In the Blink of an Eye by Ali Bacon
In Scotland, the 18th and early 19th centuries were a time known as the Enlightenment, a period of great intellectual and scientific advances.
Nowhere was this more evident than in Scotland’s capital city. One worthy of the time said: ‘Here stand I at what is called the Cross of Edinburgh and can in a few minutes take fifty men of genius by the hand.’
He was right – and of course in one way he was also wrong. Women also played a part in the Enlightenment, as this book shows.
In 1843 there was advancement of another sort when four hundred ministers of the established Church of Scotland walked away from their parishes, their manses and their stipends in protest (to put it briefly) at the long-held practice of landowners, rather than congregations, choosing local ministers. In what came to be known as the Disruption, four hundred black-clad minsters and their supporters literally walked away, down Hanover Street and over the Water of Leith to their new headquarters. It must have been a most dramatic sight.
It certainly inspired artist D(avid) O(ctavius) Hill, the main subject of In the Blink of an Eye. Hitherto a landscape painter, he nevertheless resolved on the task of executing a painting incorporating all four hundred of them – and not only that, he wanted each minister to be properly represented, to look like themselves, not as ciphers.
At first he thought to sketch each man before they dispersed from the capital – a massive undertaking. But then one of those scientific advances of the time came to his rescue. Photography was in its infancy and Scotland was at the forefront of its development. Robert Adamson, building on the work of Fox Talbot in England, produced ‘calotypes’ using paper coated with silver iodides. Together Adamson and Hill (the two names are now remembered as a pair, as well as individually) photographed the ministers in preparation for the painting.
Brought together by the Disruption, the two men went on to form a working partnership producing calotypes – Hill the artist and Adamson the chemist. It was, however, to be another twenty-three years before Hill completed his astonishing painting.
Bookended as it were by the story of one (fictional) Perthshire minister who travels to Edinburgh to see the finished painting and is chagrined to find he is not in it, we have here what is not so much a novel as fictionalised biography – not only of D O (as even his second wife called him) but also of several interesting women with whom he came in contact. It’s a device that works well and some of the women, famous in their own right, can (must!) be further read about. There is a good reference list at the end to help with this.
Hill, a widower at the beginning of the book, was evidently a delightful man, kind, sociable and attractive, devoted to his only child, Chattie. His business partner Robert Adamson will always be remembered as a photography pioneer – who knows what he would have gone on to do had he not died at twenty-six.
The first woman we meet is Jane Adamson, devoted sister of Robert (and of John who is also remembered for his photography). Jane’s domestic duties on the family farm in Fife prevented her from accompanying her delicate brother, as she wished to do, when he moved to Edinburgh with its crowded streets and bad public health. Then there’s Jessie Mann, now thought to be the first Scottish female photographer, who experimented at home with calotypes before becoming assistant to Hill and Adamson. We also see Jessie through the eyes of her sister May.
Amelia Paton, a sculptress, helped Hill to finish the painting. Writer and scholar Elizabeth Rigby (later Lady Eastlake) became infamous for her scathing early review of Jane Eyre; she and her family sat for their portraits and she and Hill became close friends. Elizabeth Kemp comes into the story because her husband, architect of Princes Street’s Scott Monument, disappeared, presumed drowned, and photography meant that at least she had his likeness.
Mary Gowans was connected to Hill through her friendship with Amelia Paton. She married, as his second wife, James Gowans, the renowned architect (suspected of doing away with his first wife). Chattie Hill, young daughter of Hill, tried to match-make him with Amelia. And the final Elizabeth, Elizabeth Hall, was a Newhaven fisherwoman. Hill and Adamson’s photographs of the fishing community are one of their finest legacies.
In the Blink of an Eye is the story of fascinating people who lived at a fascinating period of history in, yes, a fascinating city. I do recommend this capital book.
Published by Linen Press at £7.99.
About the author
Ali Bacon was born in Fife and graduated from St Andrews University. After a career as an academic librarian her first novel, Kettle of Fish, was published in 2012 by Thornberry. Chapters from In the Blink of an Eye have been listed in literary competitions and excerpts were performed at the St Andrews Photography Festival and Cheltenham Literature Festival 2016.