Ali Bacon: How early photographs provided the inspiration for a novel

As a writer of contemporary fiction, I had never contemplated a historical novel until I read the story of D.O. Hill and Robert Adamson, and saw the incredible results of their collaboration. In just four years (1843-47) this partnership of artist and photographer created over 3000 images using the ‘calotype’ process invented by W.H. Fox Talbot only a few years earlier and in doing so established photography as an art form.

ALB-24-28jMy original source, which I stumbled on while researching a different project, was the seminal book by Sara Stevenson The Personal Art of David Octavius Hill, which contains a large number of their most famous pictures and also charts Hill’s personal triumphs and tragedies. This was the story that not only moved me but also inspired me to bring it to an audience beyond early photography enthusiasts: for me that meant writing a novel.

As well as the many fabulous reproductions in this book, I had at my disposal the online collections of museums, art galleries and libraries including the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the photographic collections of St Andrews University Library. Central to my inspiration was this charming portrait of the recently widowed Hill with his young daughter. We can imagine his arm tightly around her to stop her from wriggling in front of the camera (exposure times could be lengthy) but the affection is still plain for all to see.

Other characters leapt from the page or the screen: the charismatic scientist Sir David Brewster (far left), Robert and his brother John Adamson in a perfectly composed family group and Elizabeth Rigby (far right), an unmarried writer and critic who was to be the most photographed of Hill’s subjects.


By now I was hooked on this project but some aspects were way out of my experience and historical comfort zone. The Hill and Adamson partnership came about as a result of the Great Disruption of the Church of Scotland in May 1843 and Hill was an avid supporter of the new Free Kirk. Despite being brought up in the Presbyterian Church I was only dimly aware of this event and its impact on mid nineteenth century society, but to get under the skin of my characters I had to understand what led up to it and the schism it created. For this, John Fowler’s Mr Hill’s Big Picture was illuminating.

PhotoSeed Archive- Disruption of the Church of Scotland copy by Annan

As someone who had never attempted dark room photography I also felt the need to get hands-on experience of photographic processes at events in Bristol, Lacock and the St Andrews Photography Festival.

From Sara Stevenson’s book onwards, there was no shortage of secondary material and I told myself I need look no farther, but I began to feel like a detective, if not a historian, and I liked to go back to primary sources where I could, so that I found myself looking up old newspaper reports about the day on which the Scott Monument was opened, and investigating members of the Adamson family on Scotland’s People. And sometimes the allure of the original artefact was irresistible. Finding myself in Edinburgh I had to see some of D.O. Hill’s letters in the National Library of Scotland for myself, even if I found his handwriting indecipherable!

preus_dohillBut if my research was exhausting I knew it would never be exhaustive. Eventually I wrote the story simply as I wanted to tell it, through the eyes of a variety of people who sat for Hill or were affected by his work. They are nearly all ‘real’ people but vary in how much space history has allotted them: so we have Elizabeth Rigby/Eastlake, who left behind voluminous diaries and correspondence (e.g. this useful edition by Julie Sheldon) alongside Jane Adamson who has left nothing but an entry in census records, and Amelia Paton (later Hill), whose sculptures adorn Princes Street Gardens, in contrast to Jessie Mann, Hill’s family friend whose contribution to photography may never be fully understood.

So in the end I was no historian, but I still got a buzz from my research efforts, and enjoyed making two minor discoveries. Knowing Hill’s daughter (spoiler alert!) died soon after her marriage, I took it into my head to find her death certificate and saw that she died in childbirth. I hadn’t seen this mentioned anywhere else and it added an extra layer to the tragedy and my understanding of it. The other discovery made a more substantial difference. A family friend, hearing of my book, told me one of her ancestors was a minister in the Great Disruption. She provided her family research notes and what had been the most intractable part of the story finally came to life. Rev Walter Fairlie of Gilmerton became the final piece of my historical jigsaw.

blink-front-cover-2000-hiAfter graduating from St Andrews University, Ali Bacon worked in Oxford’s Bodleian Library where she found a cache of famous Victorian photographs, sparking a life-long interest in early photographers.  In the Blink of an Eyefollows her first novel, A Kettle of Fish (Thornberry, 2012) and marries her passion for fiction and photography. Ali lives near Bristol where she also writes and performs short fiction and is active in the local writing community.

In the Blink of an Eye, her recently-published fictional account of the life of D.O. Hill (Linen Press, 2018) has been long-listed for The People’s Book Prize


Image 1 (c) St Andrews University Library Special Collections; Image 2 (c) National Portrait Gallery; Image 3 (c) Photoseed Archive; Image 4 (c) Preus Museum Norway.

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