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HomeContents > People > Photographers > George Washington Wilson

Names:
Other: G.W. Wilson 
Other: George W. Wilson 
Dates:  1823, 7 February - 1893, 9 March
Born:  Great Britain, Scotland, Banffshire [now Grampian], Alvah
Active:  Great Britain
 
  
George Washington Wilson (1823-1893) was born in Alvah, Banffshire, the son of a crofter. He began work as a joiner in his native parish, but went on to train as a miniaturist in Edinburgh and at the Royal Academy School in London. In 1848 he settled in Aberdeen, where he established himself first as an artist and later (c.1852) as a photographer at 25 Crown Street, Aberdeen. He constructed several remarkably good lenses, with which he carried out a series of interesting experiments. In 1853 he was the first person to photograph the Queen and Prince Consort at Balmoral, later receiving many more commissions from the Royal family when they were in residence at Balmoral. Wilson went on to build up a substantial business as a publisher of topographic views, principally of Scotland, where he travelled to Braemar, the Trossachs, the Falls of Clyde and many of the wilder parts of Scotland. His English output is small compared with his Scottish views, but Wilson made several journeys into England. One important journey was made in 1860 when Wilson travelled to Southampton via the West Country.
 
In addition to his photographic enterprises, he was also a director of the Opera House Company and the Aberdeen Music Hall. In later life, he ceased to take a leading role in his photographic business and returned to painting, producing oils of several of his old friends. The company reached the peak of its success in the 1870‘s, after which it went into a gradual decline. He was survived by his widow, four daughters and five sons, three of whom worked for the business.
 
[Contributed by Paul Frecker]
 

George Washington Wilson (1823-1893)
 
Photographically innovative and entrepreneurial in business, Wilson was the most remarkable, successful and prolific stereo-photographer in Scotland and perhaps the entire UK. Having trained in Edinburgh as an artist, he worked as a miniature portrait painter and art teacher in Aberdeen from 1848. He started experimenting with photography in 1852, probably realising that it could potentially supplant his previous profession.
 
In a short-lived partnership with Hay, he first exhibited stereoviews in 1853. A commission to photograph the construction of Balmoral (1853-56) led to a long royal association. His photos were used in the form of engravings for Queen Victoria's popular book Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands. His best-selling carte-de-visite of her on a pony held by her faithful Highland servant, John Brown, judiciously cropped to remove other superfluous retainers, fuelled the gossip surrounding their relationship.
 
Although his portrait studio in Aberdeen provided steady cashflow, he recognised that stereoviews were the key to prosperity and by 1863 had a new catalogue of over 400 views from all across the UK, selling them in a wide variety of outlets including railway kiosks and inside cathedrals.
 
His artistic training helped him compose picturesque and beautiful images, but he was also an innovative technician, experimenting on improving photographic techniques, chemistry and apparatus. In an age when exposure times were routinely several minutes, he was among the very first to publish 'instantaneous' views. A bustling Princes Street, Edinburgh dates from 1859. Perhaps the most famous of his instantaneous images is gun practice on HMS Cambridge taken in 1860.
 
In 1855, to promote his portrait studio, he published a combination print of prominent Aberdonians, creating one of the earliest ever photo-montages. People were baffled how he had managed to gather so many illustrious people together at the same time.
 
In 1858, he started experimenting with pointing his lens directly into the sun, and a year later created dramatic images of his family boating on the Loch of Park. These created a sensation when sent for review and exhibited. His view from the inside of Fingal's Cave is a fine example of this approach.
 
His startling image looking up the trunk of a fir tree is astonishingly modern in its abstraction; an unprecedented study in pure three-dimensionality.
 
By 1865 his company was printing over 500,000 photographs annually. He tried to keep ahead of fashion, producing various formats in addition to his stereoviews. In conjunction with the London printers, Marion, he introduced the cabinet card size, which went on to become a popular standard format.
 
Commercial success seems to have led to Wilson being rather overlooked as an artist today. He was fêted in his own day, winning 27 medals internationally, including one at the prestigious London Exhibition of 1862. Photographic Notes in 1861 stated Wilson 'has now achieved for himself a position which no other photographer has reached.'
 
After his death in 1893, his sons seem to have lacked his entrepreneurial spirit and the enterprise was dissolved in 1902. The main body of his original glass negatives, weighing around five tonnes, are held by Aberdeen University.
 
Biography taken, with permission, from: Peter Blair, 2018, Scotland in 3D, (P3DB Publishing)

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George Washington Wilson
Self portrait of George Washington Wilson 
n.d.
 
  
Family history 
  
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Internet biographies

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Wikipedia has a biography of this photographer.Show on this siteGo to website
Getty Research, Los Angeles, USA has an ULAN (Union List of Artists Names Online) entry for this photographer. This is useful for checking names and they frequently provide a brief biography. Go to website
Grove Art Online (www.groveart.com) has a biography of this artist. 
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George Washington Wilson 
http://www.visual-evidence.ac.uk ... 
The George Washington Wilson Photographic Collection, now in the care of the University of Aberdeen's Historic Collections, consists of over 40,000 glass plate negatives produced by the local firm of George Washington Wilson & Co. during the second half of the nineteenth century. 
  
 

Printed biographies

The following books are useful starting points to obtain brief biographies but they are not substitutes for the monographs on individual photographers.

 
• Beaton, Cecil & Buckland, Gail 1975 The Magic Eye: The Genius of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown & Company) p.72 [Useful short biographies with personal asides and one or more example images.] 
  

Collections

Photographic collections are a useful means of examining large numbers of photographs by a single photographer on-line. 
  

 
In the 1990 survey of 535 American photographic collections George Washington Wilson was represented in 49 of the collections. Source: Andrew H. Eskind & Greg Drake (eds.) 1990 Index to American Photographic Collections [Second Enlarged Edition] (Boston, Massachusetts: G.K. Hall & Co.) 
  
 
  
 
  
 
  
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