Early Photography Collection of St Andrews University Library

  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 227 phEPM, phALB
  • Dates of Creation
  • Name of Creator
  • Physical Description
      Items in approximately half of 71 albums and 2 boxes of loose early material. Much of the early material is very light sensitive and can only be seen in the original with specific permission from the Keeper of Manuscripts and Muniments.

Scope and Content

The University Library is home to one of the world's finest collections of very early photography. The work of Fox Talbot himself, as well as luminaries such as Dr John Adamson, David Octavius Hill & Robert Adamson, Thomas Rodger and others, abound in a series of albums which form a spectacular research resource for those interested in the history of photography. The collection includes, as well as early townscapes and landscapes, a wealth of portraiture of both local and national figures. All photographs which can be dated before 1870, as well as the complete collections of photographers, such as Thomas Rodger, who worked primarily before that date, are included within this collection. One of the strengths of the collection is that its complete collections allow an exploration of the maturation of a definable style in an individual photographer or a charting of the effects of chemical and technical improvements on the image.

Administrative / Biographical History

Largely because of the enthusiasm of Sir David Brewster (then Principal of the United College of St Andrews University) and his acquaintance with William Henry Fox Talbot, who announced his invention of the negative-positive photographic process in early 1839, St Andrews became a key site for pioneering work in the development of photography. Brewster (1781-1868) had been corresponding with Fox Talbot since his introduction to him in 1826 by the astronomer Sir John Herschel. The Literary and Philosophical Society of St Andrews was founded in 1838, an association of university and professional men, to whom Brewster, as Vice-President, exhibited the frequent examples he received of Talbot's latest experiments in photography. By 1841 a group of enthusiastic photographers was active in St Andrews and Brewster, along with Dr John Adamson, Hugh Lyon Playfair and other citizens of St Andrews were producing Daguerreotypes and attempting to replicate Talbot's process of producing 'calotypes'.

John Adamson (1809-1870), perhaps to be regarded as the 'father' of Scottish photography, was a local medical practitioner and part-time lecturer in the University. He was educated in St Andrews and studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh from 1826-9 where he was a contemporary of James Y Simpson and Charles Darwin. He returned to St Andrews to practise medicine in 1835 after a period in Paris and a voyage to China as a ship's surgeon. He was awarded an MD from St Andrews in 1843. As a leading member of the Literary and Philosophical Society of which he was secretary (and curator of the museum until his death), he was instrumental in the experimentation with the calotype process. He was an experienced chemist and, around the spring of 1842, either by himself or with the help of his brother, Robert, he mastered the calotype, so effectively that Robert departed to Edinburgh in May 1843 intent on pursuing the production of calotypes as a career. John himself adopted the new collodion process invented by Frederick Scott Archer in 1851 and continued to practise portraiture until his death. He had a considerable clientele, drawn mainly from the professional and landed classes and their families. He also photographed celebrities who visited St Andrews. His portraits seemed to overcome the limitations in focus of the early cameras and the subjects appear relaxed.

The most famous of the early photographic partnerships, Hill and Adamson, was formed when Robert Adamson (1821-1848), younger brother of John, linked with the Edinburgh artist David Octavius Hill (1802-1870) for an extraordinarily creative five-year period before Adamson's early death in 1848. Adamson opened Scotland's first calotype studio at Rock House on Calton Hill, Edinburgh in May 1843 and was introduced to Hill shortly thereafter. Hill had been born and educated in Perth, the pupil of Edinburgh painter Alexander Nasmyth, and later Secretary to the Royal Scottish Academy. Initially he wanted to produce a picture of the 'Disruption' of the Church of Scotland at the General Assembly of 1843 and embraced the calotype to preserve the images of the 500 ministers involved. However he soon realised the potential of the process and entered into a partnership with Adamson where his input was artistic, the arrangements of the sitters and the composition, leaving the technical processes and manipulation of the images to Adamson. As an artist Hill liked the lack of definition and the grainy indistinct appearance of the calotype image and regarded it as an interpretative rather than a descriptive medium. The partnership produced about 3000 images, around three quarters being portraiture.

