|Caption: George Washington Wilson c.1865
Attribution: George Washington Wilson, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:George_Washington_Wilson_c.1865.jpg
Introduction to George Washington Wilson
Collectors of Scottish postcards are undoubtedly aware of cards from the early 1900s with the imprint GWW. Not everyone, however, may know that these are the initials of George Washington Wilson, who became the first Photographer Royal in Scotland. By 1880, in Aberdeen, he had developed the firm bearing his name, which became one of the world’s largest providers of photographic views.
George, the second of eleven children, was born in 1823 in Alvah, Banffshire, to a crofter who apparently admired America since his elder brother was named Robert Franklin. After leaving home at age 12 to become an apprentice carpenter, George showed such artistic talent that he was sponsored to study art in Edinburgh. He started his career as a portrait miniature painter. By 1851, he had moved back to Aberdeen to make a living as a painter of miniatures and a teacher of drawing and painting. However, earlier visits to London and Paris had introduced him to the potential of photography, and in 1853 he made his name in Aberdeen as a portrait photographer. His career was enhanced when he came to the attention of Prince Albert, who commissioned him to photograph the rebuilding of Balmoral Castle, and he continued to photograph the Royal Family at Balmoral in subsequent years.
His technical competence was soon shown when he wrote “A Practical Guide to the Collodion Process in Photography,” which was published simultaneously in London and Edinburgh as well as in Aberdeen. By 1857 George was the leading portrait photographer in Aberdeen and used the newly developed and popular Carte de Visite to expand his business.
Queen Victoria was impressed by George’s scenery photography, and as Photographer to the Queen in Scotland, he travelled with his camera and equipment south to England and the extremes of Scotland, including St.Kilda and Staffa. His status as a landscape photographer was internationally acclaimed, and his initial 330 views would rise to over 2,500 by 1877. His business acumen recognised the potential value of tourism and the desire of tourists to take home photographic memories of their trips. He built on his success with stereos and books of local and national scenery. He made available a Tour of Scotland Album for which the purchaser could select up to 100 photographic views from over 10,000 images.
In emphasising the commercial aspects of his work and his artistic ability in photography, George entered many exhibitions and was rewarded with twenty-seven prize medals from his exhibits throughout the world. During these years, James Valentine of Dundee became a rival in supplying the tourist trade with photography, and the Wilson family later joked that “Valentine’s photos so clearly resembled their father’s that he must have used the same tripod holes to achieve his results.”
The trademark G.W.W. was now registered, but from the mid-1870s George gradually handed over control of the business to three sons (in total, George had nine children – five sons and four daughters). He continued to travel around Scotland while his sons were looking after the printing and publishing works, employing over a hundred staff in Aberdeen and who were housed in an expanded building in 1877.
However, his failing health required him to recruit staff photographers to tour Britain and rephotograph his previous views, but also to take new views “which were considered to lack the individuality of his earlier artistic examples.” Photographers were also sent to South Africa, North Africa and Australia in the 1890s to supplement the 25,000-plus views of Scotland and England now in stock.
George died in Aberdeen in 1893, supposedly from epilepsy but more likely from ‘Bright’s Disease’ – the effects of inhaling photographic chemicals over many years. Unfortunately, his sons did not inherit their father’s business acumen, and the firm lost sales. Efforts were made to convert glass negatives into lantern slides with lecture notes, but the parent company, G .W. Wilson & Co. Ltd., went into voluntary liquidation in 1902. A new company using the old name was set up and needing to diversify, his sons “embraced the new popularity of postcards” to publish their popular views and topics in this form for five years.
Despite these efforts, the company did not survive for long and ceased trading in 1908. The stock was auctioned off in 900 lots, but many negative plates passed into the hands of Fred Hardie, who had been one of the staff photographers. Eventually, the glass negative plates – saved by his successor, Archie Strachan – were presented to Aberdeen University in the 1950s. After being sorted and curated, over 27,000 separate images have now been catalogued and form the basis of the George Washington Wilson Collection, available to all. The existence and quality of these plates can be attributed to George’s insistence on meticulous washing and chemical treatment.
Aberdeen University has also used its collection to publish a series of books on Scottish regions and topics, e.g. Edinburgh, Victorian Glasgow and Scottish Fishing. Many other authors have used the collection to illustrate their works.
Although there are examples of Wilson photographs being used on court-size vignette postcards from 1899, the firm started to publish undivided back cards as The GWW Series in 1901, both for Scotland and England. The lettering of POST CARD is distinctive and continued to be used through subsequent printings. With the introduction of a divided back in 1902, the GWW logo in a diamond was used. Initially, the image was usually in grey, olive black or sepia, although colour-tinted views were occasionally used. The lettering was varied, and although usually in brown, it would also be in orange, purple or red.
