From the Archive | William Donaldson Clark

The second in our series exploring the archive of writing on photography from over thirty years of the Scottish Society for the History of Photography (SSHoP). This one, by Julie Lawson, looks at the work William Donaldson Clark. It comes from a 1989 edition of the Scottish Photography Bulletin.

The National Gallery and Royal Institution (Royal Scottish Academy), Edinburgh, About 1858
William Donaldson Clark, The National Gallery and Royal Institution (Royal Scottish Academy), Edinburgh, About 1858, National Galleries of Scotland

William Donaldson Clark was born in Ayr, the son of a ship’s master. The fact that his father ‘sailed all his life to foreign parts without once incurring serious mishap’, was considered singular enough to warrant mention in the entry on Clark’s elder brother, Thomas, in the Dictionary of National Biography. Of their mother, we learn that she was ‘a woman of character and ingenuity, who invented the so-called “Ayrshire needlework”‘1. Details of William’s early education are not recorded, but he probably attended Ayr Academy, as did his brother, whose nickname there was ‘the philosopher’, and who ended up as professor of chemistry at Aberdeen University. Thomas had, at the age of fifteen, been apprenticed to the famed ‘Macintosh, waterproofer’ in Glasgow. By the time William was fifteen, his older brother had gained his M.D. at Glasgow University. William Donaldson Clark probably left school at about this time. We know that ‘at an early age he was engaged to superintend extensive print-works in Dumbartonshire’2, having by this time gained ‘an extensive and accurate knowledge of chemistry’: later he ‘went to take charge of similar, but more extensive, works in Lancashire, where he soon gained for himself the reputation of being one of the most thoroughly-educated and best calico printers in the country’.3

The Grassmarket, Edinburgh, About 1860, National Galleries of Scotland
William Donaldson Clark, The Grassmarket, Edinburgh, About 1860, National Galleries of Scotland (Fig. 1)

Clark retired from business while still relatively young, in the 1850s, and returned to Scotland. He bought a large house in Edinburgh, which, his obituarist informs us, he ‘furnished in a most sumptuous manner, and soon gathered round him a circle of friends interested in art and photography, to both of which he devoted much attention, and in the practice of the latter he was eminently successful.’ For a brief period, Clark went into business again: ‘Finding time hang heavy on his hands, in spite of his interest in photography, [he] purchased the business of the late Alexander Hill picture dealer, printseller, publisher, and artists’ colourman … his establishment in Princes Street was a favourite resort for people of cultivated taste from all parts of the country. A few years’ experience however, convinced him that the retail trade was not so congenial as he had expected, and he retired into private life and his favourite practice again?’ His favourite practice was, of course, photography.

Lancet windows, Melrose Abbey, view, 1866
William Donaldson Clark, Lancet windows, Melrose Abbey, view, 1866, National Galleries of Scotland (Fig. 2)

Clark’s interest in photography had begun while he was in the north of England. He had been involved with the very active confraternity of photographers in Manchester. He joined the Photographic Society of Scotland in November 1864, having been proposed by Thomas Borthwick Johnston, a member of the council of the Society, who had in the same month proposed ‘Mrs Cameron, Isle of Wight’. Clark soon became one of the leading lights of the Society. He was elected Secretary in 1867, a position he held until the Society was disbanded in 1871. Clark was also a Vice-President of the Edinburgh Photographic Society, ‘in which he took a warm interest, and to which he contributed quietly much valuable information’.8 He may, while he had the Princes Street shop, have produced photographs commercially, since, though ostensibly an amateur, he is described on his death certificate as ‘photographer’.

The Scott Monument and the Royal Institution (now the Royal Scottish Academy)
William Donaldson Clark, Princes Street, The Scott Monument and the Royal Institution, About 1858, National Galleries of Scotland (Fig. 3)

