Wilson, G.W.

George Washington Wilson

Aberdeen

Active 1853 – 1880s (died 1893)

16 – Fingal’s Cave, Staffa, G.W. Wilson, 1860

116 - GWW - 16 Staffa.jpg

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.