In the Blink of an Eye, by Ali Bacon, is set in 19th century Edinburgh. A breakaway group of 400 ministers have left the established Kirk to form a free church. David Octavius Hill, a respected and lauded artist in the city, offers to paint a portrait of these men of faith. His commission is to commemorate what is being referred to as the Great Disruption. It becomes the bane of his career.
Capturing likenesses in sketches would be a time consuming process for all so Hill accepts the help of a man newly arrived in Edinburgh. Robert Adamson uses his camera to capture images quickly on specially treated paper. The skills required to produce these calotypes fascinate Hill who recognises the potential for artistry. The two men become friends as well as colleagues and their work is soon sought after by many of Edinburgh’s high society.
The story told covers the period from just before the Disruption, in 1843, to the first public display of the painting 23 years later. Although many details of lives and interactions are imagined by the author, they are based around known facts about Hill and those in his circle. Only two of the large cast of characters are entirely fictitious. All the paintings and calotypes referred to exist.
Adamson was born and raised in St Andrews, suffering regular bouts of ill health. His family are concerned when he moves to Edinburgh – Auld Reekie – for the sake of his career. His part in the tale provides a fascinating insight into early photographic techniques and its growth in popularity – calotypes purchased become valued family mementos.
Hill is a widower with a young child, Charlotte. He is portrayed as a charismatic man, a favourite with the ladies. These ladies include a family friend who is curious about how things work and assists Adamson, an aspiring artist who takes up sculpture, and an art critic who divides her time between Edinburgh and London. At a time when women were expected to marry, these characters live remarkably independently. They are potential love interests but also rounded people.
Also referenced in the story is George Meikle Kemp, the architect of Edinburgh’s Scott Monument which was under construction at the time of the Disruption.
The structure of the story allows the reader to drop in on the lives of key characters and watch how they develop over two decades. Friendships wax and wane. There are marriages and deaths. Art in its many forms is a key influence but rarely provides the desired fulfilment. Love in its many forms is underrated until a loved one departs.
The story brought to life many landmarks in the city as well as the lives of the historic residents featured. I was saddened to read that one grand house mentioned, Rockville, was demolished in 1966.
While cities evolve, certain attitudes remain. The views of the privileged towards those living in the overcrowded old town tenements, especially when compared to the fishwives of Leith, offer a picture of moral concern with little understanding. This felt timely given the many homeless in the city today.
The writing is adroit and taut, the storytelling subtle and affecting. The reader will become invested in Hill’s predicaments as he ages. Characters who appear briefly add to the depth and interest, there is much in their inclusion that will linger. This is a tale that is well worth reading.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.