John Colin Forbes and Kenneth Keith Forbes, a lineage of official portraitists!

By Geneviève Couture

The careers of painters John Colin Forbes (1846–1925) and his son Kenneth Keith Forbes (1892–1980) clearly illustrate how particular prime ministers were their muses and patrons. Between them, the two portraitists painted seven Canadian prime ministers, two governors general, five chief justices of the Supreme Court, 11 speakers of the House of Commons and 14 speakers of the Senate. These artists also painted a king and queen of England on behalf of the Canadian government. Over a period of more than 90 years, the Forbeses helped to build an artistic and visual heritage depicting the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the Canadian government.

John Colin Forbes

John Colin Forbes was born in Toronto in 1846. In the 1860s, he studied painting in Paris and London before returning to Canada. He was a founding member of the Ontario Society of Artists (1872) and the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts (1880).

Forbes was quickly recognized as a portraitist and received numerous commissions. He painted Lord Dufferin and the Marquess of Lansdowne, both governors general of Canada. Between 1878 and 1893, he created portraits of Sir John A. Macdonald, Alexander Mackenzie, Sir Charles Tupper and Wilfrid Laurier. None of these were official portraits, but Tupper’s is in the Parliament of Canada, while Macdonald’s and one of Laurier’s are in the National Gallery of Canada. Forbes was also commissioned to produce four official portraits of speakers of the House of Commons and six official portraits of speakers of the Senate.

The artist had a special relationship with Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who called Forbes a “friend.” He painted Laurier for the first time in 1885, based on a photo taken around 1882 by William Topley’s studio in Ottawa.

Black-and-white photo of a seated man in a suit.

Wilfrid Laurier, MP. Topley Studio, 1882. (a013133-v8)

The second painting of Laurier by Forbes was presented to the Prime Minister by his friends and Liberal Party supporters on May 15, 1902. In his speech to the House of Commons, Laurier stated, “It is with a very sincere heart indeed that both in my own name and in the name of my wife, I accept from the unknown friends […] this memento which is the work of a great Canadian artist.”

Lamenting that Forbes was at the time practicing his art in the United States, Laurier added:

Unfortunately Canada, which is still a young country, has not afforded to artists all the help it might have given in the past. I trust that in the future Canadian artists and talents will receive more encouragement from the Canadian people that they received hitherto. For my part, it is with some regret, I acknowledge that perhaps the Government might have done more than it has for the encouragement of native, artistic talent.

Finally, regretting not having children to whom he could bequeath the painting, Laurier made this wish: “Someday I hope it will be in a national museum, not with a view of remembering me to posterity, but for the glory of Mr. Forbes, the artist who painted it.” A few years later, in 1906, Laurier himself gave the painting to the National Gallery of Canada.

A royal commission

His special relationship with Prime Minister Laurier earned Forbes his most prestigious commission: a painting of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. He was the first Canadian painter to have a sitting with a British monarch, and official portraits of Edward VII would adorn the House of Commons.

The correspondence between Forbes and Laurier on this matter, which is part of the Sir Wilfrid Laurier fonds at Library and Archives Canada, indicates that Forbes had requested the commission from Laurier, with whom he had previously discussed it.

Black-and-white photo of a typed page.

Letter from John Colin Forbes to Wilfrid Laurier dated April 14, 1904, requesting the commission to paint the King and Queen on behalf of the Canadian government. (Wilfrid Laurier fonds, MG26 G 1(A), Vol. 312, page 84516, microfilm C-810)

Laurier agreed after he received a petition in support that was signed by 92 of the 214 members of Parliament.

A black-and-white image of a scanned page from microfilm.

The first of three pages of the petition, from members of the House of Commons to Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier, to commission painter John Colin Forbes to paint a portrait of the King for the House of Commons. (Wilfrid Laurier fonds, MG26 G 1(A), Vol. 312, page 84518, microfilm C-810)

Laurier forwarded the request to the Governor General, Lord Minto, who helped arrange access to the royals for Forbes.

A black-and-white image of a scanned page from microfilm.

