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14 Oct 2020

E A Hornel exhibition: From Camera to Canvas

Black and white photo of a Japanese lady playing a shamisen in front of a screen decorated with cherry blossom.
A Japanese woman playing a shamisen, attributed to Tamamura Kōzaburō, before 1921, Yokohama shashin print
This autumn the National Trust for Scotland and Edinburgh City Art Centre present ‘E. A. Hornel: From Camera to Canvas’. It’s the first major exhibition of the work of Scottish artist Edward Atkinson Hornel (1864–1933) for over 35 years, and will re-evaluate his paintings in light of his extensive photographic collection.

Enjoy an overview of the exhibition in this short video.

Promotional video of an exhibition – E. A. Hornel: from camera to canvas

Hornel’s extensive collection is held at Broughton House in Kirkcudbright, which was his home and studio from 1901–33. It includes c1,700 photographs used by Hornel to create his paintings. He collected these from friends and contacts, purchased them commercially and took or posed them himself, both at home in Scotland and while travelling in Japan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar.

The Gallery at Broughton House.
The Gallery at Broughton House

These photographs were crucial to the development of Hornel’s artistic technique. The exhibition shows that, from 1890, the influence of photography can be seen in almost every facet of Hornel’s painting. It provided him with access to people, places and networks. It helped him build a visual library from which he could refresh his memory and take inspiration. Hornel not only chose his subject matter based on his photographs, but copied figures, poses and imagery directly from photograph to painting.

Stylistically, too, photography was significant. The vertical composition of the Yokohama shashin prints that Hornel collected is mirrored in the composition of a number of his paintings. He would paint full scenes and then crop them down, as if taking a snapshot of the most visually appealing area. Against the frenzied, blurred backgrounds of his paintings, the faces and hands stand out, painted with almost photographic veracity.

The exploration of Hornel’s photographic collection in From Camera to Canvas also reveals a more challenging hinterland to his paintings. While his photographs of Scottish girls (accompanied by their mothers and chaperoned by his sister, Elizabeth) are discomfiting to the modern eye, some of those he took of girls and young women in Sri Lanka and Japan appear intimate or intrusive.

Also problematic – although hardly atypical for the time – were his attitudes as a westerner abroad experiencing ‘the other’. In Sri Lanka, his photographs ignore any nuance of identity among his subjects or, indeed, any sense of individual identity at all. The photographs Hornel collected in Japan reflect his aim to find a land of stereotypical Japanese motifs, without reflecting the rapidly modernising reality. Even the girls in Kirkcudbright were ‘othered’ by him to fit an innocent, rural ideal.

As well as featuring photographs and paintings from Broughton House, there are also paintings from the City Art Centre’s Scottish art collection. The exhibition is part of the Trust’s Morton Photography Project – supported by the Morton Charitable Trust – and is included in the Japan-UK Season of Culture 2019–2020.

“We’re very lucky, in looking at Hornel’s work, to have such an incredible insight into the pivotal way that he used photography to create his paintings.”
Ben Reiss
Curator for the Trust’s Morton Photography Project

Ben continued, ‘Our collections at Broughton House are unique and this exhibition gives us an opportunity to share these much more widely. Exhibiting Hornel’s paintings and photographs together will let the public see, perhaps for the first time, Hornel’s artistic process and attitudes, as he worked to create the idealised images which sold so well.’

Councillor Donald Wilson, Edinburgh’s Convener of Culture and Communities said: ‘From Camera to Canvas will be a fantastic addition to our exhibitions at the recently reopened City Art Centre this autumn. Combining his works from our Scottish art collection with those held at Broughton House, the exhibition is taking a fresh look at Hornel’s paintings alongside his extensive photographic collection. We’re proud to host the first major exhibition of E A Hornel’s work for over 35 years, and perhaps bringing his paintings to many visitors for the first time.’

This exhibition has only been possible thanks to the generous support of the

Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation, the Japan Society and the Consulate-General of Japan in Edinburgh.

Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 related restrictions, the exhibition E. A. Hornel: From Camera to Canvas is now closed.

