The Edinburgh Stereographic Company Enigma

Conclusions from my presentation at the on-line conference “Celebration of Stereoscopic 3D”, Nov 2020

I have about 40 examples of ESC images in my collection. The most intriguing is an early instantaneous street scene taken in the Royal Mile in Edinburgh and entitled “The Procession of His Grace, the Lord High Commissioner” dated 24 May 1858. At this early date, photographic exposure times were generally tens of seconds and mechanical shutters were virtually unknown, but this image has clearly been captured in a fraction of a second. Although there is slight blurring of the horses hooves, I believe it adds a dynamic vitality to the composition.

Procession of His Grace, the Lord High Commissioner, ESC, 24th May 1858
Procession of His Grace, the Lord High Commissioner, ESC, 24th May 1858 (verso)

George Washington Wilson is celebrated as the first photographer to take instantaneous photographs, a style for which he became rightly famous. But his earliest instantaneous street view (Princes Street, Edinburgh) was taken in the summer of 1859, a full year later than this image. The early Anthony instantaneous views of New York were also from 1859. This stereoview therefore has solid claims to be the earliest known example of an unposed instantaneous street view and as such is a significant and overlooked image in the history of photography. I wanted to find out who was the photographer and the only clue was a small oval blindstamp stating “Edinburgh Stereographic Company” (ESC).

When I first started investigating the Edinburgh Stereographic Company over ten years ago, an on-line search came up with only three hits: a mention on John Saddy’s auction site, an image on Peter Stubbs excellent www.edinphoto.org.uk and a single reference to having exhibited 12 tissue views at the Edinburgh Photographic Society Exhibition in 1858 on Roger Taylor’s useful resource Photographic Exhibitions in Britain 1839 -1865. A visit to the Edinburgh Company Registrars House turned a blank. The photographic librarian at the National Library of Scotland could find nothing. I searched the Edinburgh Post Office directories but it was not listed. The company appeared to have disappeared without trace leaving only a few scattered stereoviews as evidence of its existence.

The stereoviews are wide-ranging in style and subject matter: topographical views of Scotland, portraits, still life and genre.

The Trossachs Hotel, ESC, c.1858
Reverend Thomas Guthrie, ESC, c.1857
Nature Mort, ESC, c.1858

There are also stereoviews of the eastern seaboard of North America which have a blindstamp providing a New York address of 337 Broadway.

Niagara Falls, ESC NY, c.1858

After much research and many blind alleys, a breakthrough was recently made with the discovery of an address in Slater’s Directory of 1861, which announced “Edinburgh Stereographic Company, Manager John Moffat, 60A Princes Street”. Since then I have also generously been given access to a catalogue of singleton-half Moffat views in the collection of Dr Brian May. This catalogue allowed me to confirm that two-thirds of the views in my collection with the ESC blindstamp are by Moffat, including all the views in this article, except the Niagara view.

So we now know that Moffat took the early instantaneous street view and was the creative force behind the ESC.

His brother-in-law, James Brown Knott, was in New York until at least 1856 before coming back to Edinburgh, where he was to be found in 1860. When Moffat moved to larger premises at 103 Princes Street in either late 1860 or early 1861, it was Knott that took over the 60 Princes Street address associated with the ESC. At the moment, Knott is the prime suspect as being behind the NY arm of the ESC and possibly the photographer of the US views, but, until further sources of information come to light, this is purely speculation.

JB Knott logo from rear of CDV, c.1865

Footnote: by bizarre coincidence, 337 Broadway is called the Moffat Building. It was built by Dr John Moffat, who had made a fortune selling cure-all remedies such as Moffat’s Vegetable Life Pills and Phoenix Bitters. I searched for a family link with the Edinburgh photographer, but discovered that the US quack was a fifth generation American whose family had emigrated from Ulster in the early 1700s. Therefore, there is no direct close family link.

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