Letter from Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier to Governor General Lord Minto, recommending that John Colin Forbes be commissioned to do the painting, and that steps be taken to that effect with the King. (Wilfrid Laurier Fonds, MG26 G 1(A), Vol. 326, page 87632, microfilm C-813)

The sitting was granted, and Forbes travelled to England to paint the portraits. Unfortunately, the paintings were destroyed in the Parliament fire in 1916, less than 12 years after their creation. Forbes’s four official portraits of the speakers of the House of Commons and six official portraits of the speakers of the Senate survived the fire.

Black-and-white photo of a burning building.

The eastern part of Centre Block in flames, Ottawa, 1916. (a052822-v8)

Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir Wilfrid Laurier: inspiring portraits

Two portraits of prime ministers painted by Forbes inspired their successors. In a Winnipeg Free Press article published on March 20, 1965, journalist Peter C. Newman reported that, depending on their political allegiance, new prime ministers had either Sir John A. Macdonald’s or Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s portrait installed in their East Block office in Ottawa. This practice changed under Lester B. Pearson, when the Prime Minister asked for both paintings in his office.

Photographs taken by Duncan Cameron (recently discussed in a blog post about news photographers and prime ministers) confirm that John Diefenbaker, Lester B. Pearson and Pierre Elliott Trudeau had paintings by Forbes in their offices. Paul Martin’s office was decorated with the first painting of Laurier by Forbes from 1885.

Black-and-white photo of a man taking a photograph of a photographer who is photographing him.

Pierre Elliott Trudeau taking a photograph with news journalist Duncan Cameron’s camera, June 28, 1968. Photo: Duncan Cameron (a175919)

Kenneth Keith Forbes

The son of John Colin Forbes, Kenneth Keith Forbes, also became a famous portraitist. Born in Toronto in 1892, he began drawing at the age of four under his father’s tutelage. Between 1908 and 1913, he studied art in England and Scotland. When the First World War started in 1914, the younger Forbes joined the British army as an ordinary soldier. He fought in France, where he was injured and gassed. Forbes was promoted to captain, and in 1918 he was transferred to the Canadian Army (specifically, the Canadian War Records Office) as a war artist. He painted scenes of battles as well as portraits of Canadian officers, including Brigadier General D. Draper.

Library and Archives Canada holds the recently digitized military file of Kenneth Keith Forbes.

Oil painting by Kenneth Keith Forbes from 1918. The scene shows the defence of Sanctuary Wood by the Canadian military near Ypres, Belgium, in 1916.

The Defence of Sanctuary Wood (1916), by Kenneth Keith Forbes, 1918. (e010751163-v8)

Official portraitist

A few years later, Forbes returned to Toronto; continuing in the family tradition, he focused mainly on portraits.

Among other things, he painted the official portraits of seven speakers of the House of Commons, eight speakers of the Senate and five chief justices of the Supreme Court.

Forbes also painted the portraits of prime ministers Robert Borden, R.B. Bennett and John Diefenbaker. The first portrait of R.B. Bennett painted in 1938 by Forbes was offered to the Prime Minister by members of Parliament, senators and Conservative Party members upon his retirement from politics. It is now in the New Brunswick Museum, where Bennett bequeathed it.

Forbes then painted the official portrait of Sir Robert Borden for the House of Commons. The painting was commissioned by the Speaker of the House, Gaspard Fauteux, whose portrait Forbes had painted the previous year. The aim was to complete the collection of official portraits representing Canada’s prime ministers in the House of Commons. This painting was unveiled in Parliament on June 11, 1947, 10 years after Borden’s death, along with a portrait of William Lyon Mackenzie King, with President Harry Truman of the United States in attendance.

In his diary, Mackenzie King explains why he suggested that his portrait and that of Borden, both prime ministers in the major wars, be unveiled at the same ceremony.

A black-and-white image of a typewritten page of William Lyon Mackenzie King’s diary dated May 19, 1947.

