David Octavius Hill & Robert Adamson

Marion Finlay, Mrs Margaret (Dryburgh) Lyall and Mrs Grace (Finlay) Ramsay. Called 'The Letter' [Newhaven 36] (1843 - 1847)

About this artwork

‘The Letter’ is one of about 120 calotypes by Hill and Adamson of the fishing port of Newhaven, to the north of Edinburgh. Carefully arranged and all taken out of doors, these photographs explore the life, work and social structure of this small but independent community. This particular one shows three fishwives examining a letter, a familiar theme in art that was often used by seventeenth-century Dutch painters. The letter effectively focuses the attention of the women, whilst leaving us to speculate about its content and sender. At the time, the new penny post enabled the literate working classes to communicate properly across distance for the first time, a matter of great importance to the fishwives whose men often faced dangerous situations at sea.

David Octavius Hill

Robert Adamson

David Octavius Hill

A painter and a lithographer by training, David Octavius Hill is best remembered for the beauty of the calotypes he and Robert Adamson produced together. Hill was a sociable and kind-hearted man who did much to support the arts in Scotland and between 1830 and 1836 he was the unpaid Secretary of the newly established Royal Scottish Academy. After Adamson's death, Hill's attempt to start a new partnership with the photographer Alexander MacGlashan around 1860 failed. Hill is to this day revered as one of the first in the trade who transformed photography into an art form.

Robert Adamson

Robert Adamson was one of the first professional photographers, setting up in business in Edinburgh in March 1843. He had aspired to be an engineer but his health was too poor. His brother, John, who was involved in the early experiments with photography in St Andrews, taught him the calotype process. Shortly after opening his studio on Calton Hill, Robert met the painter David Octavius Hill. They worked together for a few weeks on studies for a grand painting of the Free Church of Scotland before entering into partnership to explore the possibilities of photography. Despite Adamson's early death, the two produced some of the most impressive works taken in the medium and greatly influenced later practice in the art.