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What do Scottish photographs look like? Part 2

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If proof were needed that Scottish photography isn’t exclusively tartan or covered in heather you need go no further than ‘Beyond the Border: New Contemporary Photography from Scotland’ which opened recently at Impressions Gallery, our near neighbours, and showcases the work of the collective known as Document Scotland.

If you’d like to know more about the history and development of Scottish photography feel free to join me for a lunchtime talk at Impressions Gallery on Thursday 17 July.

As a taster for the talk I can tell you that there will be at least one nineteenth century photograph of a kilted man whose sporran goes well beyond what would be considered decent in the present day and age – no presentation on the history of Scottish photography would be complete without one. But I’m happy to say that Scottish photography has never been defined by the presence of tartan, sporrans, heather or highland cattle. Some of these things feature to some degree but they don’t define Scottish photography.

All the images in the talk will be from the National Photography Collection which is held here at the National Media Museum, and will include some of the most striking as well as the most intriguing photographs from the Collection.

Consider The Island Pagoda, by John Thomson (1837-1921). Truly one of the most beautiful photographs in the Collection, Thomson has made the pagoda look as if it is floating on the river.


John Thomson (1837-1921)
The Island Pagoda, c. 1870
Carbon print from ‘Foo Chow and the River Min’, 1873
National Media Museum


More than just a well travelled Scot, Thomson was born in Edinburgh and became one of the most significant photographer explorers of the nineteenth century. In late 1870 and early 1871 he made a 160 mile photographic expedition of the river Min in China.


Jon Thomson

John Thomson (1837-1921)
Field Women, c. 1870
Carbon print from ‘Foo Chow and the River Min’, 1873
National Media Museum


As well as photographing foreign landscapes and architecture, Thomson’s sympathetic portraits were often published alongside text which revealed a genuine interest in places, people and their culture. An outstanding photographic pioneer, his work laid the foundations of what would later come to be called documentary photography.

If Thomson is a Scottish photographer who travelled the world with his camera, there is another Scottish photographer whose work could not be more different. Lady Clementina Hawarden (1822-1865) is renowned for the quietly intense photographic portraits of her family and circle of close friends taken in her palatial London home. The single largest collection of her work is held at the V&A Museum in London and I wonder if for these reasons she is often considered quintessentially English. However, Lady Hawarden was born into landed gentry and grew up on the family estate in Cumbernauld, in central Scotland.


Clementina Hawarden (1822-1865)
Isabella Grace Maude Hawarden, c. 1862
Albumen print
National Media Museum


Some of the most intriguing photographs in the Collection to be created by a Scot were not by a photographer, but by the electrical engineer Alan Archibald Campbell-Swinton (1863-1930). Swinton is now considered a genius and used photography to record aspects of his scientific work. In January 1896 he made and published this alluring X-Ray photograph of a human hand only one month after Wilhelm Röntgen (1845-1923) announced his discovery of X-Rays in 1895.

X Ray Hand

Alan Archibald Campbell-Swinton (1863-1930)
Print from the first X-Ray negative of the human hand made in England on January 13th 1896
The Royal Photographic Society Collection at the National Media Museum


Four years earlier Campbell-Swinton used photography to record the strange and delicate patterns created by electricity when it comes into direct contact with photographic paper.



Alan Archibald Campbell-Swinton (1863-1930)
Negative Discharge, 1892
National Media Museum


Alan Archibald Campbell-Swinton (1863-1930) Positive Discharge, 1892 (right) Negative Discharge, 1892 (left) National Media Museum

Alan Archibald Campbell-Swinton (1863-1930)
Positive Discharge, 1892
National Media Museum


I’ve already admitted that until recently I was guilty of taking the notion of Scottish photography for granted. As proof of this I offer you the work of Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900) whom I had always assumed was Scottish because he had held the grand title of Astronomer Royal for Scotland. It was only when a colleague raised her eyebrow when I told her Smyth was to be included in my presentation that I thought I might be wrong. “You’re claiming him as Scottish, are you?” was her retort. We checked, and she was right. He wasn’t Scottish by birth. In my defence she hadn’t realised Smyth had held the title of Astronomer Royal for Scotland between 1846 and 1888. He was also made an ‘Honorary Member of the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland’ in 1859. How Scottish can you get? In truth he was born in Naples to English parents, and is even buried in Ripon, in Yorkshire, fittingly, under a pyramid. But despite this he has strong associations with Scotland and for that reason I beg your indulgence and include him in the frame.



Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900)
The Sphinx and Great Pyramid of Giza, 1865
Albumen print
National Media Museum


One thing is certain about Piazzi Smyth – he was unique and had many strange ideas which he relied upon photography to illustrate. For example, he believed that the British Imperial Inch was a divine measurement derived from the Egyptian Pyramid Inch, which had been handed directly to the Egyptians by God. To prove his theory he set about measuring the Great Pyramid and recorded his efforts in photographs. The scale of the task can be discerned if you peer at the small human figure holding a ruler against a portion of the Great Pyramid in the bottom right corner of the photograph below.

Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900) Entrance to the Great Pyramid of Giza, 1865 Albumen print National Media Museum

Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900)
Entrance to the Great Pyramid of Giza, 1865
Albumen print
National Media Museum


So, there you have it – just a few atypical Scottish photographs from the National Photography Collection. Not a sporran or a stitch of tartan in sight. If you’d like to see more classic examples of Scottish photography join me at Impressions Gallery, at 12.30 on 17  July.

See you there!

Written by Brian Liddy

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  1. jesús joglar

    A very informative and interesting post!

    1. Brian Liddy

      Thank you, Jesús. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  2. Malcolm Baird

    Good pictures. About 10 years ago there was a project for a Scottish Photography Museum to be set up in Edinburgh; like so many of these things, it came to nought.

    In the field of television history, Alan Campbell Swinton is well remembered for his article in 1908 anticipating electronic television. But unlike his fellow-scot John Logie Biard, he never did any experiments. In 1924 he said that electronic TV would be so expensive to develop that it would hardly be worthwhile!

    Campbell Swinton is an ancestor of the actress Tlda Swinton.

  3. Brian Liddy

    Hello Mr Baird. Yes, it was a shame that the plan for a national museum devoted to Scottish photography never happened, but maybe one day.

    Your comment about Cambell Swinton’s prediction that electronic TV would be too expensive to ever become a reality reminds me of my favourite jokes from ‘The Simpsons’. Professor Frink, the bespectacled scientist, was talking to a group of visiting shoolchildren about computers. He told them that in his opinion computers of the future would continue to grow bigger and bigger and become so expensive that only the world’s wealthiest people would be able to afford them! You could say that photography now suffers from being so very quick, simple, cheap and easy to share that it is now taken for granted, but perhaps such democracy of the photographic medium is where its power lies.

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