Excerpt from the May 19, 1947, entry in William Lyon Mackenzie King’s diary, explaining how he came to suggest that his portrait and that of Borden, both prime ministers in the major wars, be unveiled at the same ceremony. (William Lyon Mackenzie King fonds, MG26 J 13, May 19, 1947)

A decade later, Forbes painted two portraits of John Diefenbaker. The first was given to Diefenbaker by members of his Cabinet and hung in the prime minister’s official residence at 24 Sussex Drive, and later in Stornoway, the official residence of the leader of the opposition. The second portrait of Diefenbaker was commissioned by freemasons from Washington and is now in Arlington, Virginia.

In 1962, Forbes painted the official portrait of R.B. Bennett for the House of Commons. The commission came close to 25 years after his earlier painting, and 15 years after Bennett’s death. It was requested by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and the Speaker of the House of Commons, Roland Michener. Once again, the aim was to fill in gaps in the collection of official portraits of Canada’s prime ministers in the House of Commons.

Conclusion

The careers of portraitists John Colin Forbes and Kenneth Keith Forbes reveal the sometimes unsuspected links between the arts and politics. The father and son clearly benefited from their good relationships with parliamentarians, particularly prime ministers, receiving many highly prestigious commissions.

Prime ministers also benefited from the work of artists like the Forbeses, whose paintings helped to commemorate and glorify the men who held the country’s highest political positions and inspired their successors. As we have seen, political affiliation was not at issue in requests to the father-and-son artists to contribute to this commemorative undertaking by painting portraits of prime ministers in office and their predecessors. The Forbes portraitists helped to establish the role of prime ministers in the country’s political memory.

Moreover, the talent for painting portraits did not end with John Colin Forbes and Kenneth Keith Forbes. The latter married Jean Mary Edgell, who was also a painter, and their daughter, Laura June McCormack (1921–1961), painted some portraits now in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, notably one of Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine.

For additional information about portraits of prime ministers, read Andrew Kear’s thesis, Governing Likenesses: The Production History of the Official Portraits of Canadian Prime Ministers, 1889–2002.


Geneviève Couture is an archivist with the Prime Minister Papers project in the Science and Governance Private Archives Division at Library and Archives Canada.

Dressing Up at Ottawa’s Fancy Dress Balls and Skating Carnivals (1876–1896)

By: Emma Hamilton-Hobbs

Don’t you just love to dress up, spending hours upon hours devoted to selecting, conducting research on, and finally creating an impressive outfit for an exclusive costumed event? Well, many Canadians in the late nineteenth century certainly did!

A fancy dress ball was a private costumed party that grew in popularity over the course of the nineteenth century, hosted and attended primarily by the most privileged members of society. The men and women who received invitations to the events spent weeks upon weeks carefully selecting their costumes, poring over published magazines and books devoted to fancy dress, and even perusing historical books or paintings for inspiration. Popular ideas included historical dress, literary, mythological and allegorical characters, and finally, characters from “exotic” lands.

Newspapers in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal reported extensively on the major Canadian fancy dress balls, providing detailed descriptions of the various costumes that the elite guests had worn. Many who attended the balls eagerly flocked to photography studios in the days and months following these special occasions to have their portraits taken in costume. Sometimes these portraits were used to create impressive composite photographs, including the one fabricated by Ottawa photographer William James Topley (1845–1930) of the Grand Fancy Ball hosted by Governor General Lord Dufferin and his wife Lady Dufferin in the Rideau Hall ballroom on February 23, 1876.

A group photograph of hundreds of costumed guests at a fancy dress ball. The background is a painting of the Rideau Hall ballroom.

Composite image of the Dufferin Grand Fancy Ball at Rideau Hall on February 23, 1876. The final composite was completed in either May or June. (e008295343).

This composite was created by pasting hundreds of individual portraits taken in Topley’s studio onto a painted scene of the Rideau Hall ballroom, which was then re-photographed to create the final product. Topley learned how to create composite images from his former mentor and employer, William Notman (1826–1891), who owned a successful photography studio in Montreal. Topley, like Notman, was an astute businessman who took full advantage of these vice-regal events to turn a profit, as guests were eager to have their costumed characters preserved in the form of photographic portraits that they could share with family and friends, or paste into personal albums as memorable keepsakes.

