Thursday, November 29, 2012

George Washington Wilson

Remaining with the theme of recording the past but moving on from aquatint to photography, George Washington Wilson (1823-1893) was a commercial photographer from Aberdeen responsible for tens of thousands of photographs taken worldwide including a substantial proportion in Scotland.

His business got an early boost from securing a contract to photograph the Royal Family at the then new Balmoral Castle. The well known photo of Queen Victoria on a pony with her Scottish servant John Brown is a GWW:-

As portrayed in the film "Mrs Brown" (Judi Dench/Billy Connolly), she was alleged to have enjoyed a relationship with Brown more intimate than would be expected between a queen and her servant. You'd never guess from this photo.

Another contender for the most famous GWW must be "the St Kilda Parliament":-

38,000 of GWW's "plates" (I think that's the 19th century equivalent of negatives although we're not far away now from a generation who don't know what "negatives" are either!) were donated by a successor in GWW's business to Aberdeen University in 1958 at a time when they had ceased to have commercial value but their archival value was still pretty latent.

The GWW archive has been available to view online at Aberdeen University's website for some years but, until recently, only in pretty small images not much bigger than a thumbnail. Recently, however, the GWW archive has been re-launched in very high definition allowing you to zoom in on fascinating detail. Go and have a look here.

Needless to say, I've been concentrating on the west coast of Scotland. So far, I've only scratched the surface of the thousands of fascinating images available to view but one particular photo has been a standout for me to date: it's of Oban before the railway arrived in 1880.

Click to go large or go and look at the original where you can zoom in here.

The whole dried out bit on the right hand side of the bay there was built over to form the railway station and railway pier - where the Calmac ferry terminal is now. The street along the seafront on the right (still called "Shore Street" to this day) is now a good 100 metres back from the sea. Note also how few houses there are on the hillside behind - and no McCaig's Tower (built 1897-1902).

To compliment the GWW photo, you can also explore Oban before the railway at very large 1:500 scale via the National Libraries of Scotland website here.

On the subject of west coast railway termini, another cracker of a GWW my eye alighted on in the Aberdeen Uni archive was this one of Kyle of Lochalsh:-

Now, has anyone noticed anything? I gave GWW's dates as 1823-93, but when did the railway reach Kyle? It was 1897, four years after his death! It was a revelation to me that not all GWW photos were taken by the man himself as I'd fondly imagined. In fact, from about 1870 on, the photos were increasingly taken by members of his staff and GWW's business (his "brand" as we'd say nowadays) was continued under his name after his death until 1908 by his sons who continued to grow the portfolio.

People occasionally ask me what I do all day in retirement? Well, I'll tell you - I fire up Google Streetview in one window, Bing Maps aerial imagery (generally now higher resolution than Google Earth) in another, the National Libraries of Scotland map viewer in a third, the GWW archive or William Daniell in a fourth and go off and explore places like Tobermory, Kyle and Oban then and now. You can absorb hours doing this so be warned if you've actually got stuff you should be getting on with!

Oban today as seen on Bing Maps - the red line shows the line of the shore in the GWW photo

Now you know why it's called "Shore Street"

1 comment:

  1. Another enjoyable post Neil that straddles three of my passions; photography, cyber-tourism and the Western Isles. If you want to find out more about GWW and his company I can recommend the book available from Aberdeen University "By Royal Appointment: Aberdeen's Pioneer Photographer." I assume you are equally familiar with the work of Western Isles photographers like of Duncan Macpherson and MEM Donaldson via much of their collections on-line at Am Baile. Again, in book mode, may I highlight "Photographers of the Western Isles" by Martin Padget. It is a weighty tome surprising bereft of pictures but meticulously researched. Thanks again.