PGP HA 2442

‘Unknown Woman 15’ (probably photographer Jessie Mann) 1843-7

David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson

Courtesy of Scottish National Portrait Gallery (PGP HA 2442)


Jessie Mann is regarded as Scotland’s first female photographer.  She worked as assistant to pioneering photographers David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson at Rock House, Calton Hill, Edinburgh.

Janet “Jessie” Mann was the daughter of Alexander Mann and Sarah Laidley.  She was born on 20th January 1805 in Perth, Scotland.[1]  Jessie grew up with her older sisters and brother in Watergate, Perth, near neighbours of the Hill family; Jessie’s brother Alexander later became Hill’s solicitor.  Jessie, Elizabeth and Margaret Mann moved to Edinburgh after the death of their father in 1839 to live with their solicitor brother Alexander, moving again to Leopold Place, close to Rock House, Calton Hill in 1842 when Alexander Mann married.  Jessie then became an assistant to Hill, an artist, and Adamson, a skilled exponent of early photography.[2]

The Rock House partnership greatly benefited from the help of Jessie Mann to produce several thousand images including 457 calotype portraits of Church of Scotland ministers forming the basis of Hill’s epic Disruption painting.  The painting took 23 years to finish and was completed with the help of Hill’s second wife, Amelia Paton.  The work celebrated the formation of the Free Church of Scotland in 1843.[3]  Jessie and her sisters were supporters of the new Free Church and are believed to be immortalised in Hill’s painting.  The image below is believed to depict Jessie and her sisters.[4] The Mann sisters are amongst the first women to be included in a painting, using photographs as its source material.

Mann Sisters detail from Disruption painting

Detail of Thomas Annan’s carbon print of the top right-hand corner of the Disruption painting              by D O and A R Hill showing the three Mann sisters, courtesy of Roddy Simpson


Free Church of Scotland Disruption painting Hill

The First General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland;

Signing the Act of Separation and Deed of Demission – 23rd May 1843

by David Octavius Hill

By kind permission of the Free Church of Scotland


In April 1845 engineer James Nasmyth wrote to his friend David Octavius Hill, ‘Pray present my best regards to that authentic and worthy person Mr Adamson. he is of rare merit and praiseworthy perseverance, not forgetting Miss Mann. the sisterhood … their kindest regards to her.” and “my dear wife desires her best wishes regards to you with kindest Remembrance to all our Friends and especially to Miss Mann from the sisterhood’.[5]

In March 1847 Nasmyth asks, “How goes on the divine solar art? And how does that worthy artist Mr Adamson the authentic contriver & manipulator of light and darkness? And thrice worthy Miss Mann the most skilful and zealous of assistants.” [6]

Photographic Historian and Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Culture and Creative Arts at the University of Glasgow, Roddy Simpson, identified the Scottish National Portrait Gallery image ‘Unknown Woman 15’ as probably Jessie Mann.  In April 2016 Simpson drew attention to the gloved right hand in her portrait.  The glove was most likely to hide argyria, the staining caused by exposure to silver nitrate.  Silver nitrate was an essential component of the Calotype photography practiced by Hill and Adamson and Jessie’s assistant duties would have necessitated prolonged contact with the chemical.[7]

Jessie, again wearing a glove on her right hand, has also been identified below, in what is believed to be the photographic source image for their inclusion in the Disruption painting.[8]


Two Women in Bonnets

By kind permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections

Ref: HA0390


The Hill and Adamson Collection at Glasgow University Library also contains a selection of calotype images of the railway viaduct at Ballochmyle.  Though attributed to Hill, these may have been taken by Jessie due to the construction indicating a date after Adamson’s death.[9]

The 1851 census records Jessie as housekeeper to Andrew Balfour who ran a private grammar school in Musselburgh.  Jessie had left the Rock House studio following the early death of Robert Adamson in January 1848 at the age of 26.  She remained in friendly contact with David Octavius Hill, illustrated by her letter to the artist in 1856 in which she makes reference to photography. [10]

Jessie never married.  She died aged 62 on 21st April 1867 a few months after suffering a stroke and was buried in the Mann family plot at Rosebank Cemetery in Edinburgh.[11]

Jessie Mann is undoubtedly one of the first women to be involved in photography in Scotland.  Her undeniable contribution to the success of the Hill and Adamson studio will continue to be her unique legacy. 


My very grateful thanks to Roddy Simpson for his generous support and Roben Antoniewicz for the introduction to Jessie Mann.

Also Graham Harrison and Sandy Wood for their valuable assistance.


Further reading:

Lyden, Anne, A Perfect Chemistry: Photographs by Hill and Adamson. Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, 2017

Stevenson, Sara and Morrison-Low, A.D., Scottish Photography The First Thirty Years, Edinburgh: NMSE Publishing Ltd, 2015


[1] Roddy Simpson, Exposing Miss Mann, “Studies in Photography 2010” from the journal of the Scottish Society for the History of Photography

[2] Roddy Simpson, The Photography of Victorian Scotland, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012.) p.27.

[3]  Accessed 17/03/2018

[4] Roddy Simpson, Mann, Miss Jessie, Encyclopedia of 19th Century Photography, p.888

[5] Roddy Simpson, Exposing Miss Mann, “Studies in Photography 2010” from the journal of the Scottish Society for the History of Photography

[6] James Nasmyth to David Octavius Hill, March 27 1847, Royal Observatory, Edinburgh – Quoted in Roger Taylor & Larry Schaaf, Impressed by Light, (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007.) p.345

[7] Roben Antoniewicz and Paul Philippou, The Early Photographers of Perthshire, ( Perth: Tippermuir Books Limited, 2016.) p.88.

[8]  Accessed 19/03/2018

[9] Roddy Simpson, The Photography of Victorian Scotland, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012) p.43

[10] Letter from Jessie Mann to David Octavius Hill, RSA Secretary, 26 May 1856, Royal Scottish Academy of Art & Architecture archives

[11] Roddy Simpson, “Mann, Miss Jessie,” in Encyclopaedia of 19th Century Photography, ed. John Hannavy (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008.) p.888