British photographic history

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George Washington Wilson : Destination St. Kilda

George Washington Wilson (1823-93), was a pioneering Scottish photographer born in the North East of Scotland. He went to Edinburgh and then London in the 1840s to train as a portrait miniaturist. He became established in Aberdeen in the 1850s as an ‘artist and photographer’, and quickly made a name for himself as one of Scotland's premier photographers among the middle classes and landed gentry. He soon moved into landscape photography and, thanks to the proximity of Balmoral, developed a royal connection (Queen Victoria and Prince Albert) which remained throughout his career.

With his photographer’s tent, his glass plates and chemicals and Dallmeyer camera, he made numerous forays into the scenic heart of the Scottish highlands and islands, as well as many other sites on the UK mainland (as far south as the English Channel) and even parts of Northern Ireland. Throughout, Wilson demonstrated technical and commercial acumen, and claimed to have sold over half a million pictures by 1864. At the time of his death in 1893, the company he founded employed 40 staff and had become the largest and best known photographic and printing firm in the world.

Over 40,000 of Wilson's photographic plates still exist today, largely due to the meticulous washing and chemical treatments he insisted on. Aberdeen University is in possession of some 38,000 of these, which were donated by an Aberdeen photographer, the late Archibald J.B. Strachan, in 1958; details of which can be found here.

A new book entitled "Destination St. Kilda From Oban To Skye And The Outer Hebrides" (ISBN-10: 1907443037) by Mark Butterworth has just been published today. It documents the travel through the Western Isles to St Kilda in 1885 by George Washington Wilson and Norman Macleod. They took many photographs along the way and their collection of pictures, ‘From Oban to Skye and the Outer Hebrides’ was shown in magic lantern lectures throughout Scotland. In 2004 Mark Butterworth purchased the set, complete with the original lecture notes.

The images and text in this book come from this double set of lantern slides which was produced in the late 1880's. Individually hand coloured onto the glass plates, these images capture the Western Isles and their way of life in evocative details. Published here for the first time as a complete set, many of the images, particularly of St Kilda and its inhabitants are iconic, well known among enthusiasts of Western Isles history. However, these contemporary hand coloured slides are rarely seen and present a new light on life in the Western Isles, produced fifty years before colour photography came to Scotland.

Photo: Queen Victoria on 'Fyvie' with John Brown at Balmoral, by George Washington Wilson, 1863; medium: carte de visite, size: 9.20 x 6.10 cm; from the collection of the National Galleries of Scotland

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Comment by Edward McCann on June 9, 2017 at 16:31

Hello Mr Wong -- I'm lecturing on GWW and exhibiting some of his work here at the Atwater Library in Montreal, Canada on June 22, "The Artistic Mr Wilson."

Thanks to this post of yours, I learned of this book. It might come today. Even better, some years ago, I acquired a large format print of the Isle of Mull. So beautiful.  Edward   p s Would you accept my 'friendship'? , although I do not know what button to push to request that...


Comment by Michael Wong on June 14, 2010 at 21:44
For those BPH bloggers interested in the work of George Washington Wilson, there is an opportunity to view some of his prints in a small exhibition that is accompanying the "Roger Fenton and Julia Margaret Cameron - Early British Photographs from the Royal Collection" at the Aberdeen Art Gallery from June 12, 2010 to August 21, 2010. Details can be found here.

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