Wednesday, February 27, 2019

George Washington Wilson ~ His Photographs a Century and a Half Later

One of my favorite photographers is George Washington Wilson (1823 – 1893) who described himself as an artist and a photographer, always in that order.  Though this post features no fossils, there is geology (eventually) and natural history (broadly speaking).

At the outset, a note about sources is in order.  Various sources are cited throughout this post, but special attention should be directed to Roger Taylor’s richly detailed and accessible biography titled George Washington Wilson:  Artist & Photographer (1823~1893), published in 1981.  I’ve relied on Taylor’s work for details of Wilson’s life and for an understanding of the photographic processes of the time.  Unless otherwise noted, please assume that Taylor is my source.

I know George Washington Wilson from his incredibly broad portfolio of beautiful stereoviews which he published in the latter half of the 19th century from establishments in Aberdeen, Scotland.  Shown below is an example of one of his stereoviews, featuring side-by-side photographs of a rowboat on the Loch of Park, Aberdeenshire, at sunset.  I believe Wilson photographed this scene sometime in the late 1850s.

A stereoview is a card on which are pasted two printed photographs of the same subject taken from very slightly different perspectives.  When the card is viewed through a stereoscope, a three- dimensional image is created.  Stereoviews are discussed in several posts on this blog, including this one.

The card presented above includes images that I find particularly striking both for their artistic composition, as well as for the technical mastery they reflect.  As to the latter, if one considers the photographic processes and equipment in use at the time (more on those later) and the challenge of capturing clear images of objects that cannot be posed, including, in this instance, the water, the clouds, and the rowboat with its occupants, the photographs are even more amazing.  Photographs of objects in motion, labeled “Instantaneous,” were difficult to obtain and highly prized.

Son of a tenant farmer, Wilson trained as a painter and specialized in portrait miniatures, finding success with his paintings in Aberdeen during the late 1840s and early 1850s.  This was also a time of striking technological developments in photography which led to the creation of a new, burgeoning business category in Europe, Great Britain, the United States, and elsewhere – the professional photographer.  In the 1850s, Wilson expanded his business to include photographic portraits.  Shortly, he fully committed to photography, a move certainly fueled by his success in fulfilling a commission from Prince Albert to photograph the construction of Queen Victoria’s Balmoral Castle.  From his ongoing relationship with the Queen and her family, Wilson would identify himself as Photographer to Her Majesty in Scotland.  Seen below is a photograph by Wilson of the Castle; it was not part of his commissioned construction series.

This image and all others appearing below in this post were selected from stereoviews.

Wilson was also an entrepreneur with a keen eye on the bottom line.  He saw the potential for photographs to generate substantial income.  In 1854, the carte de visite had made its appearance, featuring a posed photographic portrait of one or more individuals mounted on a small (2 ½ x 4 inch) card.  Due to its relatively low cost and ease of exchange, the carte de visite offered a much broader swathe of the general public the opportunity to have and share images of loved ones. Wilson lost no time in focusing on this photographic technique and format, a move which proved financially successful.  But, quite quickly, he felt compelled to push beyond the subject matter and technical limits of the carte de visite, taking his cameras into the wider world to capture landscape images, as he clearly had done in creating the photographs for the stereoview of the Loch of Park presented earlier.

To take photography on the road was no mean feat because Wilson was using the wet-collodion technology to capture his images.  When a scene was to be photographed, the photographer first had to create a light sensitive plate.  Roger Taylor describes the process as follows:
The collodion solution was, for the most part, commercially prepared by dissolved gun cotton in ether.  The photographer then used this viscous mass to coat a glass plate which had been carefully cleaned and degreased.  After an even coating had been applied, the ether present in the solution evaporated, leaving a moist absorbent film adhering to the plate.  This was then made sensitive to light by dipping it into a bath of silver salts which were readily taken up by the collodion film.  After the excess solution was drained off, the still moist plate was secured in a light-tight plate holder so that it could be taken into the light and to the camera for exposure.  (p. 194)
This whole process had to be undertaken in near total darkness.

