Portraiture and the H. Sarah Howard Album (1874)

By Hilary Dow

In the past, photographic albums were used not only as mementos of loved ones and treasured events. They also declared the social identity and status of their owners, and they were forms of artistic expression. Sarah Howard’s 42-page album includes 123 photographs and was created in 1874. The H. Sarah Howard Album is an example of how women in that era used photocollage to express and represent their personal and social identities. An album does not deliver a conventional portrait, but this one reveals much about Howard and her life. It communicates dimensions of her personality and identity that could not be captured through traditional painted or photographic portraits.

An album page with photographs of three men and a woman, surrounded by coloured maple leaves

A page from the H. Sarah Howard Album, 1874 (e011201205)

Sarah Howard (1843–1911)

The words “H. Sarah Howard” are imprinted in gold embossing on the cover of the brown leather volume. This inscription refers to Hannah Sarah Howard, a Canadian woman born in Buffalo, New York, on December 25, 1843, to parents Marianne (née Wallbridge) and Hiram E. Howard. In 1861, Sarah Howard began studying science at the Buffalo Female Academy. Later, in Canada, she was involved with the Ottawa Agricultural Society and The Canadian Horticulturist, publishing articles and giving lectures on floriculture. In addition to her scientific pursuits, Howard was involved in the arts. She was trained as an amateur pianist and performed during the years that she lived in Buffalo. Howard also wrote and published poetry throughout her life, and she was regarded as a talented “sketcher” in Ottawa newspaper reports from the period.

Despite these accomplishments, Howard’s primary duty was to her family and domestic life, during a period when the social mobility of women was restricted. Following the death of her parents, Howard and her younger siblings Frances, Caroline, Henrica and Lewis immigrated to Belleville, Ontario, in 1868. They resided in the “Wallbridge White House” with their uncle Lewis Wallbridge, who was the last Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada. In her early years in Canada under her uncle’s influence, Howard had access to elite social circles. She regularly attended upper-class functions and balls in Ottawa, such as Governor General Lord Dufferin’s Fancy Dress Ball of 1876. Three years after moving to Canada, Sarah purchased a home on John Street in Belleville for herself and her siblings; as the eldest of the Howard children, she was their legal guardian. During the time she lived there, from 1871 to 1878, she was the sole head of the household and acted as such. As an extension of her domestic duties at this time, she produced two decorative photo albums documenting her family life and social connections.

The H. Sarah Howard Album (1874)

Album-making was a common activity for upper-class and upper-middle-class women of the period. The craft was seen as an extension of domestic duty and reaffirmed women’s dominion over the family realm. Like other Victorian albums, the pages of Howard’s scrapbook contain photographic prints of the owner’s family and friends, which are surrounded by colourful paintings and drawings. The types of imagery used in the photocollages in Howard’s album include designs of flowers, animals and plant life, copies of European artworks, and comedic caricatures. The use of photocollage, a technique that creates a composite picture by assembling fragments of photographs in combination with other artistic and natural materials, results in compositions that are comical and imaginative. One page, for example, features caricatures holding picture frames, likely drawn from comedic stock characters illustrated in the British periodical Punch.

An album page of coloured images that include a man beating a drum, a man holding a poster, a man sitting in a chair reading a newspaper and a man blowing a horn with a banner attached. There are four photographs, embedded in the drum, poster, newspaper and banner.

A page from the H. Sarah Howard Album, 1874 (e011201205)

An album page with a large photograph of a man in the centre, surrounded by six smaller photographs of women and men. There are also coloured drawings of flowers, birds and a squirrel.

A page from the H. Sarah Howard Album, 1874 (e011201205)

Photocollage albums, which are often referred to as “scrap albums” by photo historians, initially became popular in Europe with the invention of the carte-de-visite by the French photographer André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri in 1854. Sometimes referred to as cabinet cards, these types of photographs were small 54-mm by 89-mm paper prints mounted on cabinet card backings and easily reproduced, shared and collected. Cartes-de-visite were sold in Canadian photographic studios by photographers such as William Notman and William James Topley. Howard had her portrait taken by Topley on numerous occasions, and several of his works appear in her albums. Most of the photographs in the album are portraits of Howard’s siblings, parents, schoolteachers, fellow students, cousins and friends. The photographs are sourced from Buffalo and Belleville. Photographs of her husband and children do not appear in it, so the album represents her life as a young woman until 1874, prior to her marriage to the Honourable Octavius Lambart in 1878.

