Thomas Annan was born in 1829, the son a Fife farmer and flax-spinner. He began his career as an as a lithographic writer and engraver with the Fife Herald in Cupar in 1845. On completion of his apprenticeship he moved to Glasgow in 1849 where he worked for Joseph Swan, the famous engraver and printer.
By 1855, Annan had set up his own business as a ‘collodion calotypist’ in Woodlands Road, Glasgow, with a partner, Bewick, about whom little is known. An advertisement in the Glasgow Post Office Directory shows that they specialised in ‘Portraits, Plain or Coloured, Architectural Views, Landscapes, Works of Art, &c.’. the partnership with Bewick didn’t last long; by 1857 an independent business is located at 116 Sauchiehall Street. Business was successful – by 1859 the business moved again, this time to 202 Hope Street and he had his own printing works, and family residence, in Hamilton. In 1873, the business moved again to 153 Sauchiehall Street and these premises also served as a fine art studio.
Annan’s early career focused on commercial activities producing cartes-de-visites, landscape views, portraiture and reproductions of artworks. He photographed some of the most important and influential people of the day, the most famous is of the explorer David Livingstone (who lived next dor in Hamilton) and the artists Horatio McCulloch, Joseph Noel Paton and Daniel Macnee.
Annan was often tasked with recording the changing city - an early example is The Views of the Line of Loch Katrine Water Works, 1859. His photographs document the construction of a 35 mile aqueduct to supply the city of Glasgow with fresh water from Loch Katrine in the Trossachs. The later Photographic Views of Loch Katrine show the completed work in 1877.
In 1862, the Glasgow Art Union commissioned him to produce photographs of three of the prize pictures by James Sant, JE Maillais and Noel Paton for distribution to subscribers. Three years later David Octavious Hill commissioned him to photograph his large painting The Signing of the Deed of Demission which celebrated the founding of the Church of Scotland. He used Joseph Swan’s newly perfected permanent carbon process and the results were hugely successful. Swan’s process enabled the creation of permanent photographs which could be used to illustrate a wide range of publications. Annan acquired the rights for the carbon process the following year.
In 1867, Annan published a volume of 43 photographs entitled Painted Windows of Glasgow Cathedral. This work is not only an important example of Annan’s use of Joseph Swan’s permanent carbon process photographs but also as a record of the windows, which were removed in the 20th century. The installation and removal of the ‘Munich’ windows is controversial; it began in the 1850s after the decision to award the design and manufacture of the windows to the Royal Bavarian Stained Glass Establishment. Many believed the commission should have gone to British artists. The Munich windows were removed between 1930s and 60s due to pollution (St Rollox Chemical Works was nearby and Glasgow was a heavily industrialised city) which had caused the glass to deteriorate. British and Milanese artists’ works now fill the windows in the Upper and Lower Chapter Houses and part of the Lower Church.
During his lifetime, Annan was most celebrated for the reproductions of artworks but now he is perhaps best known for the photographs taken for the City of Glasgow Improvement Trust in 1868 - The brutal effects of industrialisation were being felt in most large cities in Britain and Glasgow did not escape. Thousands, mostly from the Highlands and Ireland, came looking for work and found themselves living in overcrowded, squalid and fetid conditions in the slums of Glasgow. In 1866, the City of Glasgow passed legislation to destroy the old streets, closes and wynds of the old town but first they commissioned Thomas Annan to photograph the buildings in the area. The closes were narrow and dark with little natural light reaching them. It took the most sensitive process, the wet collodion process, to capture the images which meant that Annan had to carry all the equipment with him to coat the plates on the spot. He photographed the area over three years from 1868 to 1871. The first edition of Old Closes and Streets contained 31 albumen prints and was published in a very limited edition in 1871. The albumen prints were prone to fading so, in 1878, Annan reprinted the photographs using the carbon process (having acquired the rights to this process in 1866) which were cheaper to produce and more resilient. A further edition was published in 1900 by Thomas Annan's son, James Craig. This later volume contained 50 photogravure plates.
In contrast to the Old Closes and Streets, Annan also photographed the large houses and mansions surrounding Glasgow in The Old Country Houses of the old Glasgow gentry (1870) which were disappearing or being repurposed as the city expansion continued. He also went further afield photographing the mansions in Ayrshire (1885) and Renfrewshire and Buteshire (1889, produced by T&R Annan).
He undertook several other works of important buildings in the city including Memorials of the Old College of Glasgow. (Glasgow: Thomas Annan, photographer, 202 Hope Street. James Maclehose, publisher and bookseller to the University, 61 St. 1871.) An introductory note explains: “On the 28th July 1870, the Senate of the University of Glasgow met for the last time in the Old College Buildings, situated in Blackfriars, High Street…It seemed desirable to secure some permanent Memorial of the venerable structure before it underwent any change. The views shown in the accompanying photographs have been selected as embracing all the more interesting parts of the Buildings”. The volume contains 15 views of the buildings and 25 of professors. The later University of Glasgow old and new, illustrated with views and portraits in photogravure…Glasgow: T&R Annan & Sons, 153 Sauchiehall Street; James Maclehose & Sons, 61 St Vincent Street. 1891 was a reissue of the Memorials images with new photographs of the buildings at Gilmorehill.