However, you can see lots of great shots from inside the exhibition in our walk-through gallery

The exhibition catalogue is also still available to purchase from our online shop

Join Ben Reiss to discover more behind some of these works.

Morton Photography Project Curator Ben Reiss discusses paintings by E A Hornel inspired by Yokohama Shashin.


Hornel’s first visit to Japan in 1893-94 was incredibly influential on the way he worked. He revisited the country during his round the world trip in 1920-21 and all three of these paintings were painted shortly after his return to Scotland. They illustrate the way that his technique and style had become more and more refined and more and more simplified. All three paintings are very clearly taken from the Yokohama Shashin prints he collected in Japan. Yokohama Shashin were a type of Japanese photograph. They were delicately hand-coloured and produced predominantly for the tourist market. They often show subject matter of beautiful women engaging in tea ceremonies, playing music or flower-arranging almost always in very delicately coloured kimono. In terms of their subject matter and composition they often pull from earlier Japanese woodblock prints called Ukiyo-e which have these very sort of flattened compositions and vertical formats which you can see in the Yokohama Shashin. Hornel collected both Yokohama Shashin and books of Japanese Ukiyo-e prints however we’re confident that he predominantly took his inspiration from the photographic prints and not the books of woodblock prints. We think this because many of his photographs are covered in paint splodges and have pin marks from where they’ve been put up in his studio. On the other hand the books of woodblock prints, the Ukiyo-e prints are predominantly in pristine condition and look like they’ve been barely opened let alone used in a messy studio.
This painting shows really clearly the strong influence that Yokohama Shashin had on Hornel’s way of painting. You can see it in the subject matter of a beautiful Japanese woman wearing a kimono and holding a fan. You can see it in the way that it’s just a single figure set against a plain backdrop. In the photo it’s a plain dark backdrop and in Hornel’s painting it’s a sort of frenzied floral one but either way there’s no definition to it, it’s just a single figure standing alone in front of it. And you can see it in the format of the painting. Yokohama Shashin frequently had this vertical slender format and Hornel’s canvas has the same shape as the photograph.
By this point in his career Hornel was generally copying very directly from photographs to paintings and you can see that really clearly here in this comparison of a photograph of a Japanese woman playing a stringed instrument called a shamisen and a painting of the same subject. However Hornel has made some subtle tweaks to make the painting more appealing to a western market. When he visited Japan first in 1893-94 he and his friend George Henry were surprised by how muted the colours were of the clothes that the Japanese women wore and you can see that very clearly in the photograph with this very sort of cool green pattern. However in the painting Hornel has chosen to make it a very bright and vivid red to appeal better to western preconceptions about Japanese clothing. Likewise in the photograph the woman looks solemn she’s just looking out into the picture frame without a smile however in the painting Hornel has given her a smile and made her more appealing to that western audience. And finally in the photo you can see that the woman is kneeling in front of a folding Japanese screen with a light painting of blossom on it. Hornel’s painting puts her in front of the frenzied floral brightly coloured backdrop that buyers of his painting had come to expect.
This unfinished painting gives us a great window into the way that Hornel constructed his works. The thick black lines on the left and right seem to be where Hornel was planning to crop his painting to. It’s almost like he was focussing in on the area of the composition that interested him most as one does with a camera. The other effect of cropping this painting at these lines would have had would have been to make it a more vertical feeling composition and this would’ve made it more like the vertical Yokohama Shashin that influenced him so much.

Morton Photography Project Curator Ben Reiss discusses Hornel's Myanmar paintings.


