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2. Paintings

In the early stages of photography, when the new technique was still widely viewed as an aid to art and science, rather than as capable of producing art of its own, the use of the camera to provide reproductions of paintings, as well as to help the contemporary painter by bringing his work to the attention of a new art purchasing public, was both common and well-regarded. Special medals were awarded at international exhibitions for outstanding work in the photographic reproduction of paintings and some photographers who specialized in that branch of photography, such as the now poorly remembered Robert Jefferson Bingham, enjoyed international renown. When it first appeared in 1858, Bingham’s Oeuvre de Paul Delaroche was widely hailed as a “monumental” achievement.19 “Producing images of works of art,” one historian of photography has observed, “had struck W.H.F. Talbot as one of the most valuable applications of photography and had been pursued with enthusiasm by both professionals and amateurs from the outset.”20 In his first report, in 1854, J.C. Robinson, the curator of the new South Kensington Museum (founded in 1852, it was the ancestor of the Victoria and Albert Museum) declared that “the photographic art is calculated to be of extraordinary utility in extending the influence of collections such as this. Perhaps the most valuable characteristic of this extraordinary process being the perfect accuracy with which objects of art can be copied, the absolute identity in every point of detail thus received being just that which is literally unobtainable by the draughtsman, whose individuality or personal mannerism is always more or less impressed upon his work.”21 In the same vein, the art critic Théophile Thoré-Bürger (1807-1869) declared in the Preface to an album of 1862 featuring forty photographic illustrations by the Belgian photographer Edmond Fierlants of paintings in the Antwerp Museum that

when an engraving is weak, it is without value as a translation [of a painting]. If it is good, instead of reminding us of the original, it makes us admire the talent of the engraver-translator. [. . .] Every engraving is inevitably an interpretation and even, to some degree, a new creation. In order to obtain a faithful image of a painting we would have to have recourse to a mirror. That is where photography comes in! [. . .] Photographic reproduction of old masters is certainly by no means easy, and few photographers have succeeded at it so far. But when a good print is achieved, no engraving can match it or provide as thorough an impression of the model.22

The new public museums, from the start, commissioned and collected photographs of works of art. Charles Marville, for instance, the mid-nineteenth-century French photographer known chiefly today for his Paris street scenes, was regularly commissioned by the French government to photograph paintings and other works of art in the Louvre and at other locations. Roger Fenton was employed by the British Museum in 1854 to photograph objects in its collection. And in far-off Melbourne, Australia, where there were as yet few original works of art, the Trustees of the Public Library, Museum and National Gallery of Victoria arranged for the photographing of works of art in European private and public collections.23

Annan enjoyed a high reputation as a photographer of paintings. In fact, many considered that was where his main strength lay. “The excellence of his work, more especially in the reproduction of paintings [obtained] for him wide and most honourable distinction,” according to his obituary notice in the British Journal of Photography in 1887. “Cultured and with great natural taste for art, he loved the society of artists, and was never so happy as when endeavouring to faithfully translate some masterpiece into monochrome through the medium of his camera.”24

In 1862, not long after opening his studio, he received a commission from the Glasgow Art Union to photograph three paintings by J.E. Millais, the well-known portraitist James Sant, and the Scottish artist Noel Paton. These were to take the place of the engravings normally distributed at the Art Union’s annual show to members who had paid their dues of one guinea.25 On seeing Annan’s work, Millais reportedly declared that he “did not think such fine photographs could be taken from pictures,” while Paton acknowledged that “assuredly a photograph may be so managed as to convey with a fidelity attained by but few engravings, the more subtle, valuable, and least easily reproduced qualities of a work of art.”26 The policy adopted by the Art Union was so successful that it was taken up again the following year when the Union commissioned five drawings by Paton on an abolitionist theme and then employed Annan to photograph them with the intention of having the photographs serve as its annual prize to members (Figs. 2:1-2).

Naturally, the new policy was warmly endorsed by the British Journal of Photography, which laid out its advantages in a front page editorial on Annan’s photographs in the issue of 2 November 1863:

The Directors of the Glasgow Art Union have made arrangements for distributing amongst the subscribers a series of photographic reproductions of five original drawings, executed expressly for the purpose by Mr. J. Noel Paton R.S.A. [Royal Scottish Academy], entitled Bond and Free. As this is the second year in which the usual presentation engraving has been superseded by photographic reproductions, we presume that the experiment made last year has proved successful. [. . .] The advantages appear to us so palpably in favour of such a proceeding that we are only surprised it had not been earlier attempted. Amongst the advantages we may enumerate a few. In the first place, the artist’s work is brought, as it were, face to face with his public, without the intervention of any interpretation made by another hand; because the photograph, if faithfully executed, is an attested facsimile—touch for touch and shade for shade—of the original work, and so far both artists and public are gainers. Secondly, as the cost of engraving a plate is very great, unless the number of subscribers be in proportion, it could not be well executed, and moreover the numerous impressions produced (supposing them all to be of equal intrinsic value) makes them so common that the value of each one suffers depreciation. Now both of these objections are obviated by enlisting photography as the reproduction agent; for, if the number of subscribers were to be very large, there would be no necessity for distributing a copy of the same work to all, though there would be no difficulty of so doing if thought desirable, and indeed a choice could be offered with great convenience. Moreover, the offer of a choice would most likely conduce to an increase in the number of subscribers.