Many of the interesting papers that Clark read at meetings of the various societies were reported in the British Journal of Photography, and this gives us an insight into his own practices and opinions as a photographer. In particular, he was an exponent of the collodio¬≠-albumen process, a dry collodion method invented by the French chemist, Taupenot, in 1855. This was not a popular process, and Clark was unusual in using it so extensively. The lengthy exposure time required meant that any movement – of people, animals or trees on a breezy day – would result in them registering as blurred areas of tonal distortion in the photograph (Fig. 1). The process was also thought, in the hands of other practitioners, to lack subtlety, and to give too harshly contrasted ‘black and white’ results. Clark, however, believed that the advantages far outweighed these disadvantages. On the practical side, the glass plates could be prepared in advance rather than on the spot, thus obviating the need to transport a dark-tent and volatile chemicals. Clark also, semi-jocularly pointed out that the photographer who employed the dry process ‘need entertain no fear that he would be refused admission on his route by the hotel-keepers, who, mindful of the stains and messes attendant on wet-plate men, naturally looked upon photographic visitors with a degree of dislike’.9 On a more serious note, he said: ‘With regard to the quality of the results, after giving much attention to the subject, I have come to the conclusion that a fine collodio¬≠albumen negative is, on the whole, a better thing than a fine negative by the wet process. There is a combination of force and delicacy to be had with collodio-albumen that is very difficult to secure with wet collodion.’ There may be an element of modesty here, for Clark’s skill in handling a process that others found so difficult was evidently the significant factor in the superiority of his results.

Another photographer, John Nicol, when discussing the dry process and its attendant difficulties some years after Clark’s death, cited Clark as an exemplary case:

‘…[Clark’s] dry-plate work at the time of its production was far ahead of that of most of his contemporaries, and some of his pictures that lie before me while I write are still equal to anything that is being done at the present time. His method… was to use a developer so weak that a dozen hours or more were required to bring out the detail of the image, and sometimes three or four times as much to produce sufficient density. During that time the plate was frequently removed from the solution, washed and dried, and such parts as were sufficiently intense varnished to protect them from further action and again returned, till the whole was completed to his satisfaction’.

This painstakingly slow developing of the negative was the reason for Clark’s success.

The one occasion on which Clark employed the wet collodion process was when, in 1866, in the company of John Smith of Darnick he made a photographic record of Melrose Abbey. This project was undertaken in the spring of 1866, and resulted in the production of over a hundred negatives. Clark wrote an account of this venture in the British Journal of Photography.’ He explains: ‘As we had a suitable dark room close to the abbey, with a supply of water in it, put at our disposal, we used the wet process. I am indebted to Mr Smith’s good manipulation for the large number of clean and bright negatives we secured.’ He added: ‘In a case like this, where we intended to take a large series of views of one building … I would prefer the wet process; but when taking a series of views at distant points from each other I would much rather use collodio-albumen plates. It is an advantage in the country to be able to get rid of tents, baths and solutions of silver, and other substances that produce stains on the hands and clothes. To be able to concentrate the attention on the camera and its slides only, and to have no distracting thoughts about baths and such things, is no mean advantage that dry plates have over wet ones’.

While at Melrose, Clark ‘took a large furnished house, which he opened freely to his friends – which included nearly all lovers of the camera in Edinburgh’.” An eminent visitor to this photography scene was Sir David Brewster who actually lived in Melrose. He appears with his young daughter (who proved too lively even for the wet collodion process!) in one of Clark’s photographs.

William Donaldson Clark, The Lawnmarket, head of the West Bow, Edinburgh, About 1860,
William Donaldson Clark, The Lawnmarket, head of the West Bow, Edinburgh, About 1860, National Galleries of Scotland, Gift of Mrs. Riddell in memory of Peter Fletcher Riddell, 1985 (Fig. 4)

Commentators at the time praised Clark’s work. One critic, after seeing Clark’s ‘views of Edinburgh by Taupenot’s process’ at an exhibition in Aberdeen described them as ‘the finest photographs I have seen by that process having nearly all the softness and delicacy of wet collodion’.’ We might go further than that critic and state that Clark’s views of Edinburgh are amongst the finest ever taken, by any process. The curious sense of seeing anew, perhaps even for the first time, places and monuments that are more than familiar, that actually stand as icons embodying the essence of a great city, is conveyed by Clark’s photographs of Edinburgh. Perhaps this was because he had not lived there all his life, and was able to bring the eye of an outsider, a voyeur, to the place. His own modesty would have suggested this, no doubt. We might claim for him more than that, and suggest that Clark was one of those rare beings who are able to use the camera as a means of proposing, or more passively, gaining access to a new way of seeing.

