The Doric Columns

George Washington Wilson

- Photographer & Artist

George Washington Wilson (7 February 1823 - 9 March 1893) was a pioneering Photographer.

Born in Alvah, Banffshire.
Appointed a joiner in his native parish.

Did a good deal of portrait painting.
Studied at the Academy schools in Edinburgh.
Studied at the Royal Academy School in London.
Received lessons from the miniature portrait painter, Mr Corbould.
Returned to Aberdeen, intending to take up portrait painting.
Constructed several remarkably good lenses, with which he carried out a series of very interesting experiments.
Entered in to partnership as a miniature portrait painter with Mr Hay
Experimented with stereoscopic photography.
Was the first person to photograph the Queen and Prince Consort at Old Balmoral, and returned frequently to take more photographs.
Commissioned by Emperor Frederick to paint a series of sketches of  Deeside scenery.
Commenced business as a photographer at 25 Crown Street, Aberdeen
Travelled to Braemar, the Trossachs, the Falls of Clyde and many of the wilder parts of Scotland.
Became a director of the Opera House Company and Aberdeen Music Hall and of the Aberdeen Market Company.
Ceased, in recent years, to take a leading role in his photographic business, but returned to painting, producing oil portraits of several of his old friends.

After studying art in Edinburgh and London, Wilson returned to his native city of Aberdeen in 1849 and established a business as a portrait miniaturist catering to the wealthy families of the North East.  After some years of mediocre success,  Wilson ventured into portrait photography in 1852 setting a portrait studio with John Hay in 25 Crown Street in Aberdeen. From there, aided by his well-developed technical and commercial acumen and a contract to photograph the Royal Family while documenting the building of Balmoral Castle in 1854-1855, he established himself as one of Scotland's premier photographers working for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1860.  Pioneering the development of techniques for photography outside of the studio and the mass production of photographic prints, he moved increasingly from portraiture to landscape photography in the 1860s. He also produced stereoscopic pictures whose main characteristic was that exposures were very short. By 1864 he claimed to have sold over half a million prints. At the time of his death in 1893 (he had handed over the business to his sons, Charles, Louis and John Hay Wilson in 1888) the firm employed 40 staff and was one of the largest publishers of photographic prints in the world, competing with James Valentine, who was also a prolific photographer, with a large company in Dundee. The business survived until 1908, when it was wound up at auction.  Over 40,000 of Wilson's photographic glass plates still exist today, largely due to the meticulous washing and chemical treatments he insisted on.

The Digitised Collection - Users of the system can simply type the name of the town, city or landmark they are looking for at George Washington Wilson Collection and can then ‘zoom in’ on the photographs to reveal shop names, the writing on posters, the clothing worn by those captured in the image and a many other details without losing the quality of the image.

Wilson began his professional life as an artist, having studied art in both Edinburgh and Paris, but became fascinated by the new collotypes.

By 1849 he had returned to Aberdeen and began to build a photographic camera for the purpose of taking photographic portraits. Within just 7 years of constructing his own equipment his mastery of the wet collodian technique was such that he was easily the best photographer in the whole of Scotland. 140 years on his plates exhibit such technical proficiency that a modern photographer would have to try hard to surpass Wilson's best efforts.


File:Queen Victoria, photographed by George Washington Wilson (1863).jpgNot satisfied in taking studio portraits (even though Queen Victoria had been one of his photographic subjects in 1855) Wilson constructed a portable darkroom and toured not only Scotland but many foreign countries, always taking more photographs to add to his collection for later publication as post cards.  It must have been a major exercise to take outdoor photographs in the mid to late 19th century since the wet collodian process required each plate to be individually prepared, all in the dark, shortly before exposure, and during his tours Wilson would always have at least one assistant in attendance.

A vast quantity of Wilson's original plates exist to this day. In 1958 at the age of 94 Charles Wilson, George's son, bequeathed what was thought to be the entire store of negatives to Aberdeen Public Library, consisting mainly of examples from Wilson foreign tours, e.g. his trip to South Africa.

However in the 1970's a major discovery of further negatives was made in the loft of an Aberdeen home and were later donated to the University of Aberdeen. The collection in the possession of the University has recently been transferred to CD-ROM and can be browsed using a dedicated PC within the Queen Mother Library, Meston Walk, Old Aberdeen. A number of G W Wilson's digitized images, ranging from Aberdeen to as far afield as Australia, can be viewed at the above website.

John Brown & Queen Victoria with 'Fyvie'.

1853:  Exhibited  photographs in exhibition

1854:  Appointed by Prince Albert to take photographs of the Royal Family at Balmoral, for which he was paid 3 Guineas per day.

1855:  Began to produce annual photo-collages of many of the well known characters of Aberdeen.  This brought in business as more people competed to be included in the collages.

1873:  Appointed 'Photographer Royal' to Her Majesty Queen Victoria.

1880: GWW was selling his views in his Tours of Scotland albums.  The purchaser was allowed to choose which photos should be included in their album, from a selection of over 10,000 photos in the GWW Collection.

GWW Grave at Nellfield Cemetary, Great Western Road

In 1875, the photographer George Washington Wilson acquired a vacant site at St Swithin Street, near Queens Cross, when he was forced to leave his premises at the Old Distillery at Glenburnie which were required for redevelopment.  By late 1876, this building had been constructed and his stock of materials had been transferred.  On the evening of 14th June 1882, a fire broke out in the offices and nearly all his stock of prints and much of his machinery were lost. However, because his negatives were stored in part of the building which was not destroyed, his business could continue and rebuilding took place. Because of his Royal connections he received a telegram of sympathy from Queen Victoria at Balmoral.

Sir David Gill, who took the 1st photograph of the moon in 1868, was born in Aberdeen.  This photograph was taken by George Washington Wilson and David Gill between 1868 and 1869. George Washington Wilson was best known for his photographs of buildings, landscapes and people. He also did experimental photography. In 1868-69 he worked with Astronomer David Gill to take a number of photographs of the moon. This was done in Aberdeen.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013