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George Washington Wilson’s work

Emeritus Professor Roger Taylor discusses George Washington Wilson's life and career, in this short video.
He was very clever. He realised that there was a growing press. A photographic press started to develop the 1850s. There were more and more photographic journals and there were also art journals. And when he made a new series of photographs, he would submit these to the editor. And the editor would review them and praise him up to the skies. And of course, that did wonders for his reputation. And he exhibited, but more particularly he used the power of the press to distribute his name throughout Britain. He was the first person to really tap into the potential of this new market for tourism that was beginning with the opening up of the East and West coast lines of the railways.
And this annual influx, this tide of visitors that came in every year, you know, every summer. And they wanted to take home a memento with them. And what better memento than a photograph? Photography has precedents, and one of the precedents that he was acknowledging throughout is the, what we call the “Black’s Picturesque Guidebooks of Scotland.” These are little pocketbooks that people took around with them, and it told them where to go. It told them where to stand. It told them where to look. It told them how to look. It told them emotionally how to respond to what they had seen. In other words, it was theatre.
It was this imaginative theatre of the mind that people were using in those days to look at the landscape. And Wilson’s photographs reflected that. And he also said, really, when you’re doing that, there’s no point in me taking a photograph from a position or a camera viewpoint that you don’t recognise, because otherwise they’re not going to buy it. So there were certain key points, certain key subjects that he photographed again and again and again.

In this second of two short films, Professor Roger Taylor explains how George Washington Wilson exploited the press and the expanding rail network, producing souvenirs for a new wave of tourists across Britain.

Image: Stereocard depicting Abbotsford House, from the Tweed, by George Washington Wilson & Co., Aberdeen IL.2003. © Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland

What do you think about the methods that Wilson used to build his successful business?
Does anything about Wilson’s tactics surprise you? Share your comments.

Roger Taylor, is Emeritus Professor of Photographic History, De Montfort University, Leicester and formerly Senior Curator of Photographs and Head of Research Development for the then National Museum of Photography, Film & Television, now the National Media Museum, Bradford.

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