Three of Thomas Annan's photographic books: The Old Country Houses of the Old Glasgow Gentry (first published 1870), Memorials of the Old College of Glasgow (1871) and Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow – act as a kind of trilogy, examining the city’s ancient university, the houses of its gentry and the owners of industry and, finally, looking into Glasgow’s slums. As Sara Stevenson writes, the books show Glasgow: “...as a constructive and destructive site of ideas, developments, progress and disaster...”
Thomas Annan was not born in Glasgow: the son of a Fife flax spinner, he was apprenticed as a lithographic engraver for the Fife Herald in the nearby town of Cupar. His experiences as a lithographer (printing and working to fine degrees of accuracy) were to prove useful in his future career: initially as a lithographer for the Glaswegian publisher Joseph Swan and, subsequently, when establishing his own business with George Berwick as a calotypist. Finally, the partnership was dissolved, and Thomas Annan founded his own photographic studio and printing works in the heart of Glasgow.
Annan’s photographs of Glasgow seem to capture localities on the brink of change: the first edition of Memorials of the Old College of Glasgow (first titled Photographs of Glasgow College in 1866) records the Old College buildings before they were demolished to build a goods yard for the Glasgow Union Railway Company. In their work Thomas Annan: Photographer of Glasgow, Maddox and Stevenson describe the importance of the area: “...these were distinguished buildings, redolent of history. The strength of Annan’s photographs, the density of light and dark in the images, and the emptiness of the site all contribute to a necessary sense of sadness and abandonment.” The second edition, presented in our sale as lot 324 and published in 1871, maintains this note of faded grandeur but, as Maddox and Stevenson note, adds portraits of contemporary college professors to highlight the fact that Glasgow University is still alive and strong.
Memorials of the Old College of Glasgow also distinguishes Annan as an artist: the use of light and shade and the framing of his images is certainly more than would normally be expected of a studio photographer. In 1876, the British Journal of Photography praised Annan’s views of the Loch Katrine Waterworks, commenting: "The views by Mr. Annan could scarcely fail to be attractive, for in a country so beautiful a clever artist is bound to produce results in keeping with the nature of the subject, and this Mr. Annan has done."
Thomas Annan’s The Old Country Houses of the Old Glasgow Gentry (lot 325) also adopts a retrospective tone, viewing the land and estates as sitting on the brink of change, if not destruction. The introduction opens with the lines: “We get nothing for nothing in this world, and our wonderful present prosperity costs us, among more valuable things, many an interesting monument of the past in Glasgow and round Glasgow.” Maddox and Stevenson write that Annan: “...would have been painfully aware of how many of the houses and lands were being engulfed by the expansion of Glasgow.” The book itself is somewhat of a premature memorial to the large houses pictured.
However, it is Thomas Annan’s Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow that has really brought him to the attention of both photographic and social historians. This work turns away from academic and genteel life and looks towards Glasgow’s 19th century slums, which were regarded as the worst in Europe. Cramped and unhygienic conditions contributed to the spread of deadly diseases such as typhus and typhoid fever and, in 1866, an Act of Parliament allowed for the slums to be demolished. Annan decided to record Glasgow’s city centre and slums before they were destroyed. His photographs maintain the attractive framing and shading of his earlier work – no mean feat in amongst a crowded inner-city environment with dark and damp closes - whilst also adopting a documentary air. Children can be seen playing in the street, people moving from place to place and washing lines hung high above.
Annan spent four years recording the streets between 1868 and 1871, before selling the prints to Glasgow City Improvement Trust, who were charged with the demolition of the slums. Three editions of the work were produced: 1872, 1877 and this (lot 338) 1900 photogravure edition, in fact produced by Annan’s son. The images are still deeply affecting. Photographs such as ‘Old Vennel off High Street’ show tiny children without shoes in damp and dirty streets. Others simply give a precise impression of the city in the late 19th century or show an otherwise unnoticed passageway leading between two buildings. Maddox and Stevenson see a sense of optimism in Annan’s works: yes, the unhygenic slums are being demolished but the children in the photographs may now have a chance to thrive.
Thomas Annan’s legacy continued following his death in 1887. His sons, John and James Craig Annan, continued the family business, with James Craig focussing on portrait photography and John looking more into architectural photography. Thomas Annan had also purchased Rock House and, along with this, many negatives made by the pioneering photographers Hill and Adamson. James Craig Annan eventually exhibited these, making them available for Alfred Stieglitz to include them in his journal, Camera Work.