The Disruption of the Church of Scotland

The Disruption of the Church of Scotland

Considered the first artwork painted using photographic imagery as primary source material, (1.) this commemorative carbon copy photograph, which has faded slightly, shows the painting of the “Disruption” of the Church of Scotland, taken in 1866 by important Scottish photographer Thomas Annan (1829-1887) in the same year it was completed. Showing the First General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland signing the Act of Separation and Deed of Demission on May 23, 1843, the work by Royal Scottish Academy of Fine Arts secretary and pioneering photographer David Octavius Hill (1802-1870) was in itself possible by the new invention of permanent photography made only four years before the work was conceived.

Alternately, the idea for the painting- credited to Hill in the Art Union journal of London on its completion to assembly attendee Dr. Robert Gordon, (2.)  said to have given Hill the idea for the work after seeing one of his sketches of the signing in 1843- would be more rightly credited to Sir David Brewster. (1781-1868) A Scottish physicist who did groundbreaking work on optics, Brewster was also present at the signing, and gave Hill the idea photography instead could make his job of depicting the accurate likenesses of some of the hundreds of people present on the historic occasion a bold reality.

Hill & Adamson Formed

But Hill was a painter, not a photographer. In addition to scientific experiments Brewster carried out in his capacity as a principal at the University of Saint Andrews located outside of Edinburgh in Fife, he became interested in the new calotype or “Talbotype” paper negative photographic process invented by his friend and correspondent William Henry Fox Talbot in the early 1840’s. Brewster was joined in these experiments by university chemistry professor John Adamson, and by 1842 they had taught the technique of calotype to Adamson’s younger brother Robert Adamson, (1821-1848) who soon moved to Edinburgh in early 1843 where he established the first calotype portrait studio in Scotland at his home at Rock House.

The synergy of Hill & Adamson would soon follow. Writing in 2000, Malcolm Daniel, of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, wrote a defining essay on the duo, with details of how the idea behind the Disruption painting came into being:

Brewster, sensing that Hill’s intention to sketch each of the several hundred ministers before they returned to the far corners of Scotland would be close to impossible, suggested that the painter use the services of the newly established Adamson to make photographic sketches instead. “I got hold of the artist,” Brewster wrote to Talbot in early June, “showed him the Calotype, & the eminent advantage he might derive from it in getting likenesses of all the principal characters before they were dispersed to their respective homes. He was at first incredulous, but went to Mr. Adamson, and arranged with him preliminaries for getting all the necessary portraits.” Within weeks Hill was completely won over, and the two were working seamlessly in partnership. As artistic director, Hill composed each picture, placing his sitters as they might appear in the finished painting. (3.)

Daniel made this further observation about the significance of the Hill & Adamson union:

In four-and-a-half years and nearly 3,000 images, they pioneered the aesthetic terrain of photography and created a body of work that still ranks among the highest achievements of photographic portraiture. (4.)

The finished painting, which took 23 years to complete by Hill from these hundreds of calotypes, done as singular posed portraits or from group photos of as many as 25 subjects, (5.) were all taken by Adamson with “stage direction” by Hill of how he envisioned them in the completed painting.

The Clumsy Result

Described as a “historical picture” (6.) when completed in 1866, the large twelve-foot painting today could best be described by this reviewer in aesthetic terms as being more scientific than artistic. The overall effect is that of a veritable “sea of heads” taking up most of the canvas in the finished painting, which has been on public display at the Free Presbytery Hall at The Mound in Edinburgh since its completion- depicting 457 people associated with the Disruption from the Hill & Adamson calotypes: “from a total of 1500 present, 386 of whom signed the Act that day.” (6.)

As mentioned earlier, the finished work in the pages of the 1866 London Art Union gave credit to Hill, but with absolutely no credit to the role Photography and Adamson’s role played in its creation, other than the following sublime reference by the author of the article: “Few persons, save painters, can estimate the difficulties overcome by the artist in this picture,”. The magazine’s full dissection of the work:

The Disruption Of The Church Of Scotland.

Mr. D. O. Hill has, with a heroism unsurpassed in the history of Art, completed his picture of ‘The Signing of the Deed of Demission,’ an act by which nearly five hundred Scottish clergymen voluntarily gave up their homes and their livings rather than surrender the independent jurisdiction of their Church in matters spiritual. The incident which Mr. Hill sets forth is the most remarkable event of “the ten years’ conflict,” and certainly the most impressive that has occurred in the history of the Church of Scotland since the days of John Knox. The subject was suggested by the late Dr. Robert Gordon, of the High Church, Edinburgh, who, when the artist showed him a sketch of another subject having reference to the same course of events, said,—”I should like to see the representation of something that would signify the completion of the disruption, such as the signing of the deed of demission.” The picture presents not less than four hundred and seventy portraits, a herculean task which might well represent the labour of twenty-three years. The scene is the hall at Canonmills, where the first Free Assembly met, and the instant point is Dr. Patrick McFarlane about to sign away the largest stipend in Scotland— that of Greenock. The assemblage contains the portraits of many persons who were not actually present, but were known to be friendly to the movement. Among the celebrities represented, are Lord Jeffrey, Dr. Somerville, John Maitland. Campbell of Tilliechewan, McFie of Langhouse, Dr. Gordon, Hugh Miller, Dr. Chalmers, Dr. Welsh, Dr. Hanna, the Marquis of Breadalbane, Dr. Julius Wood, Dr. Duff, Sir David Brewster, the Lord Provost of Edinburgh. Few persons, save painters, can estimate the difficulties overcome by the artist in this picture, in which we believe all the likenesses are so faithful as to be at once recognisable. The picture is on exhibition in Cockspur Street. It has been photographed, and prints will shortly be ready for distribution to subscribers. (8.)

