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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Hugh Lyon Playfair

Other: Colonel Playfair 
Other: Sir Hugh Lyon Playfair 
Other: Sir Lyon Playfair 
Dates:  1786 - 1861
Active:  Great Britain / Scotland
Early Scottish calotypist.

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Approved biography for Hugh Lyon Playfair
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, USA)

Always known as Colonel Playfair, although he attained the rank of lieutenant general, Playfair was a larger-than-life character and a natural leader. The son of the principal of United College at St. Andrews, Playfair entered the East India Company army in 1804 and served brilliantly in the field. Considered “the most efficient officer in his regiment,” he advanced through the ranks of the artillery before retiring to his native St. Andrews in 1834. He was elected provost of United College in 1842 and held that post until his death, thus being well positioned to influence the early course of photography in Scotland. The ancient city of St. Andrews had fallen into serious decay by the time of the invention of photography. Playfair rapidly instituted radical and far-reaching reforms to both the political and physical structure of the city. Within a decade he had improved the sanitation and the roads, built a library, baths, and a town hall, and developed leisure opportunities. A “ruthlessly efficient” golfer, he saved the failing course at St. Andrews. He worked with Dr. John Adamson to improve physical health and with Sir David Brewster to improve the intellectual side of the city. According to his obituary, “the Major was never known to have tried anything which he did not accomplish,” and possessed of boundless energy. Playfair actively participated in the evolution of the calotype at St. Andrews. His obituary described him as “a good mechanic, with a special leaning towards photography, which he was the first (being initiated by his friend Claudet) to introduce into St. Andrews, now celebrated as a chief home of the art.” While Playfair’s first introduction to photography was more likely from Brewster, the connection with Antoine Claudet was undoubtedly a useful one. A contemporary recalled those early days, when Playfair and his associates “might be seen almost every day calotyping or being calotyped.” Playfair’s only formal photographic exhibition was of collodion views contributed to the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Glasgow in 1855. 
Roger Taylor & Larry J. Schaaf Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840-1860 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2007) 
This biography is courtesy and copyright of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is included here with permission. 
Date last updated: 4 Nov 2012. 
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