One of the most popular collections at Library and Archives Canada is the William James Topley photograph collection, acquired in 1936. The Topley collection is comprised of over 150,000 glass plate and nitrate negatives, in addition to 68 studio proof albums, daily assignment logs and account books.
Dating from 1868 to 1923, the large collection illustrates the prolific career of William James Topley, an Aylmer, Quebec native, who began operating out of his own studio on Ottawa’s Sparks Street, having worked in Montreal for a number of years as an apprentice to photographer William Notman.
The photographs produced during Topley’s lengthy career serve as a fascinating visual reference to life in Ottawa, as well as other Canadian cities and towns. His images include street scenes documenting daily life, commissioned photographs of store fronts, Parliament Hill before, during, and after the 1916 fire, and perhaps most compelling, his portraits of citizens, both famous and otherwise.
By 1872, the Topley studio was attracting more than 2,300 sitters a year, including prime ministers, governors general, members of Ottawa’s high society, businessmen, and average citizens. He created his famous composite image of the first major Canadian fancy dress ball, hosted by the Earl of Dufferin and his wife, in 1876.
Many of Topley’s clients were the families of Ottawa’s movers and shakers. Being the capital city, it was common for relatives of politicians, land owners and lumber barons to make their way to Topley’s studio at some point, to sit for a portrait. In the early nineteenth century, it was still a somewhat prestigious event to have your portrait taken, and wives, children, and even pets were photographed at the studio, some of them multiple times over the years.
In viewing these wonderful portraits, it is fascinating to see the clothing, hairstyles, and expressions of Ottawa’s earlier citizens, and interesting to see the faces of people for whom some of Ottawa’s streets, parks and schools are named.
Other local portait sitters
- Mrs. Clemow with children, 1882
- Miss Perley, 1893
- Mr. Bruce and dog, 1880
- Dr. Metcalfe, 1880
- Miss Helena Topley, 1882
- Miss Booth, 1871
For further research
- William James Topley composite photographs (archived)
- William James Topley: Reflections on a Capital Photographer (archived)
- Read up on how to find photographs online
- Search the Topley Studio fonds
- Listen to a podcast on Canada’s photographic memory