To develop the image that had been taken up by the film on the glass plate, the photographer carefully followed another series of complex and sensitive steps.  This involved submerging the plate with the captured image in pyrogallic and acetic acid, a step requiring the photographer to judge when the image was correctly developed.  The image was then fixed on the plate using a solution of the highly poisonous hypo or potassium cyanide.  Again, the photographer worked in near darkness.

Wilson outfitted a wagon with the requisite hardware and chemicals and, accompanied by an assistant, undertook journeys throughout Britain taking photographs.  The image below, which features a view of the Pass at Ballater (in Aberdeenshire, near the River Dee, Scotland) may include in the left foreground Wilson’s own horse-drawn wagon, his darkroom on wheels.  The wagon is also an example of how Wilson often included something in his photographs to provide a sense of scale.  On occasion he used a wagon, more often it was one or more people.

The degree to which Wilson found financial triumph as a photographer cannot be overestimated.  His firm also printed photographs in larger, single-image formats.  In due course, Wilson became “the world’s largest publisher of photographs,” and, fulfilling the demand for his images, must have taxed his establishment.  (John Jones, Wonders of the Stereoscope, 1976, p. 54.)  In the 1870s, G.W. Wilson & Company had some 45,000 glass negatives from which it produced photographs for sale.  The average daily production of prints was estimated by Wilson’s son Alexander at 3,000; thus, potentially a million prints were produced annually.  (Beaumont Newhall, The History of Photography From 1839 to the Present, 1982, p. 105.)

It was no accident that the success of his enterprise coincided with the explosion of tourism.  Presumably rising incomes coupled with the expansion of rail lines in Great Britain turned travelers into sightseers and tourists.  Tourists, of course, sought mementos of the places visited, and photographs quite nicely satisfied that need.

Regardless of the commercial success Wilson enjoyed, it’s the beauty of the photographs that are the heart of his claim to fame.  He brought an inspired artist’s eye to his work, his photographs reflect careful creative intention.  They are typically tightly composed images that, to my mind, merit the label art.

Though landscapes may have been a predominant subject of his photographs, he also created many stunning images of other subjects.  These included, perhaps most prominently, the interiors and exteriors of cathedrals throughout Britain.  Seen below is one example:  the nave of Gloucester Cathedral in England.

He also photographically explored the ruins of abbeys and other religious structures.  Pictured below is a view of Melrose Abbey in Scotland.

Wilson has been called one of the two “giants among British stereographers” and the one “who had no peer in scenic photography.”  (William C. Darrah, The World of Stereographs, 1997, p 104.)

There are among Wilson’s landscape photographs, a small handful to which I am powerfully drawn, not just for the artistry expressed in the image, but, primarily, for the stories of natural history (interpreting that term broadly) that are told in the images.  Here are three of those.

Fingal’s Cave, Staffa

The first shows the entrance to a geological structure known as Fingal’s Cave on the Isle of Staffa, in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides.

It’s a remarkable photograph of a remarkable geological structure, the enormity of which becomes clear when one spots the two (perhaps three) men standing to the right of the mouth of the cave.  The cave, which acquired its name from the hero of an epic poem by the Scottish poet James Macpherson, has walls that stand about 72 feet tall and the opening extends some 269 feet.  These awe-inspiring hexagonal basalt columns are products of a lava flow some 60 million years ago.  Such geometrically symmetrical columns are relatively common features of basalt structures because, as lava solidifies and cools, the stresses from temperature change and pressure can generate vertical fractures, or columnar joints, at the surface of the basalt.  These then spread into the interior of the basalt.  Those at the surface begin as tetragonal joint networks, developing into hexagonal joints as they journey inward.  (Atilla Aydin and James M. DeGraff, Evolution of Polygonal Fracture Patterns in Lava Flows, Science, January 29, 1988.)