Howard’s album can be interpreted as a portrait that shows her family life and how she wanted to be seen in society. Given her interest in maintaining her public appearance, it is likely that Howard used her album to uphold her public image and class status, factors central to her identity. It was standard practice for albums to be displayed in the parlour room of homes; they functioned as tools of social performance that told outsiders who the owner was and what he or she represented. Several pages in the album feature Howard’s portrait prominently.

An album page with a photograph of the album’s owner, Sarah Howard, in the centre of the photocollage. Her image is surrounded by paintings of morning glory flowers, and an individual and two group portraits of people who are likely Howard’s family and friends.

A page from the H. Sarah Howard Album, 1874 (e011201205)

Howard is typically pictured in profile view with a stern expression, and her clothing and jewellery are emphasized. These are features of the solemn Victorian portrait that was believed to represent one’s virtue, status and moral character. While Howard’s album, on one hand, shows her public image, it also conceals her private sentiments and feelings about specific moments in her life. A good example of this is a memorial page dedicated to Sarah’s parents. In the collage, the portraits of Hiram and Marianne Howard are placed inside a forget-me-not plant.

An album page with photographs of a man and a woman in the middle of two green leaves and surrounded by purple flowers.

A page from the H. Sarah Howard Album, 1874: a memorial page to Sarah’s parents, Hiram and Marianne Howard (e011201205)

Flowers had distinctive symbolic meanings in the Victorian era. Throughout the album, paintings of flora are used to visually communicate emotions and experiences attached to specific individuals and photographs. The album, though not a typical portrait, thereby expresses public, intimate and personal aspects of Sarah Howard’s identity.

 Collaborative albums: portraits of women by women

The H. Sarah Howard Album not only functions as a self-portrait, but also serves as a portrait of Sarah Howard by a professional woman artist. It may appear at first glance that Howard is the sole creator of her album; however, the Howard album bears a remarkable resemblance to the C.W. Bell Album, illustrated by Caroline Walker in 1875 and now in the Art Gallery of Ontario’s collection. Select pages of both albums have exactly the same photographs of sitters (Howard and Bell were relatives), and the same design templates and styles of paintings are used.

An album page with photographs of eight men and women in the middle of green leaves and surrounded by white flowers.

A page from the H. Sarah Howard Album, 1874 (e011201205)

Caroline Walker (1827–1904) was a professional artist who exhibited watercolours and ink sketches at the Upper Canada provincial exhibitions between 1859 and 1865. Walker made albums for other influential settler families in Ontario during this time, including the lawyer Charles W. Bell, Sarah Howard’s cousin.

It may seem peculiar to contemporary viewers that something as mundane as a family photo album could have been a commissioned work produced by an artist. However, albums represent cultural values and signifiers, as do conventional portraits. A portrait’s ability to represent power, status and social class is central to how art historians have defined this genre of art. Owning a family album in the 1870s was a marker of one’s social status, just as having one’s portrait made indicated one’s social importance. With the advent of photography in Europe and North America, gone were the days when portraits were confined to the medium of painting. While the development of the cartes-de-visite enabled the mass circulation of photographs, with lower prices and greater accessibility for the middle class, handmade albums containing hundreds of photographs were expensive and signified elevated individual and familial social rank.

Despite the album’s similarity to the artistic style of Caroline Walker, the album is mostly likely a product of collaboration between Howard and Walker. The album includes two distinct painting styles, and the photographs selected were evidently selections from Howard’s photograph collection. Regardless of the album’s attribution, the H. Sarah Howard Album represents biographical elements of Howard’s life and displays characteristics of portraiture such as identity, social status and self-representation.

The H. Sarah Howard Album is a Victorian photocollage album created in Belleville, Ontario, in 1874. The album comprises 42 pages and contains 123 photographs in total. It is in Library and Archives Canada’s holdings as part of the Lambart family collection.

© Hilary Dow


Hilary Dow is a young professional and emerging scholar and curator based in Ottawa. She recently graduated with an MA in Art History and a Graduate Diploma in Curatorial Studies from Carleton University.