Many individuals played up their character in the photography studio, assuming different poses and using a variety of props in their staged portraits. Mr. Campbell posed theatrically as a “Court Jester” when he visited Topley’s studio shortly after the Grand Fancy Ball hosted by the Dufferins had ended. William Campbell was the private secretary to Lord Dufferin and a well-liked staff member.

A black-and-white photograph of a man dressed as a jester and posing in a photography studio. He grasps a puppet on a stand in his right hand.

William Campbell, private secretary to Lord Dufferin, as a “Court Jester” by William Topley, March 1876. (e011091709)

Miss Maggie Jones and Miss Zaidee Cockburn both dressed up as “Bonnie Fishwives of New Haven” at the Dufferins’ Grand Fancy Ball. They attracted some attention throughout the evening, which may have been linked to the lengths of their skirts, which were much shorter than acceptable Victorian dress.

A black-and-white photograph of a young woman dressed up as a “fishwife” and posing in a photography studio. She is shown standing with her left hand resting on her hip, her other hand holding a papier mâché fish and her right foot raised and leaning on a wooden barrel.

Miss Maggie Jones dressed as a “Bonnie Fishwife of New Haven” by William Topley, March 1876 (e011091718).

Fancy dress skating carnivals were also very popular during this time, and, unlike the fancy dress balls, were far more accessible to the average Canadian citizen. In his studio, Topley recreated outdoor skating scenes for his sitters with a painted, snowy backdrop complete with artificial snow and a reflective surface to imitate ice. Women loved to wear peasant or pastoral dress to skating carnivals, as shorter skirts also allowed them to move around freely on skates.

A black-and-white photograph of a woman dressed up in costume as a shepherdess on skates in a photography studio. The backdrop is a painted, snowy scene.

Miss Fraser as a “Shepherdess” by William Topley, February 1889 (a138398)

Allegorical characters were also well represented at the fancy dress balls and skating carnivals. Women dressed as “Night,” “A Hornet,” “The Alphabet,” or even as the “Dominion of Canada,” as represented by Mrs. Juschereau de St. Denis LeMoine at the Dufferins’ ball.

A black-and-white photograph of a woman dressed up as the “Dominion of Canada” in a photography studio. On the front of her dress is the coat of arms of the Dominion surrounded by embroidered maple leaves, with miniature snowshoes on the train of her dress.

Mrs. Juschereau de St. Denis LeMoine as the “Dominion of Canada” by William Topley, March 1876. (e011091705)

A black-and-white photograph of a man dressed up as explorer “Jacques Cartier” in a photography studio.

Mr. Juschereau de St. Denis LeMoine dressed as explorer “Jacques Cartier,” March 1876. (e011091707)

The Historical Fancy Dress Ball hosted by the Governor General, the Earl of Aberdeen, and his wife, Lady Aberdeen, in the Senate Chamber of the original Parliament buildings on February 17, 1896, was another widely reported event. This educational ball featured nine periods in Canadian history, from the Vikings to the Loyalists, enacted by two hundred and fifty individuals in a series of dances at the ball.

A photographic portrait of a group representing the voyages of the Norsemen at the Aberdeens’ ball illustrates how the medium of photography had evolved since the Dufferins’ ball twenty years earlier. Topley, who once again photographed the groups in his studio after the ball had ended, could now take an entire group together as a result of faster exposure times. The scene is also illuminated by natural light streaming in from the skylight seen at the top left of the image.

A black-and-white photograph of a group of seventeen men, women and girls wearing Viking costumes in a photography studio.

A historic group representing the voyages of the Norsemen to Northeastern North America photographed in Topley’s studio. They were the first historic group who performed a lively “polska” at the Historical Fancy Dress Ball hosted by Lord and Lady Aberdeen in February 1896. The young girl seated in the middle is Lady Marjorie Gordon, daughter of the vice-regal hosts, wearing a white and gold dress with her mother’s Celtic jewellery. (a137981).

A souvenir album was created and sold to guests afterward as well, illustrated with photographs of the historic groups taken by Topley (with the exception of one group) and text by historian and civil servant Dr. John George Bourinot, who provided advice and guidance to Lady Aberdeen in the months leading up to the event. Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has a copy of this souvenir album in its collection.