From 1904, cards were printed in colour in Germany, and they began to be defined with a five-figure number although the numbering had no chronological significance; rather, it was topographical. An arrangement was made with Lewis Smith & Son of Aberdeen, wholesale booksellers and printers who produced and sold cards on G.W.W.’s behalf with their distinctive logo.
A similar commercial arrangement was made with John G. Bain of Cape Town, who published cards both with a GWW diamond and a diamond with J.G.B. Insert. The diamond shape would be continued by Fred Hardie, a staff photographer who, after the firm’s demise, published lower-quality cards with F.W.H. in the diamond. In England, postcards were printed in both Book and Large postcard format. The G.W.W. firm began to concentrate on printing for the trade to support its failing fortunes, and their advertising can be seen on the reverse of a Herring Boats at Sea postcard detailing the various options. After their postcard production ended in 1907, their stock remained for many years in retail outlets.
George would have been pleased with the longevity of his name, and his photographic prowess is still acclaimed.
The George Washington Wilson and Co. Photographic Collection
There are over 37,000 glass plate negatives in the George Washington Wilson and Co. photographic collection,
produced by the Aberdeen firm between the second half of the 19th century and the early 20th century. The collection includes images from his various tours of the Western Isles, including Barra, Uists, Harris, Lewis, Stornoway and St Kilda.
Physical access to the original plates is not permitted. Access to the collection is via the digital archive only – available at: http://www.abdn.ac.uk/historic/gww/index.htm.
An overview is provided by Aberdeen University Special Libraries & Archives:
“George Washington Wilson (1823-1893), born in the North East of Scotland, went to Edinburgh and then London in the 1840s to train as a portrait miniaturist. He became established in Aberdeen in the 1850s as an artist and photographer and quickly made a name for himself among the middle classes and landed gentry. His patronage by the Royal Family during their visits to the Balmoral Estates began in 1854 when he was invited to take photographs of the Royal family in the grounds of Balmoral. He received the official appointment of Photographer Royal for Scotland in 1860 and his relationship with the Royal family continued throughout his career. Wilson’s success allowed him to employ staff photographers to carry out the routine portraiture business whilst he travelled the country, indulging in his new interest in landscape photography. Wilson won a number of prizes for his photographic works including winning medals at the Great London International Exhibition of 1862 for his experimentation for quick exposures.
“George Washington Wilson and Co., captured images from all over Britain, recording everything from the natural grandeur of Fingal’s Cave on the Isle of Staffa to the bustle of London’s Oxford Street. Wilson had a staff of photographers, including his son, Charles Wilson, who with senior staff photographer Fred Hardie, toured the colonial townships of South Africa. Dispatched to capture images of Australia in 1892, Hardie also travelled through Queensland, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. These tours provide a vivid picture of gold miners and early settlers at work and play and of the native or aboriginal way of life. The company invested in sourcing independent photographers to capture the western Mediterranean, where they took images of Gibraltar and the south of Spain, Morocco and Tangiers.
“Throughout, Wilson demonstrated technical and commercial acumen, and, by the early 1880s, the company he founded had become the largest and best-known photographic and printing firm in Scotland. Wilson handed the business over to his sons, Charles, Louis and John Wilson, in 1888. The company, however, only survived for a short time under the management of Wilson’s sons, with much of the company being sold in 1905 and the company finally ceasing trading in 1908.”
Moving to Edinburgh and Aberdeen
In 1846, Wilson moved to Edinburgh to pursue a career as a painter. Three years later, he went to London and was taught by Edward Henry Corbould. He visited Paris and then returned to Aberdeen to draw portrait miniatures. Wilson ventured into portrait photography in 1852, setting up a portrait studio with John Hay at 25 Crown Street in Aberdeen, where customers could be drawn or photographed. From there, aided by his well-developed technical and commercial acumen and a contract to photograph the Royal Family while documenting the building of Balmoral Castle in 1854–1855, he established himself as one of Scotland’s premier photographers working for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1860. Wilson also turned to photography to sell to tourists while he travelled throughout England and Scotland. By the 1860s, Wilson achieved considerable success in this field and built premises in 1864, producing prints and storing over 45,000 negatives. Pioneering the development of techniques for photography outside of the studio and the mass production of photographic prints, he moved increasingly from portraiture to landscape photography in the 1860s.
He also produced stereoscopic pictures whose main characteristic was that exposures were very short.