D-Day and the Normandy Campaign, June 6 to August 30, 1944

By Alex Comber

A colour photograph showing a landing craft approaching the beach, with smoke coming from a village and barrage balloons overhead.

Infantry landing craft at D-Day, June 6, 1944. (e010777287)

On this day 75 years ago, Canadian soldiers, sailors, pilots and aircrew were fighting in France in one of the largest military operations in history. Operation Neptune, or “D-Day,” was the first phase in the overall ground operations in Normandy, code-named “Operation Overlord.” Soldiers of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division conducted an assault landing on a stretch of French coast, in the massive Allied effort to establish a new theatre of operations in Western Europe. Canadian units were tasked with creating a beachhead on a section of coast code-named Juno Beach. The assignment for Canadian forces was considered an honour, as the other four beaches, code-named “Utah,” “Omaha,” “Gold,” and “Sword,” were earmarked for landings by units of the powerful Allied members of the United States and Great Britain.

A black-and-white photograph of an officer briefing a small group of non-commissioned officers with a map of a village.

Lieutenant R.R. Smith briefing the non-commissioned officers of the Regina Rifles with a sketch of their objective, Courseulles-sur-Mer, France. (e011084119)

Senior Allied commanders and military planners at Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force had learned from previous operations, such as the failure at Dieppe two years before, and the successful landings in Sicily in July 1943. This effort to open a new front in the war would benefit from a coordinated approach between land, sea, and air forces, along with comprehensive planning, attention to logistics, a massive build-up of equipment and personnel, feints and decoys to keep the enemy guessing, and a steady flow of accurate intelligence about enemy strengths and dispositions.

An armada of naval vessels escorted the invasion forces across the English Channel, while the airspace was controlled by squadrons of Allied aircraft. A vast array of specialized landing craft transported personnel, tanks, and artillery. In the Canadian sector, craft deposited men and equipment near the villages of Courseulles-sur-Mer, Bernières-sur-Mer, and Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer.

A colour photograph showing soldiers, laden with arms and equipment, walking in shallow water towards a French village.

Canadian infantry going ashore at Bernières-sur-Mer in Normandy, France. (e010750646)

Tanks of the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade struggled ashore and began supporting the advancing infantry soldiers by firing on reinforced enemy positions, while some units of the Royal Canadian Artillery had already been bombarding enemy positions from their landing craft on the final approach. Hours earlier, paratroopers of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion had been dropped deep behind enemy lines as part of Operation Tonga, the airborne landings by the British 6th Airborne Division. Their mission was to destroy bridges, secure strongpoints, support a nearby attack by British paratroopers, and generally create chaos and hamper enemy efforts to counter-attack.

A black-and-white photograph showing a soldier in a paratrooper jump smock, holding a Sten sub-machine gun, sitting on a bicycle in a field.

Private Tom J. Phelan, 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, who was wounded at Le Mesnil on June 16, 1944, rides his airborne folding bicycle at the battalion’s reinforcement camp, England, 1944. (a204971)

A black-and-white photograph showing a column of soldiers marching up a street in a damaged village.

Infantrymen of Le Régiment de la Chaudière moving through Bernières-sur-Mer, France, June 6, 1944. (a131436)

The fighting on the ground was accompanied by more involvement from Canadians serving in other forces. Pilots and aircrew flying with many Royal Canadian Air Force and Royal Air Force squadrons provided air cover for the naval operation and ground fighting, patrolled the coasts, attacked enemy troops and armour, provided photo-reconnaissance, and served on bombing missions to support the landings.

A black-and-white photograph showing a group of RCAF personnel posing beside and on top of a fighter-bomber aircraft, fitted with a large bomb.

RCAF 440 Squadron members pose with a Hawker Typhoon in Normandy, France. (e010775786)

On D-Day, Royal Canadian Navy personnel served in more than 70 naval vessels (landing craft, destroyers bombarding the coast, and minesweepers clearing the way for the invasion forces). In early July, a naval Beach Commando unit went ashore to direct forces and maintain order on the invasion beaches.

A black-and-white photograph showing two rows of sailors in battle dress, front row crouching, with a damaged fortified concrete structure behind them.

