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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.