John Urie (b. 1820) Memory and People

For the last themed post on this John Urie journey, I want to talk about the life that John will be most remembered by. Being the first photographer in Glasgow, a lot of fame came in his direction, he was a local celebrity who was given the chance to meet a variety of people through this profession. He is the man behind the camera whose story wouldn’t usually be told, but John’s experiences of the unique people he’s met in his life is the perfect way to end my journey with him! I’ve already touched on some of the people he’s met such as Madeleine Smith, William Miller and David Dale, but for the sake of John’s story, it’s important we mention other notable characters he’s met.

Dr. Livingstone

Now, Dr. Livingstone (pictured left) is someone that John respects and values greatly! He mentions how “There are few events in my long experience that I recall with feelings of greater pleasure than my association with Dr. Livingstone, the great explorer” (130). He talks about how when he bought a copy of Livingstone’s book he was fascinated by its charm and the explorer’s bravery and fact-finding in South African swamps was clearly something that fascinated John. His first experience with David Livingstone came through James Young, another “Scot who achieved fame and fortune” but who John actually used as a sort of stepping stone to Livingstone. John received an invitation from Mr. Young to come to his house in Sardinia Terrace to be introduced to the famous explorer. He met Livingstone when he was about fifty years of age. After this meeting, where John was still thrilled by Livingstone’s stories, Young organised for John to take a photo of Livingstone which is pictured on the left. After this photo, John also took a photo of Livingstone with his wife and children but what followed would have been a personal dream of John’s. “The (now) ex-explorer was anxious to learn photography, with a view to utilising it in his exploration work, and I was only too pleased to show him my process” (135). He described Livingstone as an “apt pupil” (136), and with the Livingstone family also holding a strong commitment to education, the explorer quickly picked up the process of photography which was quite difficult at this time. This wasn’t where the two men’s experience ended. Livingstone remained a big part in John’s life and is someone John called a personal friend: “He came about my studio a good deal, and I used frequently to dine with him and Mr. Young in Ferguson & Forrester’s restaurant in Buchanan Street”. John Urie and Livingstone had similar childhoods and the photographer clearly admired the explorer’s shared interest in education and science. It comes as no surprise that John was impacted deeply by Livingstone’s death. In his book Glasgow and Paisley: eighty years ago, Urie wrote, “The description of Livingstone’s sad end I have often read” (92). He ends this passage by saying “I may make that portion of my story plainer by stating that Dr. Livingstone was one of the most alert men I ever met”.

The Cobbler Artist

A common ground for meeting people of interest was John Urie’s studio. The Cobbler Artist also known as “John Kelso Hunter” was best known for his unusual practice of painting. As John mentions “he would not do any painting except when the mood was on him, and then he would get up from his cobbler’s bench…and paint until the inspiration left him” (140). Like Livingstone, Hunter came to John’s studio for a portrait but was fascinated by John’s process of photography and asked for a lesson. What was interesting here however was the stories John got from this experience. Hunter explained how one day when he was painting a portrait of the “Countess of Eglinton” he noticed that she was looking rather glum. So he told her his best stories to cheer her up. This however led to the Countess to leaving in high dudgeon and the next day he found his portrait canvas cut up with a five pound note wedged in the middle. Now, these stories have no influence on John’s personal story but are the exact reason John’s life is interesting! He had the opportunity through photography and local fame to meet all these unique people and share their stories here. It makes John’s memoir feel like collection of various stories, and we really get this sense of story-telling through John’s perspective.

Tintype showing a family at the beach

Finally, I’d like to touch on John Urie’s practice as a photographer as it clearly attracted the attention of two brilliant men mentioned here. A paragraph on page 135 highlighted his profession a little. “I had to make up my collodion with which to coat my plates, had to prepare my own sensitising baths, and had to make my own printing papers. I had to whip up the whites of eggs to get the albumen to coat my papers, and had to dissolve half-crowns in nitric acid to get the nitrate of silver to make them sensitive to light”. It’s clearly quite strange and unique and it’s clear from research that photography at this time was a place of innovation. I found a somewhat similar style to John’s which states the tintype, or ferrotype, process was a cheaper development of the wet collodion method, producing a single, positive image on a tinned or enamelled iron support. (pictured left) However, I like to think John had his own style with attracted a variety of curious people but let me know what you think! Get in touch on Twitter @newryann. Thanks for reading.


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