The article concluded on praise for Annan and a brief description of the interesting technique employed by the photographer in what was clearly a close collaboration with the artist:

In the present instance, as in the previous one, the work of reproduction has been placed in the able hands of Mr. Thomas Annan, of Glasgow; and it is therefore almost superfluous for us to add that it has been most thoroughly and conscientiously performed. The course of operation has been, we are informed, as follows:—The original sketches were made in sepia, by Mr. Noel Paton. From these photographic copies were taken by Mr. Annan, enlarged to double the original size. These enlarged copies were then touched and finished by Mr. Paton; and from them, negatives reduced to the size of the original drawings were produced by Mr. Annan, from which the proofs for circulation have been printed. The size of each picture is about 9 inches by 7 inches.27

The Glasgow Art Union photographs were exhibited in Edinburgh and at the Photographic Society’s 1863 show in London. It is quite likely that they were seen by David Octavius Hill, who had unsuccessfully endeavored to have photographs replace the engravings similarly distributed to the annual dues-paying members of the Edinburgh-based Association for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Scotland, and that Hill was so favorably impressed by them, as well as by other photographs of paintings by Annan, that he decided to approach the latter about undertaking what was to be one of the most difficult photographic commissions of Annan’s career.

In 1843, Hill had resolved to commemorate the first General Assembly of the new Free Church of Scotland, which had been constituted by dissidents from the established Church of Scotland, and with which he personally sympathized, in a large historical painting. In preparation for this work, he and Adamson took many photographs of individuals and groups that he planned to represent in it; indeed, Hill’s canvas is often considered the first work of art ever to have been painted with the help of photographic images, even if, ironically, the photographs are still admired while the painting, finally completed 22 years later, is not.28 It turned out to be a work rather uncharacteristic of Hill, whose landscape paintings sometimes seem to show the influence of Turner (Fig. 2:3)—a massive canvas eleven feet four inches long and well over four feet high, with an equally long title blazoned along the bottom in letters over an inch high: “The First General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland. Signing the Act of Separation and Deed of Demission at Tanfield, Edinburgh. May 1843.”

Even though the original Deed of Demission had been signed by 155 ministers, Hill depicted 457 individuals who subsequently signed or were associated with the event, including even some—Thomas Annan among them—who had not been present, but who Hill thought should or could have been. While this inclusiveness was almost certainly intended to convey both the popular character of the establishment of the Free Church and its historical significance, it made for a singularly unwieldy number of figures crammed into a limited space, despite the unusual proportions of the canvas (Fig. 2:4).

Even paintings of very large groups of people—David’s “Tennis Court Oath” (1790) and “Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine” (1805-1807); Sir George Hayter’s “Trial of Queen Caroline in the House of Lords, 1820” (1823), with 188 figures, or his grand (roughly 18 x 11 feet) “House of Commons, 1833” (1833-1843) packed with 320 figures, including well-known politicians such as Gladstone, Melbourne, Robert Peel, and the Duke of Wellington; fellow-Scot David Scott’s large (6 x 9 feet) and busy “Queen Elizabeth Viewing the Performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Globe” (1840); or William Powell Frith’s (7 x 10 feet) “Marriage of H.R.H. the Prince of Wales with Princess Alexandra of Denmark” (1865)—had avoided such overcrowding and retained a greater sense of space and composition (Figs. 2:5-6).

