George Washington Wilson
Active 1853 – 1880s (died 1893)
16 – Fingal’s Cave, Staffa, G.W. Wilson, 1860
Photographically innovative and entrepreneurial in business, Wilson was the most remarkable, successful and prolific stereo-photographer in Scotland and perhaps the entire UK. Having trained in Edinburgh as an artist, he worked as a miniature portrait painter and art teacher in Aberdeen from 1848. He started experimenting with photography in 1852, probably realising that it could potentially supplant his previous profession.
During a short-lived partnership with Hay, he first exhibited stereoviews in 1853. A commission to photograph the construction of Balmoral led to a long royal association. His photos were used in the form of engravings for Queen Victoria’s popular book “My Highland Journal”. His best-selling carte-de-visite of her on a pony held by her faithful Highland servant, John Brown, (judiciously cropped to remove other superfluous retainers) fueled the gossip surrounding their relationship.
Although his portrait studio in Aberdeen provided steady cashflow, he recognised that stereoviews were the key to prosperity and by 1863 had a catalogue of over 400 views from all across the UK, selling them in a wide variety of outlets including railway kiosks and inside cathedrals.
His artistic training helped him compose picturesque and beautiful images, but he was also an innovative technician, experimenting on improving photographic techniques, chemistry and apparatus. In an age when exposure times were routinely several minutes, he was among the very first to publish “instantaneous” views. A bustling Princes Street, Edinburgh dates from 1859. Perhaps the most famous of his instantaneous images is gun practice on HMS Cambridge taken in 1860.
In 1855, to promote his portrait studio, he published a combination print of prominent Aberdonians, creating one of the earliest ever photo-montages. People were baffled how he had managed to gather so many illustrious people together at the same time.
In 1858, he started experimenting with pointing his lens directly into the sun, and a year later created dramatic images of his family boating on the Loch of Park. These created a sensation when sent for review and exhibited.
By 1865 his company was printing over 500,000 photographs annually. He tried to keep ahead of fashion, producing various formats in addition to his stereoviews. In conjunction with the London printers, Marion, he introduced the cabinet card size, which went on to become a popular standard format.
Commercial success seems to have led to Wilson being rather overlooked as an artist today. He was fêted in his own day, winning 27 medals internationally, including one at the prestigious London Exhibition of 1862. Photographic Notes in 1861 stated Wilson “has now achieved for himself a position which no other photographer has reached”.
After his death in 1893, his sons seem to have lacked his entrepreneurial spirit and the enterprise was dissolved in 1902. The main body of his original negatives (some five tons of glass!) are held by Aberdeen University.
Articles on G.W.Wilson by Peter Blair
The use of historic photographic journals to help identify early stereoviews by G.W.Wilson
Stereoworld Magazine, May/June 2021, Vol 46, No.6, p.6-12.
Dr Peter Blair
Identifying early stereoviews and attributing the photographer can sometimes be very challenging when there is no label or blindstamp. Often, the identity of the photographer was not mentioned on British stereoviews, especially prior to the Fine Art Copyright Act of 1862, which extended copyright protection to photographs. Frequently, there is not even a title to aid identification, or it has become faded and illegible. In these cases, the descriptions provided in early articles on photography in various journals can be a great aid to attribution. There was no simple way to reproduce photographs in print at this time, so the descriptions can be quite detailed, often allowing precise identification of the view described. I have been able to identify early unlabelled views by G.W.Wilson with reference to a major article on his work in the November 1858 edition of Photographic Notes. This historic article is reproduced in full and is reunited for the very first time with all the photographs to which it refers.
Identifying early G.W. Wilson stereoviews
In 1856, G.W. Wilson published a catalogue of 44 views of Aberdeen and the surrounding area. His next catalogue of 440 views, from all over Britain, appeared in 18631. However, there is no overlap between the two catalogues; the latter one contains images mainly taken from 1859 onwards. This leaves two critical years of 1857 and 1858 without any catalogue or known listing of his work. This is the very period when Wilson started to establish his reputation. He was experimenting with technique, chemistry and apparatus, pushing the boundaries of photography and photographic equipment and producing images highly innovative for their time. This included taking views directly into the sun (an unthinkable heresy) and early instantaneous scenes2. He became very interactive, sending prints for press review and to exhibition. The innovative nature of his work, coupled with an innate artistic sensibility, garnered rave reviews. By the early 1860s, he had become established as the benchmark against which other stereo-photographers were measured.
The stereoviews from this pivotal early period are difficult to identify with certainty, because Wilson’s name does not appear on them. It is only after the Act of 1862 that he started using the well-known large blue label (Figure 1), clearly identifying G.W. Wilson as the photographer.
Figure 1. G.W.Wilson common blue label, used from 1862 – 1890s
From 1859 to 1862, he used a small white label (Figure 2). This collector has not seen this label on Wilson views numbered over 300, an observation which supports the thesis that it was retired in 1862. A certain degree of caution should be used when ascribing this style of label to Wilson, as a similar style was also used by Gordon of Aberdeen and Valentine Blanchard among others.
Figure 2. G.W.Wilson small white label, used 1859 – 1862
But the 1857 and 1858 views generally have no labels. They tend to be on white, cream or pale yellow card. They usually have hand-written titles (Figure 3), in at least three different hands, the most common of which appears to be actually Wilson’s own3.
Figure 3. G.W.Wilson hand-written title in Wilson’s own hand, 1858
Contemporary articles on Wilson in the photographic press provide a selection of around 40 titles from this period, with often a good description of the view. This allows us to attribute some of these early Wilson views accurately. As Wilson was taking on average around eighty stereoviews per annum during the 1860s, there must still be a significant number of views not amenable to this attribution technique.
