John Urie (b. 1820) Life and Labour – Writing Lives

John Urie (b. 1820) Life and Labour

This entry focuses on will focus on John Urie’s professional career as a printer, publisher and photographer in the early years of photography. Early on in this career, he worked at the “Zebra Tavern” where he took a very lucrative and popular photo of the “famous Metropolitan preacher”(103). He described that John Anderson, “one of the biggest commercial houses in the city”(102) was very interested in this photo and wanted a large number of copies, however John refused to come to an agreement feeling his terms were “higher than expected”(103). Clearly John valued not only the enjoyment and fame that came with photography, but also the professionalism and art. It’s this attitude that allowed John to be very successful. He mentioned how in 1849, he moved into a “two-roomed office”(104) owned by great philanthropist, David Dale. He stayed in these offices for 20 years, where he extended his premises constantly, even having 5-6 apprentices under his employ.

Nevertheless, where John’s most loved success came through the photos he took and the stories they told. Let’s take a look at some!

Here demonstrates the sort of images John would take! Pictured here is a Glasgow man. He is unnamed but from the accompanying back image (showed in the image website…click the image to see!), its clear to gather that this is a local Glasgow man who obviously paid John for a portrait commission. What’s interesting to me though is what the image is actually showing. I think the backdrop and clothing is quite fabricated to fit a certain standard. Obviously this image is conveying a class higher than that of the working class, with the top hat, arched doorways, groomed hair etc clearly demonstrating that. This raises the question of the social standing of photography during John’s time. From John’s available photos, his professional career only really noted financially well people apart from his photos that show his family and hometown more. From this, I think it’s safe to assume that photo prices were not affordable for the working class of Glasgow, it was clearly a prestigious item to have which I think also equated to John’s local fame. However, interestingly in his memoir, John mentions how he had “turned (his) camera on all classes and conditions of men and women” (118). I don’t doubt this statement from John but I do assume the levels of class difference heavily favoured the higher classes. John goes on to mention how “few professions in which one has greater opportunities of studying human nature than that of the photographer”. One very notable instance of John’s human nature studying comes in the form of Madeleine Smith

Now, the photos John took of the famous Madeleine is not documented. One was a part of the trial, but the only images I found weren’t credited and don’t really match the description that John gives of the photo, however I think this part of John’s memoir is so memorable, I must mention it! The image (pictured right) is a sketch of Madeleine Smith during her trial. You can assume that due to the lack of artists in Glasgow at the time that this is John’s image, however I can’t safely say it is. John mentions how after the trial he ” displayed (the image) in his showcase” (126). In the end “ which would obviously spark shock in Glasgow. Even at the trial, “. It was a romance gone wrong and a complete mystery due to the fact that people didn’t know if Madeleine killed her secret lover L’Angelier or if he committed suicide. It’s safe to assume that John displayed the portraits for the sake of fame as after, “show-cases were besieged” so much so that the police requested him to remove it due to the mass crowds! However, I like to this that John did this for the story. The fact that she came into his store on two occasions and how he also photographed L’Angelier is something that John loved and found very memorable, noting how he “could not help remembering her” (125).


  • Urie, J. (1908). Reminiscenes of eighty years by John Urie. Paisley: A. Gardner, 1908.
  • Walton, G. (2017). Madeleine Smith: Accused Glasgow Murderess of the 1850s. Available at:
  • Mae, C. (2020). Madeleine Smith’s Trial: A Scotland Murder Mystery. A Most Curious Murder. Available at:  
  • John Urie, 33 Buchanan St., 1849-1868. (John’s photos). Madasafish. Available at:                                                                            

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