1844 – How it all Happened

In his excellent book on early photographs of York* the late local historian, Hugh Murray, told the story of what he believed to be the first photographs taken in the city. He explained how, in 1844, the British Association for the Advancement of Science(BAAS) came to York for their 14th meeting. This was their second meeting in the city, the first being in 1831, when the Association was founded. Photography was then in its very early days, but two Scottish photographers, D O Hill and R Adamson** were encouraged by Sir David Brewster, Principal of St. Andrews University, and an important figure in the BAAS, to come to York and photograph the delegates. This required permission from William Henry Fox Talbot, who, in 1841 had taken out a patent for his process in England.

Hill and Adamson are now widely regarded as among the most important early photographers, and collections of their work can be found in some of the most important galleries and museums around the world, but the best collection is to be found in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

Because these early photographs, called calotypes, needed to be taken in daylight, the photographers set up an open-air studio in the grounds of St Mary’s Abbey, where they took the first ever photographs of a scientific conference. The resulting images provide a wonderful insight into the characters which they portray.

Calotypes which will be included in the trail

Our selection includes some notable scientists, including Sir John Herschel, astronomer and polymath, and Henry Thomas De La Beche, first director of the Geological Survey of Great Britain.  We also include a number of characters who were important to York and the YPS, including Henry Baines, the sub curator of the Museum, and his family. After the conference, the photographers took their equipment to the Palace at Bishopthorpe, where they photographed the Archbishop and a number of members of his family. Sadly, we do not have a photograph of the Archbishop’s son, William Vernon Harcourt, the first President of the YPS, but we do have photographs of William’s wife and sister-in-law. Currently we have a problem, to determine which lady was which. Click on Mrs Harcourt, in the red list on the left, to learn more.

*Photographs and Photographers of York – The Early Years 1844-1879, by Hugh Murray. Published in 1986 by Yorkshire Architectural and York Archaeological Society in association with Sessions of York

**To learn more about these important early photographers click on:-https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/features/hill-adamson

Image credits

Banner credits on Calotype Project Group page