Personnel of W-2 Party, Royal Canadian Navy Beach Commando “W” outside a German fortification in the Juno sector of the Normandy beachhead, France, July 20, 1944. (a180831)

The first Canadian boots on the ground in France would be joined by an entire army in mid-July. The First Canadian Army would become the largest formation of men and women in uniform in Canadian history. Bitter fighting continued as the Allied ground forces resisted counter-attacks and pushed inland. Canadian army units would gain objectives in operations at Carpiquet, around Caen, and advancing towards Falaise, but at great human cost.

Approximately 350 Canadian military personnel were killed during the D-Day landings. By the end of August, Canadian land, sea, and air forces had suffered about 5,000 fatalities as a result of operations in France, while many more were wounded. Operation Overlord closed in late August, as opposition crumbled in Normandy and surviving German units withdrew to regroup.

A black-and-white photograph showing a long column of German soldiers being directed by Allied soldiers along a beach, with vehicles, a sea wall, and a prominent house in the background.

German personnel captured on D-Day embarking for England. (a132474)

Check back on July 4th to read Part two of LAC’s 75th Anniversary of D-day series, which will explore some of the unique collections LAC holds about these events.


Alex Comber is a Military Archivist in the Government Archives Division at Library and Archives Canada.

The Children of Topley – Pint-sized portraits from the William Topley collection

The William Topley collection at Library and Archives Canada is an invaluable resource for those interested in nineteenth-century Canadian photographic portraiture. Comprised of over 150,000 glass plate negatives as well as studio proofs and counter books, the Topley collection dates from 1868 to 1923, and illustrates the prolific career of Topley, a Montreal-area native, who began his solo career by opening a branch of the William Notman studio on Ottawa’s Wellington Street. While Topley did photograph subject matter other than people, portraits were his chosen specialty and the collection is a wonderful example of early Canadian studio work.

By the early 1870s Topley had purchased the studio he had been managing for William Notman, and was attracting upwards of 2,300 sitters per year. Topley’s prestigious downtown Ottawa location—he moved multiple times over the years, but always within walking distance to parliament—meant he attracted much of the city’s elite, including politicians and other important figures, who made their way to the photographer’s studio to have their portraits taken.

Children were often the subject of these portraits, posing alone or with siblings. In looking through these images we notice not only recognizable names, identifying some of these children as the offspring of the capital city’s movers and shakers, but something unchanged despite the time period. We see beyond the formality, the constricting clothing and stiff poses, and recognize that these portraits are not too different from those we might take today. We recognize children dressed up for a photo, attempting to sit still, looking either overly eager or slightly bored.

Black-and-white photograph of a young girl in a white dress.

Missie McLaren, 1873 (MIKAN 3461050)

Studio photographers of this era often had clients pose with props, and Topley was no different. In his portraits of children we notice items like books, skipping ropes, dolls or pets clutched in the hands of the small sitters. Some children stand or sit up very straight with serious, concentrated expressions on their faces, while others lounge tiredly in chairs. In these ones especially, we can imagine how tedious the long exposures must have felt to a child, how many plates the photographer might have had to take to get a proper, non-blurry image.

Black-and-white photograph of a young girl with her chin resting on her hands, a book beside her.

Missie Cambie, 1877 (MIKAN 3435180)

Also interesting are the portraits of babies with hidden, or barely-in-the-frame mothers. It was quite common at the time for babies to sit on their mothers’ laps for a portrait, while a blanket or other fabric was thrown over the mother so that only the baby would be the focus. In several of Topley’s portraits of babies, we see a more subtle approach, with the mother encouraging the child from the edge of the frame. The photographer would later crop the mother out for the final print.

Black-and-white photograph of a young child with the mother to the right, partially blacked out.

Missie Ruttan, 1876 (MIKAN 3434482)

These wonderful portraits provide an alternative perspective on the face of Canada’s capital in the nineteenth century, and seem to offer a bridge from past to present, where some things never change.

Black-and-white photograph of two young boys in black jackets, one seated and one standing on a chair.

Two boys posing—Master Borthwick, 1882 (MIKAN 3418410)

Black-and-white photograph of a young girl dressed in winter clothing.

Missie Helena Topley, 1882 (MIKAN 3418246)

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