To highlight the utility of this approach, using one of the most significant articles on Wilson, published in Photographic Notes, November 1858, I have been able to identify all of the images discussed. This fascinating article is reproduced here, accompanied for the first time with the appropriate photographs taken by G.W.Wilson in 1858, from my collection.
I hope this article may encourage others to do something similar for their favourite photographers.
Photographic Notes (Journal of the Birmingham Photographic Society), edited by Thomas Sutton (Volume III, November 1858)
We have received from Mr. George Wilson, of No. 24, Crown Street, Aberdeen, the well-known photographer, a series of the most charming stereoscopic views upon paper that we have yet seen. In many of these photographs Mr. Wilson has succeeded in introducing the natural sky, the instantaneous ripple upon the surface of water, animated figures, and at the same time rendering all the details of the objects in shadow. This has not been done by any trick in the printing, nor have the negatives been retouched; the result is due to legitimate photography. Among the most remarkable of the subjects sent are the following: Oban, Sunset; a Summer Morning on the Sands; Fishing Boats on Loch Fyne, at Inverary; Oban, Evening; Inverary, Argyleshire; and the instantaneous portrait of a Child, seated upon a rocking-horse (Figure 4), and with a merry smile upon his countenance. These subjects are so exceedingly fine, and so far in advance of what one usually sees, that they require especial notice.
Figure 4. Instantaneous portrait of a child, seated upon a rocking-horse
Figure 5. Oban, Sunset
” Oban, Sunset.” (Figure 5) — In this view the artist has pointed his camera directly at the sun’s disc. The sun is just about to disappear behind a heavy bank of clouds, the edges of which are tipped with light. These rest upon a long range of distant hills, between which and the foreground is a broad sheet of water covered with ripples. On this water, immediately beneath the sun, is a bar of dancing light, not snowy, but just one shade lighter than the rest of the water; a steamer is crossing it and leaving behind her two long lines of wake from the rudder and paddles. The foreground consists of a row of housetops with quite enough of detail in the shadows. This picture, although evidently taken instantaneously, is sharp all over, and the manipulation clean and even. No diffused light has entered the camera, for Mr. Wilson informs us that the tubes of his lenses are lined with black velvet, the edges of the lenses blackened, and a shade in front also lined with black velvet. Such an instrument is not to be purchased ready-made, and the reader will observe that the first professional photographers, who aim at something beyond the imperfect things that have been done in the infancy of the art, and in their daring attempts venture even to point the camera at the sun himself, are compelled to modify entirely the mounting of their lenses, and the plan of their camera. The cameras and lenses commonly made and sold are unfit for anything beyond the most elementary applications of the art, and indeed scarcely fit for them. We beg of the reader to note these things. The photographic lens and camera commonly sold by opticians are very incomplete, and the cause of innumerable failures, which are erroneously attributed to the chemicals being out of order. One remarkable feature of this picture is the halo round the sun. This we are informed was produced by some defect in the lenses.
Figure 6. Oban, Evening
“Oban, Evening.” (Figure 6) — This subject is similar to the last in composition, but the sun was too high to be included in the picture, and a steamer, with smoke rising from the funnel, lies directly across a broad bar of reflected sunshine upon the water. The ripple is sharply indicated, the distance well thrown back into haze, and the foreground fully out in all its details.
Figure 7. A Summer Morning on the Sands
“A Summer Morning on the Sands” (Figure 7) combines clouds, ships, breaking waves, and a wet beach. It is a delicious little photograph.
Figure 8. Fishing Boats, Loch Fyne, Inverary
“Fishing Boats on Loch Fyne.” (Figure 8) — In this picture figures are introduced, and the shadows of objects are thrown towards the spectator.
Figure 9. Inverary, Argyllshire
” Inverary, Argyleshire,” (Figure 9) is another marvellous subject, in which clouds, reflections in water, animated figures, and detail in the shadows, are all rendered in perfect truthfulness to nature. There are no chalky whites, nor black unmeaning patches of shadow.
In addition to the above subjects we received several very fine ones of less pretensions to novelty, but equal in their way to anything that has been done in photography. The best are perhaps Fingal’s Cave, Staffa, three subjects (Figures 10-12); Bonnington Falls on the Clyde (Figure 13); Waterfall at Inversnaid (Figure 14); and Loch Etive (Figure 15), a subject which has extraordinary merit as a composition.
Figure 10. Colonnade of Basaltic Pillars, Staffa
Figure 11. Fingal’s Cave – Mouth of the Clamshell Cave, Staffa
Figure 12. Fingals Cave, Staffa
Figure 13. Bonnington Falls on the Clyde
Figure 14. Waterfall at Inversnaid
Figure 15. Schoolhouse at Bonawe Ferry, Loch Etive
G.W. Wilson articles
Photographic Notes, 15 July 1857, p262
London and Manchester Photo Journal, 1 Aug 1857, p156
Photographic Notes, 1 April 1858, p35
London and Manchester Photo Journal, 15 June 1858, p154
Photo News, 1 Oct 1858, p53
Photographic Notes, I Nov 1858, p252
Photographic Journal, 5 Feb 1859, p180
British Journal of Photography (BJP), 1 Dec 1859, p294
British Journal of Photography, 15 Jan 1860, p23
Photographic Notes, 1 Jan 1860, p12
1 – Roger Taylor, “George Washington Wilson – Artist and Photographer (1823 – 93)”, London Stereoscopic Company, 2018, ISBN 978095744692
2 – Peter Blair, “Scotland in 3D – A Victorian Virtual Reality Tour”, P3DB Publications, 2018, ISBN 9781527225527
3 – Peter Blair, “George Washington Wilson – Stereoviews – A Collector’s Catalogue”, print-on-demand from http://www.scotlan3d.com