On 18 May 1843, ten years of tension within the established Church of Scotland over who had the right to appoint ministers to parishes came to a head. The result was the "Disruption of 1843", a schism or division within the Church. This took place during the Church of Scotland General Assembly at the Church of St Andrew in George Street, Edinburgh, when 121 ministers and 73 elders walked out, then reassembled at the Tanfield Hall at Canonmills. A further meeting took place on 23 May, attended by many more ministers and supporters. This "Disruption Assembly" led to the formation of the Free Church of Scotland, a church that 474 ministers of the Church of Scotland (out of a total of around 1,200) chose to sign up to despite it costing most of them their livings and their homes.
The painter David Octavius Hill was present at the Disruption Assembly and decided to record the scene. The result was a painting that was only finally unveiled in May 1866, 23 years after the event it depicts. It measures some 12ft by 4ft 8ins, and has individually-identifiable depictions of 457 people associated with the Disruption Assembly. The painting's artistic merits are not universally appreciated, but the scale of the achievement it represents is both unquestionable and remarkable. It is also important as the first work of art ever painted anywhere with the help of photographic images. Most of the individuals featured in the painting were first photographed using a very early photographic process to produce "calotypes".
Yes, that's a lot of people, but how did it come to take David Octavius Hill 23 years to complete the painting? "In the Blink of an Eye" by Ali Bacon is described on the back cover as a "re-imagining of Hill's life". The result is a beautifully-told account of Hill's life during this period. It is written as a novel, and is presented in a series of snapshots - literary calotypes, you might say - told from the different points of view of many of those who knew or worked with or loved Hill during those years. The author has inevitably had to fill out the available historical information in order to tell her story, but at every turn you get the sense of a backdrop that has been meticulously researched. The result is a compelling novel that carries you along in a most satisfactory way, and which succeeds in bringing vividly to life both Hill himself and many of those around him.
As Hill's painting is at the very heart of the story, it's a shame that there's no depiction of it in or on the book. Its format would have meant it made a thin slice across the front cover, but that would at least have given the reader a sense of what all that effort was for. Having said that, of course, most readers will simply Google something like "Hill disruption painting" to see it for themselves, so its absence from the book isn't too much of a loss.