Thomas Annan (1829-1887) was the one of the most important photographers in 19th century Scotland. He grew up in rural Fife, the son of a farmer. Like other early photographic pioneers he had a background in printing and the visual arts, beginning in 1845 a seven-year apprenticeship as a lithographic engraver with the printing firm of Tullis in Cupar. After only four years he moved to Glasgow to work in a large lithographic print works.

In 1855 Annan decided on a new career as a photographer. Since the public announcement of the invention of photography in 1839, the technology involved in taking photographs and producing prints had advanced greatly. Firms such as George Washington Wilson in Aberdeen and James Valentine of Dundee catered to the growing public demand for photographs of scenic views in albums and stereographs. Annan initially followed the same path as Wilson and Valentine, opening his own premises on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow, followed by his own photographic printing works in Hamilton. However, in around 1860 Annan moved away from commercial photography and concentrated on photographing works of art and landscape photography. His work was much admired; at a time when there was a bitter debate on whether photography should be regarded as an art form, Annan was very much regarded as an artist as well as a photographer.

Commission to photograph city centre

In the late 1860s Annan received a commission from the city authorities of Glasgow to photograph the city centre, which would result in a series of remarkable photographs, later published as ‘The Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow’.

In 1866 an act of Parliament had been passed allowing for the slums in the city centre of Glasgow to be demolished. In common with other large industrial cities in Britain, Glasgow’s population had grown at a remarkable rate during the first half of the 19th century, as thousands of people moved to the city to work in the textile factories and ironworks. By the 1840s the city's housing conditions were regarded as among the worst in Europe. People were crowded into old houses which had been divided up to maximise the number of inhabitants that could be accommodated.

In the absence of proper sanitation and clean drinking water, the population were hit by major outbreaks of cholera in the 1830s and 40s. Typhus and typhoid fever were also major killers of people trapped by poverty in dark and damp housing, breathing in a smog-laden atmosphere and eating an inadequate diet. Annan’s job was simply to photograph the Old Town of Glasgow before it was destroyed forever. He chose to go beyond his remit of creating a record of old buildings for posterity. Like many other religious and relatively wealthy people in Victorian society, Annan probably felt deeply uncomfortable about the huge inequalities in contemporary society and he had a strong urge to help those living in poverty. In the early 1850s he had even contemplated working as a teacher in the poor areas of Glasgow.

Beautiful and moving photographs

The photographs he took between 1868 and 1871 conveyed not just the decrepit state of the area and the squalor people lived in, but also their determination to survive and to make the best of their circumstances. Annan succeeded in creating a series of beautiful and moving photographs which manage to include human touches such as the washing lines strung across the closes and the curious faces of the children gazing from a distance at the camera lens. Photographing the dark and narrow old closes posed a number of technological challenges, but he approached his task with the same care and attention to detail that he would have employed when choosing a beautiful Highland landscape to photograph. Two limited editions of the Glasgow prints were produced in Annan’s lifetime, in 1872 and 1877. A later photogravure edition was produced in 1900 by his son James Craig Annan, which brought the photographs to wider public attention. When Annan died in 1887 he was largely remembered for his work in reproducing works of art, but he is now best known for ‘The Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow’.

Further reading:

‘Thomas Annan, 1829-1887’ by Sara Stevenson. Edinburgh,1990. National Library of Scotland shelfmark: GMN.13.(12)

‘The photography of Victorian Scotland’ by Roddy Simpson. Edinburgh, 2012. National Library of Scotland shelfmark: PB8.212.814/7