That’s a stab at a scientific explanation for these columns.  Folklore would have it that the cave is one end of a bridge that stretches to the geologically similar Giant’s Causeway in Ireland.  Purportedly, an Irish giant created the bridge in order to travel to Scotland to defeat a rival.  The basalt columns on Staffa are indeed geologically linked to the Giant’s Causeway.

It’s not surprising that Wilson’s portfolio included photographs of the basalt columns on Staffa.  The island became a tourist attraction beginning in the late 18th century, attracting such luminaries as Queen Victoria, William Wordsworth, John Keats, Jules Verne, and Sir Walter Scott.  In addition, the cave has inspired musicians from Felix Mendelssohn to Pink Floyd.  (Jeff Wallenfeldt, Fingal’s Cave, Encyclopaedia Britannica.)


I love this photograph of the “Cheesewring” structure near Liskeard in Cornwall in part because it looks for all the world as though it’s about to fall on the poor person seated at its base.  An example of Wilson’s sense of humor, I suspect.

The Cheesewring (still standing) is a granite tor; a tor is a stack of stone blocks that forms naturally through differential weathering and erosion of rocks.  According to the novelist Wilkie Collins, the name of this tor supposedly comes from its resemblance to a Cornish cheese press, also called a “wring.”  (Rambles Beyond Railways; or Notes in Cornwall, 1851, p. 58.)

The Cheesewring stands amid a landscape punctuated by other standing rock or fallen tors.  Collins described it with some literary flourishes:  “The whole plain appeared like the site of an ancient city of palaces, overthrown and crumbled like atoms by an earthquake.”  (p. 61)  He offered two explanations of the Cheesewring.  Either it was built by Druids or it was the result of geological forces.  He opted for the latter, though his explanation of the way in which those forces conspired to stacks these rocks leaves something to be desired.  (Admittedly, the same criticism applies to the explanation I provided above.  I haven't found a satisfactory one, though, clearly, I, too, opt for one grounded in geology.)

I do really enjoy Collins’ characterization of the Cheesewring itself:  “If a man dreamt of a great pile of stones in a nightmare, he would dream of such a pile as the Cheese-Wring.  All of the heaviest and largest of the seven thick slabs of which it is composed are at the top; all the lightest and smallest at the bottom. . . .  When you first see the Cheese-Wring, you instinctively shrink from walking under it.”  (p. 65)


There’s a certain logic in moving from Cheesewring to Stonehenge given the association of both in the popular imagination with Druids.  Wilson visited Stonehenge possibly in 1860 and took several pictures of it from different vantage points.  The image below shows the megalithic structure from the East.

Stonehenge was the product of intense labor by neolithic peoples, an effort that stretched over millennia, beginning 5,000 years ago as a circular ditch dug into the dirt.  The area was graced at some later point with wooden posts; said posts were replaced with large stones beginning in roughly 2,600 BCE.  The amount of labor required to quarry the multi-ton stone slabs, move them from the quarry to the site on the Salisbury Plain, and then erect them is almost unfathomable given the technology available at the time.  Current thinking about the purpose of Stonehenge includes two primary hypotheses, one astronomical in nature (functioning as an observatory), the other religious (possibly focused on ancestor worship).  (James Owens, Stonehenge, National Geographic.)

The image above that Wilson took of Stonehenge from the East is curious.  It’s almost as though he wanted to have the viewer first believe that the stones erected on the plain are relatively small.  He took the photograph from such a distance, including a broad expanse of grass, that puts the circle of stones into the deep middle ground.  It’s not until the sheep in the scene, the man leaning against one of the center pillars, and the wagon on the right all come into focus, that the impressive size of the structure comes clear.

I’ll close by observing that, more than 150 years after George Washington Wilson traveled across Great Britain photographing the landscape, his images are still speaking.

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