David Octavius Hill (1802-70) was a respected artist and secretary to the Royal Scottish Academy when, in July 1843, he entered into partnership with Robert Adamson (1821-48). Approaching photography from an artistic background, Hill saw his role as that of selecting and arranging the subjects. Initially he viewed the calotypes as sketches that would aid him in his grand painting scheme, the Disruption Picture.
Hill's decision to portray a religious event had its precedent in the work of the esteemed Scottish artist Sir David Wilkie (1785-1841), who had created a series of paintings dealing with John Knox (c. 1514-72), the leader of the Scottish Reformation. Hill would have been well aware of Wilkie's work, as the Academy had acquired an oil of his as recently as 1842. This calotype of Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) bears a strong similarity in composition to a painting Wilkie made of Knox preaching at St. Andrews, where the minister is gesticulating from the pulpit.
Chalmers, also a minister and social reformer, was very much involved in the dissension within the Church of Scotland during the 1840s. Described by a fellow member of the clergy as "the Church's trusted leader—the powerful and unflinching champion of its independence," Chalmers became the first moderator of the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland. Hill had originally planned to have Chalmers—at the central pulpit—as more of a predominant figure in the Disruption Picture; this portrait relates to earlier drawings for the canvas.
Anne M. Lyden. Hill and Adamson, In Focus: Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1999), 14. ©1999, J. Paul Getty Museum.