Carbon prints by Thomas Annan

The Disruption painting was originally proposed as an engraved subscription work when first envisioned by Hill in 1843. (9.) He intended publication shortly after the projected two or three year period it would take him to paint it. But that would have been if he had drawn the work.  Instead, he chose photographs as his source material, and with it, a 23-year journey to completion.
The finished result was also serendipitous for the role photography would play over that of engraving. This time, Hill went with the obvious choice: a recording medium as accurate as the many individual “works of art” used in its making in order to disseminate the Disruption to a large audience. For this, Glasgow’s Thomas Annan was chosen by Hill to make enlarged carbon photographs from it in 1866. A lengthy but necessary article in understanding Annan’s role follows in its entirety from the London weekly Photographic News:


We have referred, in a previous article, to the successful application of carbon printing to some very large reproductions. It may be interesting to our readers to learn a few particulars of these reproductions, as illustrating the mode in which photography is taking the place of engraving for many valuable purposes in the rapid duplication of works of fine art. The progressive people of Glasgow have before signified their appreciation of photography for the purpose of art reproduction in the successive issues of photographs in connection with their Art Union. In the present instance, photography is applied on a more extensive scale for this purpose than on any previous occasion that we remember; and the picture will become historical in connection with photography as the first large issue, consisting of photographs of the largest size, ever produced by carbon printing.

The subject is one full of interest to every one who can admire heroic self-abnegation in the assertion of principle, and to Scotchmen will possess in especial value as an illustration of national character, whatever their especial views on the question at issue. It is a picture commemorative of the Disruption in the Church of Scotland in 1843. The subject is the “Signing of the Deed of Demission,” painted by Mr. D. O. Hill, Secretary to the Royal Scottish Academy, a gentleman whoso name has been many years associated with a deep interest in the art capacity of photography, and with some of the most artistic calotype portraits ever produced. The picture contains nearly five hundred portraits of ministers of the Scotch Church, who gave up livings, manses, glebes in short, all the temporalities which their connection with the Church gave them in the assertion of liberty of conscience. Photographs of the picture will be issued in three sizes, ranging from 24 inches by 9 inches to 48 inches by 21 1/4 inches, at prices ranging from a guinea and a half to twelve guineas; and we believe a very handsome subscription list has already been obtained. The following extracts contain some details, which will be read with interest:

In 1843, when this work was projected, a prospectus of a high-priced engraving from it, in mixed mezzotint, in which the painter was pledged that his canvas would contain upwards of two hundred portraits, was issued, and subscribed largely for. The long delay, however, in the production of the picture, arising, in great measure, from its now greatly expanded plan, and the more than doubled number of portraits introduced, rendered the subscription list in a large measure unavailable; and as the execution of such an engraving, of any high degree of excellence, would involve another long and uncertain term of years, the whole scheme of an engraving has been abandoned.

The recent extraordinary advance of the science and practice of photography has suggested to the artist a more rapid and a more exquisite mode of reproduction than, in the circumstances, he could have hoped for from any engraver, however skilful; and after much careful consideration, and with high professional approval, he has entered into an arrangement with that admirable photographer, Mr. Thomas Annan, of Glasgow and Hamilton, for the rendering of his picture in several sizes of photographs, varying from 20 to 48 inches in breadth, lie will thus be enabled to supply copies of different sizes and prices, but all, as the specimens will show, of a style of photographic manipulation equally admirable, novel, and-extraordinary.

His negotiations with Mr. Annan were scarcely completed, when he was made aware by that gentleman of the perfecting of a process of printing in carbon, patented by Mr. Swan of Newcastle, which not only produces prints of a delicacy and power markedly superior to the best specimens of the old method of printing, but, by substituting carbon for the residuum of silver, secures the impressions from the chances of evanescence, and renders them as permanent, according to the highest chemical authority, as they are remarkable for delicacy, beauty, and power.

Mr. Annan having for this work commissioned, from the eminent optician, Mr. Dallmeyer, a large photographic camera of the latest and most perfect construction, has already produced from the picture a considerable number of negatives of consummate excellence, of which brilliant proofs in the old silver printing have been obtained of various sizes, and these are now exhibited along with the picture. But along-side of them is now shown “the first impression in permanent carbon printing,” by Mr. Swan, produced by his patented process, which already, in his hands, seems to have reached the very acme of perfection.

