Reading the Collections, Week 36: The Govan Album
Alexander Govan was a chemist and druggist in St Andrews during the 1840s and 1850s. With the new art of photography then in its infancy, he supplied chemicals to the early practitioners and, as a member of this tight knit community, he was given many prints which are displayed in this wonderful and historically important album.
If modern photography was born in England, it grew and developed in St Andrews, practised by a small, determined and highly intelligent group of photographers centred on the ancient University and the town’s Literary and Philosophical Society. At first they endured many problems but they eventually developed their own variant of Talbot’s calotype process.
Here in the Govan Album is probably the first record of any town, its streets, its landscape and its people. If you were making a study of St Andrews in the 1840s and 1850s then this is an excellent place to start. With all strata of society being recorded from ‘Street Urchins’ and ‘Laundry Maids’ right up to the Provost – Sir Hugh Lyon Playfair.
Some of the prints are rich in tone, particularly those by Robert Adamson and David Octavius Hill, and some are faded. Talbot referred to his cameras as ‘shadow catchers’ and here the shadowy, almost ghost-like. images of long gone inhabitants peer out from the pages.
The streets of St Andrews are captured perfectly by the first professional photographer of St Andrews, Thomas Rodger. There are many beautiful prints of the cathedral and its grounds.
The landscapes are like paintings, the castle, the beach, the harbour all beautifully captured for posterity.
The first three pages set the tone: a boy, probably feeding his pet rabbit, likely taken by Hill and Adamson; a portrait of the pivotal John Adamson, most likely taken by his brother Robert; and a small portrait of Playfair with a panoramic image of the town’s skyline beneath it. These first pages were, I believe, carefully chosen, as was the final picture, ‘Mr Potato Head’, initialled ‘JA’ – John Adamson.
These early photographers knew their work was ground breaking, but did they realise that their work would be preserved and marvelled at 170 years on? The Govan album is a priceless thing and I for one, on a rainy day in October in 2015, was privileged to see it in the Napier Reading Room at Martyrs Kirk.
21st century calotypist