However, this may well have been due not only to the even greater dimensions of most of those works but to the hierarchical arrangement of the figures in nearly all such large group paintings, whereas Hill obviously wanted to render visible the popular and democratic character of the Free Church movement. As a writer in the Greenock Daily Telegraph for 15 June 1867 noted:

Much did we fear that Mr. Hill would find his praiseworthy attempt a disappointment and failure. What with the old wooden shed and then the total absence of drapery and the want of colour [. . . ], we were inclined to compassionate his case; and while admiring his resolution, we found ourselves questioning his prudence and judgment. We confess, now we have looked upon the picture, our fears are groundless. It is more than a success, it is a triumph. A more remarkable work of the kind does not exist. Each head in the gathering is a portrait. The most obscure country brethren receive justice as ample as the most distinguished of leaders. [. . .] The artist whom we esteemed before for his beautiful reproductions of many choice landscapes of his native country, has now made good his title to a yet higher regard in proving himself so susceptible to the moral beauty of the most heroic event which has shed a lustre on Scotland in our days and generation.29

While Hill’s painting bears some resemblance to the large group photographs that had come into favor, such as George Washington Wilson’s 1857 composite photograph of Aberdeen worthies (Fig. 2:7), there is little doubt that the artist’s essential aim was to find an adequate representation of what to him was a major event in the history of the Scottish people, comparable to the Declaration of Independence in the history of America.

It is not impossible that he was aware of John Trumbull’s even more massive (12 x 18 feet) painting of that event, which had been commissioned in 1817 and which also represents, though in a far more traditional way, a fairly large number of individuals around a central signing ceremony (Fig. 2:8).

At the same time, it has been speculated, less generously, that one of Hill’s motives for including so many figures in his canvas might have been his desire to sell photographic copies of it and therefore to include in the work as many potential purchasers as possible.30 He certainly did his best to win subscriptions for the photographic reproductions by exhibiting the painting in many cities in England as well as Scotland.

Assured by another Edinburgh photographer, William Donaldson Clark, that he “could be in no better hands than [Annan’s] both for the beauty and permanence of [his] work,” Hill approached Annan, who, as it happens, was also a Free Kirker, in 1865 with a view to producing significant numbers of photographs of the painting in three different sizes: 24 x 9 inches, selling for a guinea and a half (about £160 or $245 in today’s currency, according to some calculations); 32 x 14 inches, selling for four guineas (about £360 or $555); and 48 x 21⅟₄ inches, selling for eight guineas (approximately £720 or $1,110). He and his wife personally brought the painting to Annan’s premises in Hamilton, staying overnight with the family. As one historian of photography has put it, “For Thomas Annan to photograph in 1866 a painting eleven feet long and to produce in the brand new process of carbon a permanent print of it four feet long, represented a dazzling technical feat.”31 At first Annan had thought of borrowing a camera devised by John Kibble, a local Glasgow inventor, engineer and photographer, but in the end he ordered a specially designed “large Photographic Camera of the latest and most perfect construction” from the famous London lens and camera maker John Henry Dallmeyer.32

Annan continued throughout his life to find occasion to exercise and develop his skill as a photographer of paintings. He habitually photographed paintings in the picture galleries of the many country houses whose owners hired him to make a visual record of their property.33 In 1867-68, the Arts Council of Glasgow once again called on Annan, asking him to photograph four paintings illustrating the story of Mary, Queen of Scots by the popular Scottish artist Robert Herdman (1829-1888) for distribution to the members of the Council in the form of an album containing a short poem on Mary by Henry Glassford Bell, a distinguished local lawyer and the author of a Life of Mary Queen of Scots (Edinburgh: Constable, 1828).34 Around the same time, Annan’s firm itself brought out an album of 43 photographs of the controversial stained glass windows that had been commissioned for Glasgow Cathedral from the Königliche Glasmalerei-Anstalt in Munich, to the dismay of many donors and politicians, as well as the local stained glass makers, who felt the windows should have been ordered from British artists instead (Painted Windows of Glasgow Cathedral, 1867).35

In 1868 the Town Council of Glasgow organised an exhibition of portraits “of deceased persons,” as the catalogue Preface put it, “who have been connected with Glasgow—with its University and other public institutions, with its Municipality, manufactures, and trades, as well as those who have been distinguished at home or abroad.” The exhibition was held not far from the Annan studio in a gallery in Sauchiehall Street, which had been known (and is again known now) as the McLellan Gallery after its founder, a local patron of the arts and town councillor, and which the city had acquired, after his death, to serve as a municipal gallery. Annan was charged with providing photographs for the handsome catalogue of paintings in the show, one of the relatively rare surviving copies of which is in Princeton University’s Graphic Arts Collection (Catalogue of Portraits on Loan in the New Galleries of Art, Corporation Buildings, Sauchiehall Street [Glasgow: William Munro, 1868]). It contains 120 small photographs, usually approximately 2½ by 3½ inches, of portraits by Raeburn, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Johan Zoffany and many less well-known artists, chiefly of the Scottish School.

