Poem: ‘A Sequence from ‘Camera Obscura’’

Robin Robertson

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Notes to ‘Camera Obscura’

The poem is built on the personal and artistic life of David Octavius Hill – an indifferent painter but pioneering photographer in Edinburgh in the mid-19th century. It is mostly concerned with his tragic private life (the death of his second daughter, in infancy, and his wife two years later, the death of Robert Adamson, his creative partner, and the consequent collapse of his photography; the death of his beloved first daughter) and the brief glory, in his middle years, when he made the finest of all early photographs.

In 1843, not long after the death of his wife, Hill witnessed one of the most important events in Scottish history in that century: the Disruption of the Church – when dissident clergy split with the established Church of Scotland. Hill resolved to paint this momentous occasion. In order conveniently to capture the likenesses of the four hundred rebel ministers, Hill’s friend Sir David Brewster recommended the new technique invented in England by Fox Talbot – the calotype – and introduced Hill to his subsequent partner and friend, the chemist and photographer Robert Adamson. They set up a studio together at Rock House, Calton Hill, and for four and a half years produced a mass of extraordinary images.

In 1848, Adamson sickened and died. Hill then abandoned photography. Twenty-three years after beginning it, he finished the Disruption painting; it was an abject failure. When he died in 1870, there was no mention in his obituaries of his ground-breaking work in photography, and his cameras and entire stock were sold for £70.

Hill’s story is also, in a way, the story of Scotland – and, in particular, Edinburgh – during the last flowering of the Enlightenment.

The imagined diary entries and letters by Hill are counterpointed by a contemporary narrative of the city using views from the camera obscura on the High Street by the Castle, and from Calton Hill, where the first camera and first observatory were situated.

The remaining poems and fragments are adjuncts to the main narratives: set out of time and moving between past and present.

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Dumb Show, with Candles: the third seasonal view from Calton Hill; this set at the time of Imbol, in February.

‘She stepped away from me’: the third of four verses of the traditional ballad, ‘She Moved through the Fair’; words by Padraic Colum.

Sunny Memories: the title of a book by Harriet Beecher Stowe, in which she describes the Highland Clearances as ‘an almost sublime instance of the benevolent employment of superior wealth and power in shortening the struggles of advancing civilisation’.

The Royal High School: the proposed scat of the Scottish Parliament had Devolution succeeded.

‘They are fading’: July 1995. The Scott Monument begins to disintegrate during the cleaning process, which is abandoned. Meanwhile, an exhibition of Hill/Adamson calotypes – in perfect condition – opens at the Royal Scottish Academy.