All of the above digitized images were reproduced from original glass plate negatives found in the Topley Studio fonds at LAC. These images, along with many others taken by Topley of guests who attended the Ottawa fancy dress balls and skating carnivals, are available online through LAC’s website.

Reproductions of these original glass plate negatives are on display at the National Gallery of Canada in the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries.


Emma Hamilton-Hobbs is a photo archivist in the Government Archives Division at Library and Archives Canada.

Library and Archives Canada releases its latest podcast episode, “William Topley: Exposure on Ottawa”

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is releasing its latest podcast episode, “William Topley: Exposure on Ottawa”.

The William James Topley photographic collection is one of the most important visual records of Canada. The photographs produced by the Topley Studio provide a vivid documentation of the political, social, cultural, economic, technological and architectural changes during the first fifty years of Canada after Confederation. The collection documents life in the Ottawa area—as well as people and events in other regions of the country—between 1868 and 1923.

In this episode, we speak with Library and Archives Canada Archivist, Emma Hamilton-Hobbs, about the Topley collection, which is one of the most widely consulted sources of late 19th– and early 20th-century photographs held at LAC.

To view images associated with this podcast, here’s a direct link to our Flickr album.

Subscribe to our podcast episodes using RSS, iTunes or Google Play, or just tune in at Podcast–Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.

For more information, please contact us at bac.balados-podcasts.lac@canada.ca.

Photo Album 47: Record of a real and a constructed journey to western Canada: a mystery!

In the previous posts, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Tour of Western Canada, June 1914 and Visit to Jasper National Park, we followed on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s trail as he travelled through Canada in 1914. The images of the trip came from a large album of photographic prints put together by William Topley capturing the author’s travels—supposedly. Upon doing further research, there are some curiosities with the way the album has been presented.

The photo album (see pages from the album below) appears to be not only a record of the Conan Doyle tour of 1914, but also a constructed record of a journey that an immigrant or tourist would take on the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway.

A black-and-white photograph showing a group of people sitting on a veranda overlooking a wooded area.

The Conan Doyle party sitting on a veranda. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is on the far right.

Clues

First, the original nitrate and glass plate negatives are located in the Topley fonds rather than the Department of the Interior, which employed the photographer for the Conan Doyle tour.

Second, the photo album resides within the Department of the Interior’s fonds in a series entitled, Immigration Branch — Photographic Albums of Canadian Settlement. The MIKAN record notes that the albums in this series contain photographs taken by two photographers, John Woodruff and Horatio Topley, working for the William Topley Studio. However, the photographs in the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle album are clearly identified as having been taken by William Topley, rather than his brother, who died in 1910.

Third, while the MIKAN record—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Tour—suggests that the entire album is of Conan Doyle’s tour, a close inspection of the physical album reveals that only a portion of the photographs are from the tour! The last part of the album has photos of places along the remainder of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway route from Jasper, Alberta through central northern British Columbia to Prince Rupert on the Pacific coast—places which Conan Doyle did not visit as he returned east after his stay in Jasper National Park.

So why are these other photos in the album? By looking at the finding aid for the Topley Studio Series SC, we learn that Topley may have travelled on the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway to photograph the Mount Robson Glacier and Berg Lake in 1913. In July 1915, he may have taken the railway from Jasper, Alberta all the way to Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Along the way, he photographed:

Photograph of a typewritten list with photograph numbers and titles of locations along the Grand Trunk Railway.

The finding aid at the beginning of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle photo album from the Immigration Branch listing the photographs contained in the album.

Topley was quite probably employed by Department of the Interior to record these trips as he had a number of prominent assignments with the Department in the first two decades of the 20th century.

In 1917, the Department of the Interior published the book, Description of and Guide to Jasper Park, which includes several of Topley’s photos from his 1914 trip with Conan Doyle and one photo of his 1915 trip.

A photograph of an album, showing three black-and-white photographs of a city.

A page taken from the album showing photographs of the city of Edmonton.

A photograph of a photo album, showing four black-and-white photographs of groups of people with horses and tents.