Queen Victoria was an early admirer of photography and became the first monarch to have her life and family documented in this new medium. After receiving the contract to photograph the Royal Family, working for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Wilson pioneered various techniques for outdoor photography and mass-produced photographic prints as he gradually and mainly did landscape photography in the 1860s. By 1864 he claimed to have sold over half a million prints.
The great giants of early photographic firms in Scotland
The two great giants of early photographic firms in Scotland were James Valentine & Sons of Dundee and George Washington Wilson Co. based in Aberdeen.
The bulk of St. Andrews’ University’s George Washington Wilson material was collected over many years by David Jamieson, who kindly donated his collection of nearly 10,000 examples in various formats of Wilson’s photography to the University in 2017. Although they hold many stereoviews, prints and postcards, the University of Aberdeen Special Collections have the glass plate negatives, archive papers and family material.
Over 40,000 of Wilson’s photographic glass plates still exist today, largely due to the meticulous washing and chemical treatments he insisted be used. Aberdeen University holds some 38,000 of these, donated in 1958 by an Aberdeen photographer, the late Archie Strachan. They date from the late 1850s down to the early years of the 20th century and cover not only Aberdeen and the North East but the whole of Scotland
and most of England, as well as parts of Wales and Northern Ireland, Gibraltar, Morocco, including Tangier, the South of Spain, and (especially) colonial South Africa and Australia. From about 1870 onwards, Wilson relied increasingly on others to add to his stock.
Thus, all of the Mediterranean views and many of the English and Scottish series represent the work of staff photographers or were commissioned by the company from photographic firms elsewhere in the UK; and the Australian and South African images were added to the firm’s stock in the 1890s by Charles Wilson (GWW’s son) and staff photographers such as Fred Hardie.
Sources and Further Reading
- YouTube Video: Different Perspectives – George Washington Wilson, at: https://youtu.be/fV_873HEC3g
- YouTube Video: Photography: A Victorian Sensation – George Washington Wilson, at: https://youtu.be/sFodEHa8OQM
- YouTube Video: From Banff to Balmoral: the photography of George Washington Wilson, at: https://youtu.be/JbYsSvTBf1U
- Book: George Washington Wilson And The Scottish Fishing Industry, by Malcolm Gray, published by Kennedy Brothers Publishing, 1st January 1982, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/GEORGE-WASHINGTON-SCOTTISH-FISHING-INDUSTRY/dp/0950790923/
- Book: George Washington Wilson: Artist and Photographer, 1823-93, by Roger Taylor, published by Mercat Press, 1st March 1982, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/George-Washington-Wilson-Photographer-1823-93/dp/0080257607/
- Book: George Washington Wilson’s Aberdeen, by John S. Smith, published by Kennedy Brothers Publishing, 1st January 1982, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/George-Washington-Wilsons-Aberdeen-Smith/dp/B0007BR0JQ/
 The introductory section was written by my friend, David Jamieson, who kindly allowed it to be used in my paper. David (a collector of GW Wilson postcards and photographs), delivered an illustrated talk to the Lothian Postcard Club in Edinburgh on 11th June 2010 – see http://www.edinphoto.org.uk/3/3_pss_members_wilson_story.htm
 Explanation: Court card or court-sized card was the name given to the size of a picture postcard, mainly used in the UK, and were approximately 4.75 x 3.5 inches and predates the standard size of 5.5 x 3.5 inches. Court cards were smaller and squarer than later cards and were used from about 1894 to 1902. In keeping with the regulations of the time, they had an undivided back for the address only, and the message had to be written on the ‘front’ of the card. Many fine examples of these still exist and are sought after by both postcard collectors and philatelists. Although mainly used in the UK, many were printed by chromolithography in Germany. References: (1) Coysh, A.W. – The Dictionary of Picture Postcards in Britain 1894-1939, 1984, and (2) Smith, Phil & Dave – Picture Postcard Values 2005.
 David Jamieson has an example posted in March 1950.
 Source: Science Museum Group, at: https://collection.sciencemuseumgroup.org.uk/people/cp40134/george-washington-wilson
 Source: Elizabeth Bennett, Photographic treasures in the George Washington Wilson Collection. Aberdeen University Review, no. 167, 1982, 168-170.
 Source: Diane Morgan, Archie Strachan – Photographer, Leopard Magazine (Aberdeen), November 1985.
 Source: Heather F. C. Lyall, Treasures on glass, Leopard Magazine, January 1989, 6-10.
 Source: By Royal Appointment: Aberdeen’s pioneer photographer, George Washington Wilson, 1823-1893. AUL Publishing in association with the Centre for Scottish Studies, University of Aberdeen, 1997
 Source: Charles A Wilson. Aberdeen of Auld Lang Syne: a pictorial retrospect. Aberdeen, 1948.