Thomas Rodger (1833-1888) set up one of the earliest commercial photographic studios in the country in St Andrews in 1849. He was born in St Andrews and educated at Madras College before being apprenticed to a chemist and druggist in the town. Whilst an apprentice he regularly assisted in the Chemistry Room of the United College where he became a protege of Dr John Adamson. He was introduced to those experimenting in early photography around 1840 and was invited, on the recommendation of John Adamson, to assist Lord Kinnaird in his calotype studio at Rossie Priory. Thereafter he attended the Andersonian College of Glasgow for two sessions but was diverted from his medical studies by Dr John Adamson who persuaded him to set up a professional business in calotyping. He was so successful that he was able to commission a house and studio in 1866 from architect George Rae, and remained at 6 St Mary's Place until his death. The St Andrews in which he worked was growing in popularity due to golf, the introduction of the railway and increased tourism, and the revival of the University. He photographed academics, gentry and royalty but also published landscape photographs individually and in albums to satisfy the tourist market for views of historic and picturesque locations. He received a number of awards including: Aberdeen Mechanics' Institution Medal (1853), Scottish Society of Arts Medal for paper on 'Colodion Calotype' (1854), Edinburgh Photographic Society Medal (1856) and International Photographic Exhibition Medal (1877).


Much of the early photography is held in the General Album sequence which contains albums of varying dates. The sequence continues after 1870. There are also albums which contain a mixture of early photography and later images. The majority of the early photography has been digitised and will soon be available on line. An additional gathered sequence of loose prints and calotypes has been created to include early photographic material not held in albums. The material is being digitised, loaded onto the photographic database and indexed.

Access Information

The photographic collections are currently the subject of a major digitisation project. It is the intention to have the entire archive captured in electronic form, and available (with sophisticated searching facilities) on line via the web. A full version of the software can be accessed in the Library and researchers are welcome to visit the library to use it but it is important that appointments are made in advance. Access to original photographic material may be restricted.

Acquisition Information

Purchase, gift and deposit.


This collection is mainly comprised of material owned by the University. However there are also albums of early photography deposited with the Library for safekeeping which are not owned by the University and whose copyright is retained by the owners.

William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877), The Pencil of Nature is held in the GB227, Rare Books collection at rf TR144.T2 (SR) and Sun Pictures in Scotland is album 21 of the General Album sequence.

Images from printed books illustrated with early photographs are being gradually added to the photographic database.

Description compiled by Rachel Hart, Archives Hub Project Archivist, with reference to M. Kemp (ed.), Mood of the Moment (Perth, 1996).

Other Finding Aids

There are partial slip indices to topographical views and individual and groups. However, these are very basic. Since most of the material is increasingly available on line, that forms the finding aid.

Conditions Governing Use

Copies of images held in the photographic collection (with the exception of any photographs which are held either without copyright or under other restrictions imposed by the donor or photographer) can be ordered. Photographs thus provided for purely personal or research purposes are not subject to any fee beyond the photographic costs (for which a scale of charges is available). Prior written permission must be obtained before any further reproduction is undertaken of images supplied, for commercial or non-commercial purposes. Reproduction fees may be charged.

True photographic reprints of most images can be provided, or computer-generated prints of an increasing proportion of the collection at low, medium or high resolution. Given the fragility of the original material our preference is to provide computer prints where possible. We can also provide transparencies and a range of electronic formats.

Appraisal Information

This material has been appraised in line with standard GB 227 procedures.


Continuing by gift and purchase.

Related Material

GB 227 phALB: General Album sequenceGB 227 phALB: General Album sequenceGB 227 UYUY852-853: St Andrews Literary and Philosophical Society records


AD Morrison-Low (ed.), 'Photography at St Andrews', History of Photography, vol. 25:2, (St Andrews, 2001); Norman H Reid, 'The photographic collections in St Andrews University Library' in Scottish Archives, vol. 5 (1999), pp. 83-90; Norman H Reid, 'Photographic archives: Aberdeen, Dundee and St Andrews' in Making Information Available in Digintal Format: Perspectives from Practitioners (Edinburgh, 1999), pp. 106-19; Martin Kemp, Mood of the Moment: Masterworks of Photography from the University of St Andrews (Perth, 1996).