George Washington Wilson: Queen Victoria’s Photographer in Scotland

Our latest exhibition in the Sir Duncan Rice Library Gallery – George Washington Wilson: Queen Victoria’s Photographer in Scotland, lent by Her Majesty The Queen from the Royal Collection – unfortunately had to close shortly after opening due to the COVID-19 outbreak. So, for those of you who missed out on seeing it during its brief opening, this blog showcases ten of the exhibition’s most significant images and their stories.

An Introduction to George Washington Wilson

George Washington Wilson (1823–93) was born near Banff. He initially trained as an artist but took up photography in 1852, establishing a business in Aberdeen. Soon after, he was commissioned to photograph Balmoral Castle by the royal family. This would ultimately lead to his appointment as ‘Photographer to Her Majesty in Scotland’.

He was also a highly successful landscape photographer. By the early 1880s, the company Wilson founded had become the largest and best-known photographic and printing firm in Scotland.

The entire collection of GW Wilson & Co. glass plate negatives is now in the care of the University of Aberdeen; these can be viewed digitally on our website.

The photographs below were kindly lent to the University of Aberdeen by Her Majesty the Queen from the Royal Collection.

The old and new Balmoral Castle
Wilson and Hay (active 1853–55)
c.1891, after original albumen prints of 1854

The Old and New Balmoral Castle
Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

In 1852 George Washington Wilson began to practise photography from his studio in Crown Street, Aberdeen. A year later he went into business with his friend John Hay. Together they initially produced photographic portraits, some of which were hand coloured.

In 1853, the rebuilding of Balmoral Castle began, soon to be the home of the royal family in Scotland. Wilson and Hay were commissioned by Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, to record this process. These four prints were originally taken by Wilson and Hay between March and October 1854. They include the old castle prior to its demolition in 1856 and the construction of the new castle.

Commissioned by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
RCIN 29315

Queen Victoria with Prince Albert, their children and Prince Frederick William of Prussia
George Washington Wilson (1823–93)
29 September 1855

Queen Victoria with Prince Albert
Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

This photograph was taken hours before Prince Frederick William of Prussia’s (1831–88) proposal to Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, Princess Victoria (1840–1901) at Balmoral. She eagerly accepted.

The photograph was a private commission intended as a record of the family gathering and was not released to the public as an official engagement photograph. This was the second royal commission that Wilson undertook alone, following the breakdown of his partnership with John Hay in January 1855. After taking this photograph, Wilson capitalised on his royal patronage and confidently gave himself the title of ‘Photographer to the Queen’.

Commissioned by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
RCIN 2106411

The Queen, Balmoral
George Washington Wilson (1823-93)
20 October 1863

Queen Victoria on Fyvie Image 1
Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019
Queen Victoria on Fyvie Image 2
Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

This portrait of Queen Victoria and John Brown, published in 1864, was Wilson’s most commercially successful image of the queen. The first image is a cropped version of the second, an original photograph that features the Queen on her pony, Fyvie, with two of her servants – John Brown (1827–83) and John Grant (1810–79). It was taken to mark the second anniversary of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s ‘Great Expedition’ of 1861, during which they trekked 84 miles into the highlands.

As a memorial to her deceased husband, the queen gave her consent for the image to be published. However, when Wilson issued the image as a carte-de-visite for sale to the public, the photograph was cropped to vertical. Grant was cropped out of the photograph, leaving only the queen with Brown, thereby fuelling rumours about the nature of their relationship.

Acquired by Queen Mary, 1932.
RCIN 2149209
RCIN 2333927 

Queen Victoria and her granddaughter, Princess Victoria, Balmoral
George Washington Wilson (1823–93)

Queen Victoria and her granddaughter
Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

During the autumn of 1863, Wilson and his assistant William Gellie (b.1823) had to cut short a photographic trip to north-western Scotland following a request from Queen Victoria to take portraits of her family at Balmoral. The portraits were described by one contemporary review as a ‘peculiarly happy’ series. Perhaps their relative informality is because the portraits were originally intended to be included in private albums.

In this portrait, Princess Victoria, Queen Victoria’s grandchild by her second daughter, Princess Alice, is shown seated on her grandmother’s lap.

Acquired by Queen Victoria.
RCIN 2149070

Loch of Park, Aberdeenshire (Wild Duck Shooting)
George Washington Wilson (1823–93)
c.1880, after an original albumen print of 1860

Loch of Park
Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Long exposure times of up to a minute caused moving subjects to appear blurred in early photographs. Wilson developed a technique of using a wide aperture and a developer to increase the light sensitivity of his negatives, thereby allowing exposure times of under a second. This enabled him to convey transient details in his photographs, like the smoke leaving the rifle in this image.

