Scottish National Portrait Gallery When We Were Young Exhibition review Thursday 12th October 2017



Pictured: Roger Mayne, Children Playing on a Lorry, 1958. © Katkin Tremayne 


When We Were Young – Photographs of Childhood from the National Galleries of Scotland exhibition at The Scottish National Portrait Gallery from 14th October 2017 to 13th May 2018 (admission is free), takes a look back over the images of childhood captured by photographers from the earliest days of photography to present day.  With more than 100 photographs on display covering a period in time of around 175 years, we can step back in time and look back into childhoods long gone and those within the living memory of many of us.  Along the way, we can witness first hand how the very swiftly changing technology of the camera itself changed the way childhood was captured in a fleeting moment that was to be forever frozen in time, and also how changing social attitudes towards the depiction of children in photographs has itself altered perhaps how we now see them from what the original photographers and family perhaps saw.

One of the earliest works in this exhibition is a daguerreotype of a family photographed by James Howie (1791 – 1858). Like many early pioneers in photography, James Howie was a portrait painter, and the formalised style of “painting with light” is obvious in its composition.  Howie also established the first professional photographic studio in Edinburgh in 1841 with a rooftop studio looking over Prices Street accessible to his clients via precarious stairs and a ladder.

The very sentimental view of children as symbols of youth, beauty and “earthbound angels” is celebrated in a photograph from 1860 by Julia Margaret Cameron – “The Red and White Roses”

Although the early photographs in this collection are wonderful windows into a long gone past childhood with period costumes and often toys in them, they are still, due to the photographic technology of the period and the long exposures required, very staged in their visual set up.  Oddly enough though, the blueprint for the standard family photograph has hardly changed at all since these very early images were taken…just one look at a 2011 family portrait by Varena Jaekel underlines this fact.  Yes, this photograph is in glorious colour, but at its heart, it is the same format that people climbing those precarious stairs to James Howie’s studio in the 1840s probably had in their mind.

It was only when cameras became truly mobile that children at play could be truly captured in photographs, and images of children playing in poor inner city areas of the 20th century are now part of our national heritage…photographers including Oscar Marzarolli, Bert Hardy and Roger Mayne are amongst the few to somehow truly capture not only the childhood  games and childhood lives that they saw around them, but often the now almost unimaginable poverty that many of these children were growing up in.  The ability of photographers like these pioneers to take their cameras out into everyday people’s lives allowed for the first time those who could never afford a studio portrait of their family to be taken to be at least recorded forever.

Further information on NGS website at


Review by Tom King



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