B is for … Brewster

Sir David Brewster
Sir David Brewster photographed by Hill and Adamson

Today the St. Andrews trip goes a long way back in time, in fact to 1838, when Sir David Brewster arrived to be Principal of  St. Andrews University. By this time Brewster, originally trained in theology, was already an eminent man of science who had become famous chiefly for his invention of the kaleidoscope. Brewster would be in St. Andrews for twenty years but it was early on in his tenure that he became a key figure in the development of photography.  

The timing of Brewster’s arrival was crucial, because in 1839 his friend W.H. Fox-Talbot succeeded in producing the first true photographic images,  and although ‘The Fox’  guarded his secrets jealously, he trusted his friend Brewster with the details of the process he had used. Brewster’s area of scientific expertise was the study of light, and he was determined to replicate if not improve on Fox-Talbot’s work.  He gathered a group of university and townsmen to help him do this of whom John Adamson,  helped by his brother Robert, was the first to have real success.

It would be a few more years before Brewster introduced Robert Adamson to D.O. Hill, the provider of artistic momentum in their famous partnership,  but Brewster’s early intervention explains why St. Andrews has provided some of the earliest examples of photography and why the university library has one of the richest photographic collections in Scotland. 

Hill and Adamson’s relationship with Fox-Talbot seems to have been an awkward one, and I often wonder where Brewster stood in this. Anyone interested in a creative exploration of how it might have felt to be part of the Adamson family when Brewster was around can have a look at this tiny piece of historical fiction which  I’ve called The Fox and The Rooster.  

I’ve also written a factual article that outlines the full story of Brewster, Hill, Adamson and the moment  that brought them together. Anyone interested, please leave a comment and contact details.

Many more images by Hill and Adamson can be viewed on the National Gallery of Scotland photostream on flickr.


About Ali Bacon

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2 Responses to B is for … Brewster

  1. I found this very interesting, as I am currently studying Sir David Brewster. Thanks!

    • debutnovelist says:

      Hello Christie – great to meet you. Brewster sounds like a big character and a big area of study. Best of luck!

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