Reading the Collections, Week 36: The Govan Album

Alexander Govan was a chemist and druggist in St Andrews during the 1840s and 1850s. With the new art of photography then in its infancy, he supplied chemicals to the early practitioners and, as a member of this tight knit community, he was given many prints which are displayed in this wonderful and historically important album.

Govan and Chemist smaller

Salted paper print of Alexander Govan, by unknown photographer, 1852 [ALB-6-143.1]; and Smith & Govan Chemist located on South Street in St Andrews, by John Adamson, 1842 [ALB-5-5].

If modern photography was born in England, it grew and developed in St Andrews, practised by a small, determined and highly intelligent group of photographers centred on the ancient University and the town’s Literary and Philosophical Society. At first they endured many problems but they eventually developed their own variant of Talbot’s calotype process.

Here in the Govan Album is probably the first record of any town, its streets, its landscape and its people. If you were making a study of St Andrews in the 1840s and 1850s then this is an excellent place to start. With all strata of society being recorded from ‘Street Urchins’ and ‘Laundry Maids’ right up to the Provost – Sir Hugh Lyon Playfair.

Page 31 and 32 smaller

Pages 31 and 32 of Govan Album. The entire album can be viewed as a pdf within the album record supplementary resources panel.

Some of the prints are rich in tone, particularly those by Robert Adamson and David Octavius Hill, and some are faded. Talbot referred to his cameras as ‘shadow catchers’ and here the shadowy, almost ghost-like. images of long gone inhabitants peer out from the pages.

The streets of St Andrews are captured perfectly by the first professional photographer of St Andrews, Thomas Rodger. There are many beautiful prints of the cathedral and its grounds.

The landscapes are like paintings, the castle, the beach, the harbour all beautifully captured for posterity.

TR West Port smaller

Image of the West Port on North Street in St Andrews taken by Thomas Rodger [ALB-6-39]

The first three pages set the tone: a boy, probably feeding his pet rabbit, likely taken by Hill and Adamson; a portrait of the pivotal John Adamson, most likely taken by his brother Robert; and a small portrait of Playfair with a panoramic image of the town’s skyline beneath it. These first pages were, I believe, carefully chosen, as was the final picture, ‘Mr Potato Head’, initialled ‘JA’ – John Adamson.

Boy Adamson Playfair and Town smaller

Portrait of a small boy with a rabbit [ALB-6-1]; Dr John Adamson [ALB-6-2]; and Hugh Lyon Playfair [ALB-6-3.1] with a small panorama image of St Andrews taken from the West Sands [ALB-6-3.2]

Mr Potato Head smaller

Comical portrait of ‘Mr Potato Head’ taken by Dr John Adamson, [ALB-6-158]

These early photographers knew their work was ground breaking, but did they realise that their work would be preserved and marvelled at 170 years on? The Govan album is a priceless thing and I for one, on a rainy day in October in 2015, was privileged to see it in the Napier Reading Room at Martyrs Kirk.

-Rob Douglas
21st century calotypist

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