William McNab 1780-1848

This is the first professional photographic portrait of a professional horticulturist, the last horticulturist to live in the Botanic Cottage and the man who left the cottage behind.

In 1843 the painter David Octavius Hill and engineer/chemist Robert Adamson formed a partnership to professionally exploit the newly invented positive/negative photographic process introduced by Fox Talbot in 1841. Their base was Rock House on Calton Hill. Edinburgh residents are most likely to know it as  the white building opposite John Lewis.

The Hill & Adamson portraits are amongst the most famous and significant photographs ever taken – partly because they are so early in the development of the positive/negative process but also because they were the first to combine the eye of the artist with the skill of the technician. The pair were prolific, photographing many of the great and the good in early 19th Century Scotland but also the less celebrated Newhaven fishers – perhaps producing the first social documentary photographs.

What does all this have to do with the Botanics you may ask?

20160607-DSCF5351This year has seen the opening of the Botanic Cottage. This is the original entrance to the Leith Walk site of the Botanics that has been moved stone by stone to a new location within the garden. It was left behind when the garden moved to its current Inverleith site in the 1820s and has only just caught up. The man who physically moved the garden and left the cottage behind was William McNab. He was the last head gardener to live in the cottage on Leith Walk. He was still alive and running the Inverleith garden in the 1840’s when Hill & Adamson were practicing and so appears as one of their subjects. The actual date of the photograph isn’t known but the partnership ended in 1848 with the untimely death of Adamson who had been ailing for several years. The majority of their three thousand photographs were therefore made at the beginning of their collaboration. McNab died in 1848 as well and was buried next to his wife – coincidently on Calton Hill.

It isn’t a flattering portrait or one of Hill & Adamson’s best. McNab looks stern with closed eyes (probably because he had to sit still for so long for the image to register) when by all accounts he was very nice and liked by all. There is another exposure with eyes open that has been rather unfairly captioned “the mad horticulturist” on the internet. Only the above image appears to be available at high resolution in the public domain.

IMG_20160622_191305I have a fascination with photographing people and my major project for last year was to photograph those involved in moving the cottage. You can read about the project and see some of the images on my personal blog. Thumbnails were used in the new guidebook and we may produce a self print book of the complete set to leave in the cottage. For the time being there is a small exhibition of portraits in the Botanic Cottage.

Of course I was familiar with Hill & Adamson but hadn’t known they had photographed McNab until I found a National Portrait Gallery catalogue of their work in a second hand book shop. I was reminded of my photograph of David Rae, the Director of Horticulture and McNab’s equivalent during the instigation of cottage project. I’ve managed to make a jovial member of staff look stern and authoritarian – just like Hill & Adamson did to McNab.


David Rae

And so we come to the real reason for this blog post. A tenuous excuse for me to get my amateur snaps associated with Hill & Adamson!