It is worthy of notice, in passing, that the portraits made chiefly for this picture in 1843 by Mr. Hill and his late friend, Mr. Robert Adamson of St. Andrews, by the then newly-discovered photographic process of Mr. Fox Talbot, called the Calotype or Talbotype, but until then almost unknown or unapplied as a vehicle of artistic thought and expression, were mainly the means of first raising the process to the rank of a fine art, or rather to that of one of its most magical and potent auxiliaries. And it is a striking coincidence, that while the commencement of the picture was thus marked by the elevation and higher application of photography, its completion, by a combination of improved processes, seems destined to aid in the inauguration of a new era in the reproduction of works of art. And it may also be remarked that, long retarded as the completion of the picture has been, its translation and multiplication by photographs, so beautiful, and at the same time imperishable, even a few weeks or months earlier than the present time, could not, by any then existing means known to the artist, have been secured.

It may be here stated that economy had no place in the arrangements for abandoning the scheme of the engraving and adopting that of the photograph as a means of reproduction ; for besides the saving or years of anxious waiting, above referred to, the engraving of a large plate would, in the event of a wide circulation, have been a much less expensive undertaking than the printing of a great number of large photographs. It should also be stated that no impression will be issued that does not pass the approval of two gentlemen in Edinburgh eminent for their photographic knowledge, and who, by mutual arrangement between the painter and photographer, will have a veto on all impressions they shall consider not up to a high standard. On the other hand, it is a fact known to all practical photographers, that a comparatively small number “of the impressions come out with more than ordinary brilliance,” which renders them as desirable acquisitions as are the artist’s proofs of a high-class engraving; these, under the name of Selected Artist’s Proofs, and properly guaranteed and signed as such, will be charged about a third more than the ordinary impressions, which, however, as has been before stated, will all be of a high class. (10.)

A 25th anniversary Carbon Print

Mounted on an over-sized heavy card with letterpress giving the particulars of the progress of the Free Church since the “Disruption“, this copy photograph is believed to have been published in 1868 on the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Act of Separation and Deed of Demission, based on this date supplied with commemorative letterpress below the photograph. (11.) Issued by subscription by the Edinburgh publisher  R. Alexander, the following letterpress appears on the support, with the copy photograph credited to THOs. ANNAN, Phot.:


(Church of Scotland emblem of Biblical Burning Bush with Latin inscription “Nec Tamen Consumebatur” (translating to:  “Yet it was not consumed”.)

The First General Assembly of the Free Church Signing the Act of Separation & Deed of Demission
Tanfield.  Edinburgh.
Thomas Chalmers  Moderator  23rd May 1843.

From the Commemorative Picture Painted by D.O. Hill, R.S.A. Now in Possession of the Free Church of Scotland.

The Free Church of Scotland, since her separation from the Establishment in 1843 when nearly 500 Clergymen voluntarily resigned their homes and livings, has built 900 Churches, 650 Manses, 3 Theological Colleges, 2 Normal or Training Institutions, and 500 Schools.  Her average annual Income for the 3 years previous to 1868 has been £370,000, and during her 25 years of existence without State support, the sum raised by her amounts to over Eight Millions Sterling.

Edinburgh: Published for the Proprietors by R. Alexander, 16 Royal Exchange.
Entered at Stationers’ Hall.



1. The Disruption Picture: from: University of Glasgow online resource: accessed: July, 2014
2.  The Art-Journal: London: June, 1867: p. 158. Gordon was affiliated with the High Church, Edinburgh.
3. Malcolm Daniel. “David Octavius Hill (1802–1870) and Robert Adamson (1821–1848) (1840s)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000 accessed: Aug., 2014
4. Ibid
5. Ibid
6. 1866 volume: ‪The Disruption of the Church of Scotland‬: ‪An Historical Picture (containing Four Hundred and Fifty Portraits) Representing the Signing of the Deed of Demission by the Ministers of the First General Assembly of the Free Church, Painted by D.O. Hill ; with Key-plate and Index‬.
7. The Disruption Picture: from: University of Glasgow online resource: accessed: Aug., 2014
8. The Art-Journal: London: June, 1867: p. 158
9. see background by Malcolm Daniel: footnote #3
10. “Large Carbon Reproductions” : in: The Photographic News: A Weekly Record of the Progress of Photography: London:  Vol. X, No.408, June 29, 1866, pp. 304-305. (thanks to website Luminous Lint)
11. The Dunedin, New Zealand bookseller A.R. Livingston carried several advertisements for what is believed to be this 1868 commemorative copy photograph, placed in the Otago Daily Times. One of the earliest examples can be seen in issue 1911: February 10, 1868: p. 3.

The Disruption of the Church of Scotland

Image Dimensions13.5 x 31.4 cm (pasted onto support)

Support DimensionsDetail: 34.4 x 41.4 cm (cream-colored cardstock)