Skip to content
From x-rays to pagodas—Scottish photography isn’t (exclusively) tartan or covered in heather.

If proof were needed that Scottish photography isn’t confined to stereotypically ‘Scottish’ subjects, you need go no further than Beyond the Border: New Contemporary Photography from Scotland. The exhibition, which opened recently at our neighbours Impressions Gallery, 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 2014.

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 our collection, and will include some of our most striking and most intriguing photographs.

Consider The Island Pagoda, by John Thomson (1837–1921). In what is 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, Science Museum Group collection

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, Science Museum Group collection

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. He was an outstanding photographic pioneer, and 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 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, Science Museum Group collection

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

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, Science Museum Group collection
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, Science Museum Group collection

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, Science Museum Group collection

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, Science Museum Group collection

So, there you have it—just a few atypical Scottish photographs from our 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 2014.

See you there!

4 comments on “What do Scottish photographs look like? Part 2

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *