. In the 1850s, a photographer working on location had to take everything with him – camera, tripod, lenses, obviously, but also all the chemicals needed to coat his own glass plates with the light-sensitive chemistry, and all the developing chemicals as well. In order to do that, he also needed to transport a portable darkroom. It was such a slow process, that six or eight photographs in a day was considered good going.

A number of photographers, however, rose to the challenge of making photographic views of the major monuments on the tourist trail, amongst them Archibald Burns of Edinburgh, Thomas Annan of Glasgow, James Valentine of Dundee and George Washington Wilson of Aberdeen, together with Francis Frith of Reigate. They sought to cover the length and breadth of Scotland – creating competing series of views which were sold in gift shops and sales kiosks at all the major tourist sites – with several like Wilson, even venturing by boat to remote islands such as Staffa with all their paraphernalia.

Initially, unmounted prints could be purchased from those kiosks, and by the mid-1860s, lavishly bound volumes of views were also available throughout tourist Scotland, all of them containing an eclectic mixture of views of lochs, mountains, towns and cities, and the overgrown ruins of castles and abbeys.

Mechanical reproduction of images was still years in the future, so these were real photographs individually pasted on to the pages.

The production of such albums was a very labour-intensive activity, so they were expensive items, available only to the select few who could afford them. For the majority of visitors to Scotland’s castles, the growing number of guidebooks illustrated with engravings or simple woodcuts might, however, be augmented by a single photograph.

Many of the more popular subjects were also available as glass slides, hand-tinted for added realism, which were used in the magic lantern to illustrate educational – and entertaining – lectures to groups in schools and village halls. The same negative could be used to print all three formats – one half of a stereo pair for the lantern slide, and a trimmed-down version for the carte-de-visite.

By the 1870s, the major photographic studios offered photographs for sale of just about every location along the tourist trail, and ventured further and further afield into the more remote parts of the country search of new subject matter.

George Washington Wilson advertised in the late 1860s that his cartes-de-visite, stereo cards and ‘souvenirs and gift books’ were ‘sold by all the leading booksellers, and at the principal Railway book stalls in Scotland.’ His ‘gift books’ ranged in price from twelve shillings (60p) to ten guineas (£10.50), at a time when the average wage in Britain was around fourteen shillings (70p) per week. Single prints could be purchased for as little as sixpence (2.5p).

However, as the concept of charging visitors entrance fees to explore ruins had not yet been developed, buying a photographic print may have been the tourist’s only additional expense.

By the closing years of the 19th century, with photography established as the norm rather than the exception when it came to collecting visual mementoes of visits, print prices had dropped considerably, and the image-buying public was clamouring for colour.

The Photochrom Company of Zurich started to advertise what it called ‘real colour photographs’ around 1896 – a description which would not be permitted today. Their ‘real colour’ prints were in fact black and white photographs, printed using a variant on the permanent ‘carbon’ process, overprinted with several colour washes using lithography.

By the late 1890s, their extensive catalogue of prints covered most of western Europe, and included over two hundred different views of Scotland. At their very best they did indeed look like real colour photographs, and they enjoyed considerable popularity – but just for a few years.

The Photochrom print was completely eclipsed in the early 20th century, however, when picture postcards – many of them beautifully tinted using a very similar process – became available at a fraction of the price of their larger predecessors, and could be used to send messages as well.

And by the end of the 19th century, the photographic process had improved in sensitivity to the extent that images were now populated with people – nowhere more so than the country’s major tourist attractions. Major cathedrals and castles now had guides on hand to give visitor an informed account of their history, although the public was still free to enjoy the more remote ruins at their own pace.

Several Acts of Parliament – starting with the Ancient Monuments Protection Act in 1882 – had given legal status to the protection of historic sites, the most important being the Ancient Monuments Consolidation and Amendment Act of 1913.

The 1931 Ancient Monuments Act established the principles of state ownership and protection as we know them today. However, that also marked the end of the wild romantic ruin, as the overseeing government agencies cleaned up – some would say sanitised – the sites, removing the ivy from columns and walls, and replacing the wildness of the immediate environment with tidy lawns and ‘keep off’ signs.

By then, of course, photography had long been the universally accepted medium for illustrating such sites. Nostalgia – something we are all readily prone to – has, over the years, renewed interest in the early illustrations of abbeys, castle and priories, and raised the prices collectors are willing to pay for such beautiful volumes as Billings’ four volumes of The Baronial and Ecclesiastical Architecture of Scotland. My own first edition set of his books is highly treasured.