Please note: due to the recent Covid-19 outbreak the Centre is currently closed, but our website is still open for business.
Celebration foliage arch at West Barns, 1878


The beginning of photography in Scotland is counted from the enterprise of the Edinburgh based partnership of Robert Adamson and David Octavius Hill. Adamson had become interested in photography from its inception and united with the artist Hill to produce preparatory images for a large work commissioned in 1843. When Adamson died in 1848 their studio had produced over 2500 calotypes. Others (including, for example, John Muir Wood, Thomas Keith, and John Kibble) were active at this time and after. Thomas Annan in Glasgow, George Washington Wilson in Aberdeen and James Valentine in Dundee began companies that were soon at the forefront of photography.

Photography in East Lothian was slow to develop, but when it did it grew in popularity at a great rate. Before the end of the 19th century enthusiastic snappers had visited almost every corner of the county – time and again.

Carte-de-visite by Robert Conquer

The earliest notice of photography we can find in the collections of the John Gray Centre is an advertisement in the Haddingtonshire Courier of 23 November 1860. Robert Conquer of Haddington had opened Photographic Rooms on the High Street. He was responding to the rise of travelling photographers: in November of the following year Mr D. Davidson’s Portable Photographic Saloon was open near the Old Bowling Green offering portraits from 6d upwards, and he was surely not the first. Clues in the advertisements suggest both he and Conquer produced Ambrotypes – positive images on glass or leather.  But by the following spring Conquer had begun to offer cartes-de-visite from 3s 6d each and had progressed to calotypes.

carte-de-visite by William Nisbet

carte-de-visite by William Nisbet

Such was the growing popularity and increasing availability of photographs and photographic studios that within the decade the price of cartes had dropped to 6d: during August 1870 Andrew Innes of Dunbar was offering views at this price (and at 1 shilling for larger paper prints). Meanwhile, the self-taught polymath of Stenton, William Nisbet, had built his own camera, acquired the expertise and launched a rural photography business.

By the 1890s the growing popularity of East Lothian as a tourist resort had caught the attention of the big concerns. Both Wilson and Valentine offered a wide range of views – as paper prints of differing sizes and as books and portfolios. The number of photography studios had multiplied, particularly in North Berwick, where several ‘branch studios’ owned by out of town businesses were open in the summer months. It’s difficult to say how big the industry was in its late Victorian and Edwardian heyday – new operators are still being discovered. Several, particularly those that exploited the Edwardian boom in picture postcards, and dashed out short runs of home-produced views, may never be known: although the resources available at the John Gray Centre would be a good place to start finding out!

1885 photograph by Andrew Innes

The Local History Collections at the John Gray Centre contain well over 50,000 photographs (we’re still counting and cataloguing hard). These will be progressively added to the website but can be viewed and consulted in our search rooms during opening hours. We’ve added a page to help guide users through the minefield of dating early photographs.

5 thoughts on “Photography”

  1. Susan Martin says:

    Good Afternoon, I am doing family research and discovered this photo taken by D Sesnes between 1914-1919 in the Dunbar area. Do you have any further information, re the photographer
    The gentleman is William Jack Taylor my great uncle and his wife Jeannie Fyshe.

    Thanks Susan

    1. BillW says:

      I hope you got our email about this.

  2. David says:

    Hello Catriona

    As Helen says, we’d be able to give a better opinion if we saw what kind of photograph you have. When I wrote the page, I checked out Mr Conquer. In the 1861 census he was aged 29 and described as a photographer. So far so good. However, he’s not in Haddington in the 1851 census – or anywhere recorded in Scotland, or the rest of the UK for that matter. I wondered if he was off learning photography somewhere Continental!
    Turning to the adverts in the Courier. The 1860 one announces the commencement of his business and the 1861 example announces an innovation in technology – that’s when he began to make paper prints. Before then, everything was on glass mounted in a frame.
    I wonder if your photograph is of the Archie that emigrated or whether it’s one of the several others remaining in the Lothians, perhaps a relative? I know that in my own family Australian settlers were exchanging photos with the stay-at-homes in the 1870s. It made sorting out different Archies, Georges and Ernies very tricky!

  3. Catriona Williamson says:

    We have a photograph of Archie Banks, taken by R. Conquer of Haddington. Given that Archie and his wife emigrated to New Zealand in 1851, and he never returned to Scotland, the photograph has to have been taken in 1851 at the latest. This would suggest that Robert Conquer was plying his trade well before 1860 date suggested above. We are happy to share the image if you need it.

    1. HelenB says:

      Thanks Catriona, that’s fascinating! So interesting to hear what else is out there, and it really adds to our knowledge. We’d be delighted if you’d share the photo – you can do that via comment, though image size is limited to 30Kb, or you can email it to us to add in an addendum to the page. If sharing, please let us know if you’re happy for other people to use the photo for non-commercial purposes, so we can add a statement to let people know one way or the other. Our email address is [email protected].

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