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Art in Scotland
David Octavius Hill


DAVID OCTAVIUS HILL, R.S.A.
Born, 1802; died, 17th May 1870.

Few men have done so much to advance art in their native country as this well-known landscape -painter. "During the checkered and sometimes stormy period while our Academy, now so happily and firmly established among us, was contending for existence, and afterwards for position and independence, he held the prominent position of secretary. His zeal amounted to enthusiasm for the cause of the Academy and of Scottish art, and was never wanting. He never wavered under any amount of difficulty or discouragement; and along with such allies as Sir William Allan, (Sir) George Harvey, now the president, and Mr Thomas Hamilton, the architect of the High School, who was called the Achilles of the Academy, Mr Hill fought the battles of the Academy with a singleness of purpose, and a devotion of time and talent, which in effect impaired his efforts towards attaining the first-rate place in art otherwise within reach of his fertile and felicitous genius."

In such terms his services in the cause of advancing the position of art in Scotland were recognised by the public press on the day after his death. Apart from this, he led a quiet and uneventful life in his home at Calton Hill, the familiar resort for many years of some of the best and most cultured people in Edinburgh.

His father was a bookseller in Perth, where the artist's boyish efforts in art induced his parents to send him to Edinburgh to study at the Trustees' Academy under Andrew Wilson, and where he made rapid progress. His earliest productions were a series of views in Perthshire lithographed by himself, and his first appearance on the walls of an exhibition was in 1823, when he exhibited some landscapes. Subsequently to this he attempted figure -painting, when he produced several domestic pictures, among which were a Scotch Wedding and a scene from the 'Gentle Shepherd,' but soon after returned to pursue the path on which he first entered, and his name is now exclusively connected with pictures of Scottish scenery, more especially the localities referred to in the works of Robert Burns, or places with which the poet was associated. For about forty years he was secretary to the Academy, and in 1869 resigned the position on account of ill health, when, in recognition of his services, the members resolved to continue his salary for life, at the same time commissioning his portrait from Mr Herdman for their library. During all these years he was a regular contributor to the Academy's exhibitions, the most prominent among his pictures being a little Lonely Shore, and the Valley of the Nith, in 180; Fotheringay Castle and a Sunset on a Highland Shore with the Departure of an Emigrant Ship, in 1852; Ruins of Dunfermline Palace, in 1854; Dunsinane, in 1855; and his well-known large Windsor Castle. From the sparkling nature of their effects, his works were remarkably well adapted for the purpose of engraving, and his name has been spread far and wide by the sixty illustrations to the 'Land of Burns,' published by the Messrs Blackie, a work of very great merit. The originals of these, painted in oil, were exhibited in Edinburgh in 1851-52, and it was the intention of the painter and publishers to present them towards the formation of a Burns gallery near the poet's birthplace; but it was not carried out, on account of fundsfor the necessary building not being forthcoming. He was the first to suggest the idea of the Association for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Scotland, which was heartily taken up by his friends John Steel], R.S.A., and Sheriff Henry Glassford Bell, who devised its constitution in the form of an Art Union. The last-mentioned gentleman was the first to make the scheme publicly known, which thus became the parent of the numerous progeny since appearing in Scotland. The late Thomas Hill, who was the artist's brother, was a print- seller in Edinburgh, and it was owing to the efforts of David that he was induced to extend and develop his business by publishing a large number of beautiful and costly engravings. Among other pursuits which he followed in addition to his professional labours, he practised the recent invention of photography, and in conjunction with his friend Mr R. Adamson, assisted in developing the Talbotype process, in which he produced many artistic results, among which were portraits of some of his brother artists, such as Sir William Allan, and Henning the Elgin-frieze restorer— both remarkable for their picturesque treatment and character. These were published in 1844.

In 1866 he completed his large and laborious picture of the Signing the Deed of Demission and Act of Separation, which was suggested by and commemorative of the Disruption in the Church of Scotland, by which nearly 500 clergymen, on a point of principle, voluntarily resigned their manses and livings as ministers of the Established Kirk in 1843. The picture includes 470 portraits, and represents the first meeting of the Free Church in Tanfield: it is now in the Hall of the Free Church in Edinburgh. Such a work afforded no scope for artistic treatment, and Sam Bough used during its progress to indulge in his practical joking, by making it known privately to everybody, that he had composed a poetical description of the picture, to be published simultaneously with its exhibition. The sum of £1500 was subscribed for its purchase, by adherents of the Free Church mainly, £1200 of which consisted of £100 subscriptions; and this sum Hill received, he retaining the copyright of the picture, which was reproduced by the autotype process of photography. Regarding the value of this picture, Sir George Harvey set it down at 3000 guineas. As considerable dissent from this was expressed, Sir George's letter, addressed to Mr John Miller of Milifield as representing the committee, was made public, in which he thus explains himself: "The work has been in hand rather more than twenty-one years; but say ten of these have been occupied upon it, which is, I consider, a moderate estimate, and in the circumstances the price, exclusive of exhibition and copyright, which Mr Hill reserves, could not possibly be less than 3000 guineas. This sum, supposing it had been paid by instalments during the progress of the work, would have been 300 guineas a-year, less expenses—surely a moderate return for the exercise of the talents of so gifted a person as Mr Hill during the very best period of his life."

He was in 1840 appointed by the Government one of the Commissioners of the Board of Manufactures in Scotland, which has the control of the School of Art and the National Gallery, and died on the 17th of May 1870.

There is no Scottish artist so many of whose works have been engraved. The greater number of them were painted with this object in view, and consequently are less valuable as paintings than as subjects for interpretation by the engraver. In addition to his numerous book illustrations, his View of Edinburgh from the Castle, and his Windsor Castle, both engraved on a large scale, are familiar to all.

In personal appearance he was remarkable for his striking, classical, and manly features, perpetuated by Mr Herdman's portrait, and the marble bust executed by his talented and fondly attached wife, the sister of Sir J. Noel Paton. "As a friend and companion, he will ever be remembered by those who knew him as one possessed of admirable talents for promoting the happiness of the society in which he moved, combining kindness, wit, and humour, with an innate modesty which never allowed him to say anything hard or uncharitable of any one."


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