A page from the album showing photographs taken of a press excursion at Jasper Park that are clearly labelled 1915.

A photograph of an album, showing four black-and-white photographs of various scenes in British Columbia, including the totem poles at Kitwanga, a view of the village, an unidentified medicine man and a person fishing on a stream.

The album showing locations in British Columbia that Conan Doyle did not go to during this trip.

A collage of two images. The first one is a label explaining how to reorder the binder if necessary, and the second one shows two black-and-white photographs: one of an Ottawa bridge and the other captioned, “Str. Prince Rupert leaving for Vancouver.”

First and last pages of the album. The last photograph shows a steamer heading towards Vancouver. However the Conan Doyle party never made it past Mount Robson.

Whether the Department of the Interior album was intended for public viewing or not, one thing is certain—Topley’s western excursions were addictive. The photographer was drawn to the grand western landscapes. Retired Library and Archives Canada photo archivist and Topley expert Andrew Rodger writes in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography: “Topley and his wife, who died in 1927, spent much of their last years in Edmonton with their daughter, Helena Sarah, and son-in-law, Robert C.W. Lett, an employee of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. The latter was probably influential in the naming of the town of Topley, a community on the rail line in northern British Columbia.

William Topley died in Vancouver in 1930.

Library and Archives Canada Sir John A. Macdonald treasures on display. Part 1: Famous outtakes

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) holds the most comprehensive collection of material in Canada related to our nation’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. As part of the year-long commemoration surrounding the 200th anniversary of Macdonald’s birth, LAC is presenting an exhibition at Bellevue House in Kingston, Ontario—Parks Canada’s official site dedicated to Macdonald.

The exhibition will provide a chance for Canadians to see rare treasures, such as an exercise book from Macdonald’s school days, and the earliest known painted portrait of him:

Image shows a school exercise book belonging to Sir John A. Macdonald when he was a child; the book is open at a page of geometry exercises.

Sir John A. Macdonald’s exercise book (MIKAN 122162)

Image shows the earliest known portrait of Sir John A. Macdonald, a portrait painted in oils in the Romantic style.

First oil portrait of Sir John A. Macdonald, ca. 1842–1843 (MIKAN 2837236)

It also features other lesser-known, but intriguing, items. LAC’s collection includes most of the original glass plate negatives from personal photography sessions that Macdonald booked with prominent Ottawa photographer William James Topley (1845–1930), for example:

Images show Sir John A. Macdonald wearing an overcoat and standing in various poses on ‘set’ at Topley Studios, either holding or setting aside a top hat and cane. Images show Sir John A. Macdonald wearing an overcoat and standing in various poses on ‘set’ at Topley Studios, either holding or setting aside a top hat and cane.

Topley was the premier portrait photographer of his day, making images of both well-known and unknown citizens from across the country. His studio, always located in the neighbourhood of Parliament Hill, was convenient enough to attract the patronage of many of the new Dominion’s first MPs. Topley even served as official court photographer to Canada’s Governor General, the Marquis of Lorne (1845–1914).

Prints of the photographs from Macdonald’s studio sessions with Topley do not always survive, but most of the negatives for each session do—often including fascinating and unexpected ‘outtake’ images. Produced on thin plates of glass, the 19th-century technology that preceded the development of photographic film, these are both fragile and unwieldy—besides being negative images. Modern positive reproductions are usually made from them, as in the case of this exhibition, to allow for convenient viewing.

This exhibition displays several outtakes, and a print from the Topley sessions, in sequence. The outtakes lack the formality of finished studio portraits but give a small feeling of what a 19th-century studio session must have been like. When viewed as a set, they almost give a feeling of motion—bringing Macdonald to life again, before our eyes.

LAC is the only archives in Canada to hold the official records of the Topley Studio, including original counter books, prints and negatives. The Macdonald negatives illustrate just one way in which the collection works as one of the most important visual records of Canada during the first 50 years after Confederation.

Image shows one of Sir John A. Macdonald’s receipts for a photographic session with William James Topley, June 1885.

Topley receipt for a photographic session (MIKAN 122162)

Come see the Macdonald outtakes at Bellevue House National Historic Site, between May 16 and October 12, 2015.

