The Origins of Photography Great Britain: St Andrews
Last week a major exhibition, The Origin of Photography Great Britain, on the birth of British photography opened in Japan at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum. Curator Keishi Mitsui had been working on this exhibition for several years and this also included multiple research trips to the UK, including St Andrews and the Library’s Special Collections Division, to learn more about our photographic material.
Last summer we were approached by the museum with a loan request to borrow a significant number of items for the exhibition as Mr Mitsui was keen to include the important contributions of the early Scottish photographers, many of whom were from the St Andrews area.
This loan was the largest request the University Library had ever received, illustrating the global importance of our collections, and the wider significance of the early St Andreans who took up photography immediately after its announcement in 1839. During the first years of photography there were notable restrictions on the new medium in England due to robust patent laws, however there were no such laws in Scotland, which meant Scots could freely practice with no legal or monetary constraints. This was mostly due to a close friendship between the inventor of the calotype negative, Henry Talbot and Principal of the United College in the University of St Andrews, Sir David Brewster. Brewster had convinced Talbot there was no financial gain in taking out a second patent in Scotland, and that his colleagues at the University should be free to experiment with the process.
Both professional and amateur photographers such as Dr John Adamson, David Octavius Hill, Robert Adamson, Lord and Lady Kinnaird, Sir David Brewster and Admiral William Maitland-Dougall made important contributions not only to the development of the photographic process through experimentation and innovation, but also to the physical record surviving from the 1840s in family archives, collections and albums.
The material requested for loan included 32 loose prints, three albums and two daguerreotypes. None of this material had been on exhibition before, and certainly has never left St Andrews. It was a great opportunity to show off some of our finest holdings to a global audience.
The University of St Andrews collections are on display alongside national institutions with notable photographic collections such as the Victoria & Albert Museum, National Science and Media Museum, The British Library, Historic England Archive, but also the lesser known, yet nationally significant collections held at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution.
Preparing such a large number of items for exhibition has been no small task. Be sure to check out the second part of this blog where we will go into further detail about the conservation, mounting, transportation and installation of the exhibition.
Photographic Collections Manager