'Photographer to the queen'

If you've ever seen vintage PHOTOS of Victorian Montreal and its citizens, there's a good chance those landmarks and faces were captured by the lens of William Notman. And as for those evocative 19th-century Montreal winter scenes - ice jams, pirouetting skaters, tobogganers whooshing down hillsides - they, too, were the work of his studio.

A Scottish immigrant who arrived in Montreal in 1856 harbouring a secret, Notman became the first Canadian photographer of international renown. His subjects ranged from royalty, Governors General and the Fathers of Confederation, to Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Anna of Anna and the King of Siam fame. His studio immortalized the faces of the merchant princes of Montreal's legendary Square Mile - the Molsons, Redpaths, Drummonds, Allans, and Van Hornes. He didn't only portray them and their families, but also their ornate habitats, recording the lavish trappings of the high-Victorian era: the conservatories, coffered ceilings, vast fireplaces and portraitdecked walls.

But Notman was much more than a society photographer. A rare combination of artist and shrewd businessman, he kept his rates modest enough for ordinary individuals to sit for him. And he went out of his way to invite into his studio people whose trade, garb, or features caught his eye: a Jewish herb doctor with his basket, for instance, or a mustachioed carter sporting a buffalo fur coat tied with a ceinture fléchée. (Sometimes he took their pictures for free, at others he paid them a fee.)

By 1860, four years after his arrival in Canada, Notman had a team of artists and apprentices working for him, so that after that date his insignia on a photo didn't necessarily mean that he was the one behind the camera. Yet there was a distinctive Notman style and vision, no matter who the actual photographer was. Stanley Triggs, a 20th-century curator who rescued the Notman name from oblivion and is the author of several books about him, characterized this style as simple, direct and stately. Triggs has written that Notman "imbued his subjects with an aura of greatness equal to the challenge of the raw new world."

The story of why Notman came to this new world and how he carved out a life for himself in Montreal - eventually owning the largest photography business in 19th-century North America - reads like fiction.

Senior cataloguer Nora Hague of the Notman Photographic Archives is a fount of information about the man, his career and times. The Archives (which include 400,000 glass negatives, 60,000 of which have been digitized) are housed at the Mc-Cord Museum, where Hague has worked for more than 40 years.

Hague explains that for a long time historians were baffled as to why Notman surfaced in Montreal in August 1856. A partner in his father's dry-goods business in Glasgow, he appeared already to be enjoying a settled life with his wife, Alice, and their toddler daughter, Fanny.

"We wondered why, at the age of 30, he just dropped everything and came to Canada, and started an entirely different kind of career," Hague says. Combing through the Glasgow papers on microfilm, a researcher stumbled on a clue: Around the time Notman turned up in Montreal, the contents of his household was being auctioned off back home. Further sleuthing filled in the picture: The Notman family business had gone bankrupt due to Williams's dubious accounting practices. With the prospect of debtors' prison looming, he was - in the colourful Scots idiom of the day - fugitated. That's to say he fled as a consequence of being outside the law.

At the time, Montreal was the industrial, commercial and cultural hub of British North America. Notman likely chose it as his destination because of its reputation for making the fortunes of go-getting Scotsmen. "Certainly the colonies were places where people could go to reinvent themselves," says historian and Gazette Second Draft columnist John Kalbfleisch, author of This Island in Time: Remarkable Tales from Montreal's Past. "Whether they were fleeing the law or at the very least an embarrassment as was William Notman, or whether they were simply seeking better financial opportunities, there was a tradition of heading to the colonies.

"Montreal in the 1850s was an extremely self-confident kind of place. It emerged from the previous decade, a decade of some troubles: of disease in 1847 (and) the burning of the Parliament Buildings in 1849, with a tremendous swagger. All kinds of things started to go right for Montreal in the 1850s. In 1854, Reciprocity - what we now call free trade - was negotiated with the U.S. Trade opportunities began to open up that had not existed before. And also, importantly, the Lachine Canal had been recently widened and improved. Factories began springing up alongside it: flour milling, cotton manufacturers - all sorts of items were now being manufactured in Montreal that previously had to be imported."