Children of Topley Images now on Flickr 

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. 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.

Children were often the subject of these portraits, posing alone or with siblings.

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)

Related resources:

Capital City Portraits: Faces from the Topley Collection

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 Topley, a Montréal-area native, who began his solo career by opening a branch of the William Notman studio on Ottawa’s Wellington Street. Having worked in Montréal for a number of years as an apprentice to the well-known photographer, William James Topley, would eventually drop the Notman name and run his own studio from a series of Ottawa addresses, moving from Wellington Street to the corner of Metcalfe and Queen, and finally to two separate addresses on Sparks Street.

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.

Miss Powell, 1870

Miss Powell, 1870 (MIKAN 3479280)

Miss E. Pattie and cat, 1873

Miss E. Pattie and cat, 1873 (MIKAN 3461227)

Mr. Brewer, 1875

Mr. Brewer, 1875 (MIKAN 3433630)

Miss Sparks and Miss Magee, 1889.

Miss Sparks and Miss Magee, 1889 (MIKAN 3448969)

Mrs. Bronson, 1869

Mrs. Bronson, 1869 (MIKAN 3478860)

Other local portait sitters

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William James Topley’s Fancy Dress Ball Photographs

One of the most celebrated and well-known photographs by Ottawa photographer William James Topley (1845–1930) is his composite image of the first major Canadian fancy dress ball, hosted by the Earl of Dufferin and his wife on February 23, 1876. This composite, which was constructed in the months following the event by cutting out individual photographs and pasting them onto a painted backdrop of the Rideau Hall ballroom, recreates a moment from this prestigious social affair. Look closely and see if you can make out the different costumes…

Composite image of the Dufferin Grand Fancy Ball at Rideau Hall on February 23, 1876. The image was created in the months following the event, and was probably finished in May or June.

Composite image of the Dufferin Grand Fancy Ball at Rideau Hall on February 23, 1876. The image was created in the months following the event, and was probably finished in May or June. (Source: MIKAN 3260601)

The fancy dress ball was a private costumed event that grew in popularity over the course of the nineteenth century in Canada. Those who were invited to a fancy ball would often portray characters from history, literature, Shakespearean plays, mythology, legends, nursery rhymes, or fairy tales, or even ones from “exotic” lands. While guests at fancy balls were expected to conform to certain societal expectations, they could also exercise a few liberties.

For example, women were permitted to wear their hair loose and flowing at the ball (normally it would have been worn up). They could also dress in outfits that revealed more of their legs than a typical ball gown of the day. Miss Minnie Smart, who came dressed in uniform as a heroic “vivandière” for the Dufferin Grand Ball, is certainly revealing a fair amount of her stockings in this photographic portrait!

Miss Minnie Smart dressed as a “vivandière,” originally a type of female auxiliary in the French army who sold food and drink to the soldiers.

Miss Minnie Smart dressed as a “vivandière,” originally a type of female auxiliary in the French army who sold food and drink to the soldiers. (Source: MIKAN 3421162)

Many of the costumes that men wore required tight leggings. This undoubtedly resulted in a few of the guests feeling self-conscious about their bodies, which were normally hidden under conventional dark suits.

Mr. Newby dressed as a “Court Jester.” He wore this same costume again for a skating carnival that took place in 1881.

Mr. Newby dressed as a “Court Jester.” He wore this same costume again for a skating carnival that took place in 1881. (Source: MIKAN 3477362)

There were also those who dressed as characters from other lands. These individuals often acted out their roles in very stereotypical ways, and their costumes did not necessarily reflect the identity that they were appropriating. Mr. Waddell, who came dressed as a “Heathen Hindoo,” apparently had his face painted brown with iodine, leaving a stain that lasted for days after the event.

Mr. Waddell dressed as a “Heathen Hindoo.”

Mr. Waddell dressed as a “Heathen Hindoo.” (Source: MIKAN 3477518)

Not only do these photographs serve as entertaining records of the men and women who attended this exclusive event, but they are also important visual remnants of the past that reflect the social, political and economic contexts in which they were created.

For further research