George Washington Wilson: The founding father of the paparazzi!

Abeer Eladany, a Museum Studies MLitt student, has been delving into the archives of the Special Collections Centre, at the University of Aberdeen, for the students’ up-and-coming exhibition.  Here she tells us more about her research into Victorian photographer, George Washington Wilson. 

I have to admit that I prefer spending time in dusty museum stores, but it was exciting to head to the Special Collections Centre at The Sir Duncan Rice library for the first time. I have been to the library so many times before but never consulted any of the documents in the Wolfson Reading Room on the lower ground floor.

As a museum studies student, I am part of the team organising an exhibition which focuses on Victorian Values. I chose to research George Washington Wilson (1823-1893), an eminent Victorian photographer who had many connections with Aberdeen. The university was donated a huge collection of his glass plate negatives (around 37,000) in 1954 by Archibald J.B. Strachan. The collection is described as a comprehensive chronicle of Victorian Life and is available online here.

Wilson’s royal association started when he was commissioned by Prince Albert to record the buildings of Balmoral Castle in 1854. He was the first man to hold the appointment of “Photographer Royal in Scotland”.

Surprised by the word ‘paparazzi’ in the title of an article that appeared in the Glasgow Herald on 18th March 1993, I wanted to find out how it was earned. I discovered that the famous photo of Queen Victoria on the horse with John Brown taken by G.W.Wilson originally included a third person standing at the rear of the horse. This person was strategically cropped off, highlighting the intimate friendship between the Queen and John Brown. How sneaky!

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Queen Victoria at Balmoral with John Brown and John Grant- October 1863. © Taylor, R. (1981) George Washington Wilson, artist and photographer, 1823-93, Aberdeen :44

Wilson was a pioneer in instantaneous photography allowing cameras to capture objects in motion. His Stereoscopic views were described by the British Journal of Photography in 1875 as “perfect gems”.

Fascinated and inspired by his photos of the River Don – especially his famous views of Bridge of Balgownie – I went to the same location trying to reproduce similar photos in colour. I have posted both here for you to see how little the place has changed in all those years – but please do not judge my photographic skills against those of one of the masters of 19th Century photography.

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Brig O’Balgownie, Aberdeen – George Washington Wilson, , Aberdeen:44

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Brig O’Balgownie, Aberdeen © Abeer Eladany, 2014

Some of the Washington Wilson photographs will be on display in King’s Museum as part of our exhibition “Victorian Time: The Spirit of the Age” from June to December 2014.

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About uoamuseums

The University of Aberdeen's Museums include King’s Museum and the University's Zoology Museum. The museums can claim to be Scotland's oldest, with records of museums and collections as far back as the late 17th century. Thanks to their status as a Recognised Collection of national significance, the Zoology Museum’s displays are currently being improved, while King's Museum hosts changing exhibitions drawn from across the collections, particularly those formerly in Marischal Museum. Visitors are warmly welcomed to the museums, and there are no charges for admission. Marischal College now houses the Museums Collections Centre, caring for and conserving many of the collections.
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