Sara Stevenson (National Galleries of Scotland)

Posted on Friday, March 5th, 2010

‘Optical Engagement in Stevenson’s Edinburgh Picturesque Notes

Edinburgh is remarkable for its topography, perched and sprawled round its hills and on the defensible spine of rock which runs between two volcanic plugs from the Castle down to Holyrood Palace at the base of Arthur’s Seat. From other hills and constructed platforms, the city offers an extraordinary opportunity to see the outlying countryside and the sea, in conjunction with the curious interlocking levels of the townscape. This accidental theatre, with its disconcerting glimpses of life, has been a source of visual fascination and inspiration: prompting Thomas Barker’s invention of the panorama, on Calton Hill in the late 18th century; and inspiring Patrick Geddes’ late 19th century Outlook Tower, based on the camera obscura. It was also the site of two extraordinary explorations of photography – one before Stevenson’s birth and the other after his death.
The city saw one of the first and most significant flowerings of photography: the partnership of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson between 1843 and 1847. Hill, as a landscape and genre painter, worked, both in his painting and in his photography, from an idea of a human landscape – one in which the landscape and its people were interlocked; seeing the land as redolent of history, as a natural inspiration and a habitat. In their pictures of Colinton Manse and Greyfriars Churchyard, Hill and Adamson engaged specifically with landscapes that Stevenson describes in his Picturesque Notes.
The second photographic exploration connects Hill and Adamson’s work directly to Stevenson. In 1905, the Anglo-American photographer, Alvin Langdon Coburn, visited Edinburgh and took a series of photographs in tribute to Hill and Adamson and in response to Stevenson’s Edinburgh. Picturesque Notes. This paper will explore connections between early photography and Stevenson’s visual approach to the city.

Categorized as Abstracts

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