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William Notman & Son Photographic Studio Collection (C343)

1856-1936. - 450 000 photographs and other documents.

Administrative History - Biographical Sketch:

The Notman photographic studio was founded in 1856 by William Notman. During its 78 years in operation, the studio and the personal history of its founder William Notman were closely linked. William Notman was born in Paisley, Scotland, on 8 March 1826. After finishing his studies he began his career in business by working in the family firm. But when it ran into financial difficulties William Notman decided to move to Montréal. When he arrived, the city was buzzing with activity, so in 1856 Notman opened his own photography studio. A short time later, James Hodges, the engineer for the Grand Trunk Railway, asked Notman to photograph the stages in the construction of the Victoria Bridge. In 1860, Notman photographed the Prince of Wales during his visit to Montréal, then placed over 350 of the photographs into a maple box. This box was presented to the Prince of Wales by the Canadian government, an honour that earned Notman the title of "Photographer to the Queen." Also in 1860, Notman took part in the founding of the Art Association of Montreal, and the association's very first meeting was held in Notman's Bleury Street studio.

The studio flourished and by 1874 it had 55 employees. At one time Notman employed as many as six or eight photographers, and by the end of his 35-year career he had provided work for more than 40 photographers. Notman also employed artistic painters; they made it possible for him to offer customers hand-painted full-scale portraits. Notman's photographers immortalized the most influencial men and women of the day, the most beautiful panoramas, the wildest and the most developed regions in the country, the latest technological advances and First Nations peoples.

Notman exploited the commercial potential of photography to the fullest, offering his customers a wide variety of products. The studio and its support staff developed tools that enabled them to identify the subject of any photograph taken by the studio. For example, all of the information on a customer or a subject was filed in an album along with a print of the photograph. In its 78 years of existence, the studio produced more than 200 of these albums. In addition, staff members recorded in alphabetical order in large books the name of everyone who sat for a photo.

The Notman studio also produced numerous composite photographs, a format whose commercial potential by far exceeded that for single-subject photographs. Composites were made up of individual photos glued to a painted background and then photographed for sale to individuals.

Whenever Notman published a collection or won a prize, the Studio benefited from the ensuing publicity. Between 1865 and 1868 Notman published Portraits of British Americans with biographical sketches and collaborated with the author W. George Beers in producing three portfolios of sports photographs. Notman also received medals at the world exhibition in Montréal in 1860, in London in 1862, in Paris in 1867 and 1878, in Australia in 1877 and again in London in 1886.

William Notman married Alice M. Woodwark on 15 June 1853, and they had seven children, including three sons who later worked at the Notman studio. Notman continued taking photographs until his death in 1891. Two of his sons then ran the business, William McFarlane, from 1891 until his death in 1913, and Charles Frederick, from 1894 to 1935, when he sold it to Associated Screen News.

Scope and Content:

This collection provides information on the products and activities of the Notman studio, but in particular it highlights a whole segment of Canadian history.

The collection consists of the following series:

  • 1. Series I: Portraits taken in studio and numbered from .01 to 100,000 [1861-1874]
  • 2. Series II: Portraits taken in studio and numbered from 5,000 to 311,602 [1874-1936]
  • 3. View Series: Scenes of every genre that together provide a chronicale of Canada and were produced for tourists in a variety of formats (stereoviews, postcards, portefolios).