Notman's first job in Montreal was with a dry-goods merchant, and he prospered enough to bring over his wife and little girl within three months. But by Christmas 1856, he was on his way to transforming himself into a professional photographer. Though he had practised photography as a hobby back home, this was no guarantee of success.

On Dec. 28, 1856, Alice Notman wrote to her parents in England: "Dear William has his photographing plan ready - and I think will be doing some business in that line next week. He works early & late at it & seems to have a chance of success. ."

With Alice by his side as receptionist, Notman threw himself into the endeavour like a man possessed. He was determined to make good after the shame of his earlier failure. At the back of his little house on Bleury St. he built a room with a skylight. This was the first Notman studio. Customers trooped in right away, though there were several other photographers - they were known as "operators" - in the city.

"Dear Willie is very busy," Alice wrote in April 1857. "His connexion seems extending. . Competent judges tell him his prints are the best that have been done in Canada. . It is wonderful how much he has had to do - but Photography is a good trade here. ."

Capturing and freezing an image has grown so common and simple in our day - the push of a single button - that it's hard to imagine its early complicated technology and initial revolutionary impact. But Notman was tapping into a new art that was on the verge of becoming a huge phenomenon. Photography drew on the Victorians' insatiable appetite for collecting; it indulged the new bourgeoisie's cult of the self.

He attracted clientele both because his photos were excellent and because he was so good with people. A perfectionist, he took great pains posing his subjects and aiming light in the studio in ways designed to play up their features. He arranged elaborate posing stands to immobilize clients' heads and limbs, so they could relax during the long exposures.

Yet even with his painstaking attention to craft and pleasant manners, Notman might merely have ended up one of a number of good photographers working in mid-19th century Montreal. There were other fine professionals in the city. At least one of them - Alexander Henderson - may be considered a better, more atmospheric artist. But Notman's business acumen was equal to his artistic flair.

Shortly after starting out in his new profession, he secured a commission from the Grand Trunk Railway Company to photograph the last stages of the construction of the Victoria Bridge. "The Grand Trunk was the precursor of the Canadian National system," explains John Kalbfleisch. "By 1856, it reached west to Toronto and Windsor. It also ran southeast to the ice-free port of Portland, Me. Up until then all goods arriving from or leaving for Europe had to be ferried across the St. Lawrence in summer, or hauled by cart over ice in the winter. The vital missing link for the company was a bridge over the St. Lawrence at Montreal. At that point the river is almost two miles wide."

The construction of this railway bridge involved a colossal feat of engineering. Its sophisticated tubular design consisted of a steel box laid on top of 24 cut stone piers set into the river. It took five years to build, involved the labour of more than 3,000 men (and many children), and, on completion, became the longest bridge in the world. For a time it was known as the Eighth Wonder of the World.

It's tempting to suggest that photographing the bridge as it was going up was as challenging as building it. Using a method called wet plate photography and glass negatives, Notman worked with an 18-by 22-inch camera, in which the plates were the size of window panes. Over the course of nearly two years, he took mammoth sized photos, often while balancing precariously at the top of the site. According to Stanley Triggs, this was one of the great achievements of recording and documenting engineering projects ever.

And as if this were not enough, Notman managed to attract royal attention to his efforts. The bridge was inaugurated by the Prince of Wales on behalf of his mother, Queen Victoria, in 1860. With a stroke of business genius, Notman floated the idea to the Canadian government of presenting a portfolio of his pictures as the country's official gift to Her Majesty on the occasion.

The so-called Maple Box made a splash in London when it arrived. "It was a good notion of the Canadian Government to employ the celebrated photographer Notman, of Montreal, to prepare a series of photographs of all that is interesting in the Canadas and to present it to the Prince of Wales as a souvenir of his visit to the colony," declared the Illustrated London News, as it detailed the contents of the portfolio in June 1861. Soon after, Notman began calling himself "Photographer to the Queen." It became trendy to pose under the sign bearing this title (for which there is no official documentation) on the pediment of his elegant new limestone studio on Bleury St.

In five short years, the disgraced dry-goods merchant had successfully put the past behind him. By 1861, at the age of 35, William Notman of Montreal, aka Photographer to the Queen, had arrived. Over the remaining 30 years of his life, he would continue to push the boundaries of his craft. There was so much more to be accomplished.

February 18, 2012

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