Myanmar also known as Burma was well known to British travellers at the beginning of the 20th century as a supposedly exotic location. Numerous travelogues were written about the country and the British artist Gerald Kelly visited in 1908 and 1909 producing numerous paintings and a series of successful prints as a result of his journey. In 1920 Hornel and his sister Elizabeth visited the country as part of a journey around the world that also encompassed Japan and Hornel’s birthplace of Australia. Hornel may well have been inspired to visit by these travelogues or by Kelly’s paintings and like Kelly Hornel was interested in the famous Mandalay dancers, dancers from the city of Mandalay in the interior of Myanmar. He travelled to Mandalay and was introduced to a theatre manager by a couple of artists possibly from the Burma Art Club and this theatre manager procured a number of dancers and musicians for Hornel to photograph. He didn’t take many photographs in the country just a couple of dozen but the ones he did take would go on to influence the poses that he asked his Scottish models to undertake throughout the 20s.
These two paintings illustrate three things about the way Hornel worked. The first is the continuing influence that Yokohama Shashin had on his paintings. Yokohama Shashin were hand-coloured photographs produced in Japan primarily for the tourist market and Hornel collected a good number of them when he visited the country. They often had a slender, narrow format like these two paintings and he painted subjects from Scotland, Myanmar and Japan using this format. The second thing to note is the titles. These paintings are called ‘Burmese Maidens’ and ‘Water Carriers On The Banks of the Irrawaddy’ and there’s another still at Broughton House which we haven’t been able to display called ‘Memories of Mandalay’. These were exotic sounding titles in stark contrast to the paintings of Gerald Kelly who named the dancers that he painted. The third thing to note relates to this painting here ‘Water Carriers On The Banks of The Irrawaddy’ Hornel was keen to photograph the dancers in Mandalay in the interior of the country and probably reached Mandalay via the Irrawaddy River. However possibly for practical reasons he doesn’t seem to have taken any photographs of the Irrawaddy. However he knew it would be a popular subject and so he used photographs or at least seems to have used photographs from other countries to inspire his paintings of the river. So what we can see here is a photograph from Sri Lanka which has quite clearly influenced the girl bathing and another from Japan which may well have influenced the girl with her hat. This reinforces the idea that all Hornel was interested in was the shapes and the exotic scenes that he could set and not the girls themselves or any of the cultural nuances or realities he was seeing.

Morton Photography Project Curator Ben Reiss discusses Hornel's Sri Lanka paintings.


Hornel painted the two works behind me shortly after he returned from his visit to Sri Lanka which he undertook in 1907. He visited the country with his sister Elizabeth and they went there to visit their cousin James who worked as a marine biologist in the country. Although both paintings are clearly influenced by photographs Hornel took they illustrate some key differences in the way that he worked.
When Hornel visited the country he intended to spend time painting in the pearl fisheries however the heat and the smell from the rotting shellfish put him off the idea. He did take photographs at the pearl fisheries of fishermen and boats but he doesn’t seem to have created paintings from them. He also took photographs of tea plantations in the centre of the country and near Galle in the south and from these photographs predominantly of women and the Sri Lankan landscapes he did create paintings. Like any tourist Hornel visited Sri Lanka with preconceptions of what he’d find, however instead of the brightly coloured tropical paradise he was expecting he was surprised to find Sri Lanka was a land of cool green foliage. He took numerous photographs of fruit trees, bamboo and water lilies and recreated this colour scheme in his paintings. As I said, the two paintings behind me were both drawn closely from photographs Hornel took in the country however the photographs themselves illustrate key differences in his approach. On the right are photos from the Sinhalese community, this is the dominant community in Sri Lanka and in Hornel’s photographs they are primarily shown wearing white undertaking activities such as spinning, music playing or praying and seated on rush mats on the ground. On the other hand the Tamil community the less dominant community in the country are almost always shown working hard in the tea plantations bare armed, often wearing clothes that are highly patterned or coloured and if they’re sitting on the ground they’re just sitting on the bare earth. We do not know if Hornel intentionally photographed these communities differently or if it was just inherent in the way they were presented but it is worth noting.
The painting on the right ‘Lace makers, Ceylon’ also illustrates a key way of Hornel’s working. It purports to show a group of women making a type of Sri Lankan lace called beeralu lace but in fact only one of the photographs that it draws upon is of that activity. The other photograph shows a group of young women playing the rabana drum. This painting therefore illustrates the way that Hornel was much less interested in the cultural identities and nuances of the people that he was photographing and much more interested in gathering shapes that he could knit together to create exotic compositions that he knew would sell back home in Scotland.

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