Wilson perfected this technique taking photos at the Loch of Park in Aberdeenshire in 1859 and 1860. The photos won the admiration of reviewers, with one suggesting that the views were ‘generally recognised as a new era in stereoscopic photography’ that ‘secured to Mr Wilson a name second to none in the Kingdom’.

Collected by Prince Albert.
RCIN 2320020

A Bay on Loch Katrine
George Washington Wilson (1823–93)

A Bay on Loch Katrine
Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Wilson contributed greatly to the craze for stereoscopic photographs, like this one. When viewed through stereoscopic viewers, these pairs of images formed a three-dimensional image for the viewer. Wilson also saw the commercial potential in photographing parts of Scotland that had become popular tourist destinations by the 1850s, having been made famous in literary works by writers like Walter Scott.

A stereoscopic viewer

Loch Katrine in the Trossachs provided the setting for Scott’s 1810 poem, The Lady of the Lake. Wilson’s stereoscope of A Bay on Loch Katrine was popular for its obvious association with the poem as well as its beauty. The position of the boat in the foreground enhances the 3D effect when this photograph is viewed through a stereoscopic viewer.

Acquired by HM Queen Elizabeth II, July 2018.
RCIN 2514399

Fingal’s Cave, Staffa
George Washington Wilson (1823–93)

Fingal's Cave, Staffa
Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

In 1860 Wilson set out to photograph some of the more remote regions of Scotland. Situated on the Isle of Staffa, the gaping mouth of Fingal’s Cave provides an excellent subject for a stereoscopic photograph. When this stereoscopic photograph is viewed in three-dimensions through a stereoscope, the viewer is invited into the depths of the cave itself.

The naturalist Sir Joseph Banks named the cave after the eponymous hero of a historical Gaelic poem made famous by James Macpherson during the early eighteenth century. The cave’s hexagonal basalt columns have inspired numerous creative minds, including the composer Felix Mendelssohn who wrote his overture, The Hebrides, following a visit to the cave in 1829.

Acquired by HM Queen Elizabeth II, July 2018
RCIN 2514412

Group including John and William Brown
George Washington Wilson (1823–93)

Group including John and William Brown
Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

John Brown was a valued member of Queen Victoria’s household. Wilson photographed other members of the Brown family including William Brown (1835–1906), the younger brother of John Brown, who stands on the right of the group. William married Elizabeth Patterson (1838–c.1896) at Crathie on 16 January 1868 and they had four children. In the 1881 census, William is described as a farmer living at Bush farm in the Parish of Crathie.

All the subjects wear Highland dress. Two young boys, possibly William’s sons, stand at the front: Albert (b. 1870) stands in front of his father and John (1872–c.1886) stands in front of the third, unidentified man. John Brown stands in the centre.

Acquired by Queen Victoria.
RCIN 2931201

John Brown and Margaret Brown, the parents of John Brown
George Washington Wilson (1823–93)

John Brown and Margaret Brown
Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

During his youth, John Brown (1827–83) – Queen Victoria’s favourite servant – worked as a stable boy in Pannanich, Deeside. He joined the royal household in 1851 as a ghillie to Prince Albert but was soon promoted to the position of Queen’s Personal Attendant. The queen found that during the depths of her mourning for her husband, Brown was one of few people who could enhance her mood.

This portrait of John Brown’s parents was probably taken outside their farm near Crathie. On the left stands John Brown Snr (1791–1875). John Brown’s mother Margaret (née Leys) (c.1800–76), whom Queen Victoria described as ‘a big stout woman’, is seated on the right. The woman standing in the middle may be Ann, the couple’s daughter.

Acquired by Queen Victoria.
RCIN 2931198

Balmoral Tableaux: ‘India’
Charles Albert Wilson (1864–1958)
6 October 1888

Balmoral Tableaux, India
Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Some of the last royal photographs taken under the Wilson & Co. name were of various tableaux vivants performed at Balmoral in 1888 and 1893. For a tableau vivant – French for ‘living picture’ – a cast of characters represented scenes from literature, art, history, or everyday life on a stage.

In this scene Princess Beatrice, Queen Victoria’s youngest child, is depicted as the personification of the Indian Empire. Beatrice wore Queen Victoria’s Indian jewellery and, according to the queen, was ‘draped most correctly in beautiful stuffs which Abdul [Karim] had helped to arrange’.

Abdul Karim, a young Indian attendant who became a favourite of the Queen after the death of her attendant John Brown, stands on the left in the background.

Commissioned by Queen Victoria.
RCIN 2980117


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