A few years later, Annan’s reputation as a photographer of artworks led to his being commissioned to provide photographs of a number of paintings by the President of the Royal Scottish Academy, George Harvey, for a volume of Selections from the Works of Sir George Harvey P.R.S.A., described by A.L. Simpson (Edinburgh: Andrew Elliott, ca.1870); he was simultaneously engaged to photograph over thirty lively and sometimes witty drawings of Scottish advocates (i.e. members of the Faculty of Advocates, the Scottish bar) at the time of Sir Walter Scott by one of their number, Robert Scott Moncrieff, for a publication entitled The Scottish Bar Fifty Years Ago: Sketches of Scott and his Contemporaries with Biographical Notices by G[eorge] B[urnett] (Edinburgh: Andrew Eliot, 1871). In the words of the Preface to that work, “The task of photographing the portraits”—which their creator had kept discreetly private and which his family released to the public only after his death—“has been entrusted to Mr. Annan of Glasgow, who has reproduced them with wonderful success.” The following year saw the publication of Alexander Fraser’s Scottish Landscape. The Works of Horatio McCulloch R.S.A., photographed by T. Annan. With a Sketch of his Life by Alexander Fraser, R.S.A. (Edinburgh: Andrew Elliot, 1872). Annan provided photographs of twenty paintings by the then popular and highly regarded Scottish landscape painter for this book, along with a photographic portrait of the painter himself. As late as 1887, the last year of Annan’s life, 32 photographs of works by Sir Henry Raeburn, the great Scottish portrait painter of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, were used to illustrate Portraits by Sir Henry Raeburn, with Biographical Sketches (Edinburgh: Andrew Elliot, 1887).36

Annan’s willingness to devote much of his time and expertise to “faithfully translating” the “masterpieces” of admired painters may perhaps be accounted not insignificant evidence of a disinclination to take sides in the contemporary debate between defenders of the traditionalist view of photography—as subservient to material reality, a valued handmaid of the arts and sciences—and advocates of photography as an art in its own right, equivalent to painting or drawing. One cannot, of course, rule out commercial considerations. As Annan’s well respected photographs of paintings were a valuable source of income , he can only have read with pleasure the editorial in the British Journal of Photography, quoted above, commending the Directors of the Glasgow Art Union for having substituted his photographs of Noel Paton’s work for the usual engravings as the Art Union’s annual award to dues-paying members. Nevertheless, he may well have responded no less positively to the suggestion, in the same editorial, that the Directors should consider offering original photographs as awards, rather than photographs of paintings, and that his own “artistic” landscapes were eminently suitable for that purpose.

In distributing photographic reproductions, the Directors of the Glasgow Art Union are doing much for the graphic, but very little for the photographic, art. It would be a great thing if they could be induced another year to distribute one specimen, at least, of art-photography—such as Mr. Annan could readily produce for them—to each subscriber, in addition to as many photographic copies as their funds would allow. [. . .] Mr. Annan, if he has any influence with the Directors, should not miss the opportunity of placing before them some of his own artistic landscape productions.

2:1 Joseph Noël Paton, “The Capture or The Slave Hunt,” from Bond and Free: Five sketches illustrative of slavery by J. Noël Paton; photographed by Thomas Annan (Glasgow: Maclure and MacDonald, 1863), Plate 3. Reproduced in Alfred T. Story, “Sir Noël Paton: His Life and Work,” The Art Journal (1895), 97-128 (p. 98). Marquand Library, Princeton University.

2:2 Joseph Noël Paton, “Freedom,” from Bond and Free, Plate 5. Reproduced in Sunday Magazine
(1 June 1865, pp. 672-76). Princeton Theological Seminary Library.

2:3 David Octavius Hill, “In Memoriam: The Calton.” 1862. Oil on panel. City Art Centre: Edinburgh Museums and Galleries. By kind permission of Edinburgh Museums and Galleries.

2:4 Thomas Annan, Photograph of D. O. Hill’s “Disruption” painting (“First General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland. Signing the Act of Separation and Deed of Demission at Tanfield, Edinburgh, May 1843”). 1868. Carbon print. By kind permission of the photograph’s owner, Roddy Simpson.

2:5 Sir George Hayter, “The House of Commons, 1833.” 1833-1843. Oil on canvas. ©National Portrait Gallery, London, Asset no. 54. By kind permission of the National Portrait Gallery.

2:6 William Powell Frith, “The Marriage of H.R.H. the Prince of Wales with Princess Alexandra of Denmark, St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, 10 March, 1863.” Oil on canvas. 1865. Wikimedia.

2:7 George Washington Wilson, “Aberdeen Portraits No. 1.” 1857. Albumen silver print. Metropolitan Museum. The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Fund, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 2011, Accession Number 2011.424. ©Metropolitan Museum.

2:8 John Trumbull, “The Declaration of Independence.” 1818. Oil on canvas. Installed in Rotunda of U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C., 1826. Architect of the Capitol.