The Cowgate Arch of George IV Bridge, Edinburgh
William Donaldson Clark, The Cowgate Arch of George IV Bridge, Edinburgh, About 1860, National Galleries of Scotland (Fig. 5)

The photographs are not without rhetoric, and to that extent may be properly seen as calculated in their effects. A strong sense of time, for instance, is present in these views of an historic city. In Princes Street (Fig. 3), the classical and the gothic are side by side. They are, of course, contemporaneous; but Clark as-it-were conspiratorially reinforces the inference of the passage of centuries. We are confronted inexorably by the present, and the ambiguity of its co-existence with the past, by the figure of the tradesman with his horse and cart patiently accommodating the photographer in the medieval Lawnmarket (Fig. 4). In Cowgate, George IV Bridge (Fig. 5), the principles of classical order and monumentality are contrasted with those of the medieval picturesque and accidental. Or perhaps it is the squalor and chaos of ‘modern’ life that is ironically thrown into relief by the contrast. The bridge, as a work of urban improvement – more than mere utility, positively august, even imperial, in its architectural resonance and built to stand forever – bestrides darkness and disorder close-to. The experience of those below is of being dwarfed: above, pass the masters of their destiny. The camera states the contrast between lives laying different claims to ‘reality’ and ‘modernity’, and takes the part of those below.

William Donaldson Clark, White Horse Close, Edinburgh, About 1860,
William Donaldson Clark, White Horse Close, Edinburgh, About 1860, National Galleries of Scotland, Gift of Mrs. Riddell in memory of Peter Fletcher Riddell, 1985 (Fig. 6)

William Donaldson Clark’s views of Edinburgh conform often to established ideas of pictorial composition. An example of this is his White Horse Close (Fig. 6). Comparison with the watercolour of the same motif by Horatio McCulloch – painted some twenty years earlier – serves to demonstrate the point (Fig. 7). Clark was, in the making of such photographs, thinking in established picturesque terms.

Horatio McCulloch, White Horse Close, Edinburgh 1845
Horatio McCulloch, White Horse Close, Edinburgh 1845, National Galleries of Scotland, William Finlay Watson Bequest 1881 (Fig. 7)

McCulloch was one of Clark’s closest friends and artistic mentors and may, on occasion, have accompanied Clark when he was taking his photographs. Some of Clark’s picturesque compositions were the result of collaboration with painter friends. When a critic once pronounced a photograph of his to be ‘excellent in its photography but very deficient in its artistic arrangement’, Clark retorted that, ‘the point of view had been selected with care by some members of the Royal Academy of Edinburgh and photographed by himself.’

As a proponent of the argument that photography was an artistic rather than a scientific activity, Clark adopted an aesthetic that frequently and broadly conformed with local and contemporary artistic practice. But his work was often novel in the perspectives it offered. One of Clark’s finest photographs, however, the view of the National Gallery and Royal Institution of 1858 (main image), is different in character from the others. Here we are not given a predictable, conventional view. The photograph is surprising and novel, perhaps one could say more ‘modern’. Is it possible to suggest that in such a photograph, the peculiarly photographic is starting to emerge? In other words, could it be that, as the established norms of artistic language give way, so the photographic elements increase? This, then, would not only be one of Clark’s best photographs, it would also be somehow more of a photograph than others. Perhaps it could only have been an intuition on the part of early photographers that the camera was, potentially or theoretically the access to a new way of seeing the world. In the work of Clark the embryonic idea seems at times compellingly present.

Julie Lawson

National Galleries of Scotland


1. Dictionary of National Biography, entry on Thomas Clark, 1801-1867.
2. Ibid.
3. Obituary, British Journal of Photography, 9 May 1873, p220.
4. Ibid.
5. The brother of David Octavius Hill.
6. Obituary, op. cit. (3).
7. A critic, after referring to Manchester photographers, said: ‘Among those who may be considered as belonging to the same school we may mention Mr W. D. Clark …’, British Journal of Photography, 26 November 1869, p571.
8. Obituary, op. cit. (3).
9. British Journal of Photography, 1 May 1863, p195.
10. British Journal of Photography, 25 May 1866, p250.
11. British Journal of Photography, 27 December 1878.
12. British Journal of Photography, 15 May 1866.
13. Obituary, op. cit. (3).
14. Liverpool Photographic Journal, 1 October 1859.
15. British Journal of Photography, 1 May 1863.