McCord Museum of Canadian History
The Photographic Studio of William Notman

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The Composite Photographs

Stanley G. Triggs


It was a busy time at William Notman's studio at the foot of Bleury Street in the winter of 1878. Over a period of several weeks there was an unusually large flow of well-known citizens to and from the studio, some arriving in fine sleighs drawn by matched teams, harness and fittings immaculately polished, others in rented sleighs with hardy drivers wrapped in buffalo coats, while still others made the visit an opportunity for a brisk walk through the snowy streets of Montreal. Among them were such notables as Sir John A. Macdonald, Canadian Prime Minister, and his wife Lady Agnes; Lord Dufferin, Governor-General of Canada, with Lady Dufferin; Sir Hugh Allan, founder of the Allan Steamship Lines; Sir Alexander Tilloch Galt, politician, diplomat and industrial promoter; John Popham, advocate and Commissioner for Ontario and Quebec and the lower provinces; Matthew Hamilton Gault, President of the Exchange Bank of Canada; the Reverend Jacob Ellegood, Canon of Christ Church Cathedral and rector of St. James the Apostle Church; Alex McGibbon, prominent Montreal grocer; Lieutenant Colonel E.G.P. Littleton; and Captain Selby Smith. They came in response to an invitation sent by William Notman to have their pictures taken for inclusion in a large composite photograph of a curling match he was planning. The finished picture, made up of 122 individual photographs pasted on a painted background, was to be sent to the International Exhibition in Paris scheduled for the following summer.

Notman was at the peak of his career. Since inception in 1856 he had twice expanded his Montreal studio and also opened studios in four other Canadian cities. The year he made the curling composite, he had also opened a studio in Boston, the first of many in New England. Offering a high-quality product at a reasonable rate, Notman captured the custom of a wide range of Montreal citizens as well as visitors from other cities and from abroad. From the beginning he was keenly aware of the power of advertising. In 1860 when the Prince of Wales visited Montreal to inaugurate the Victoria Bridge, Notman had prepared a group of five hundred photographs as a royal gift, which won for him the title of "Photographer to the Queen". His international recognition was furthered by entries in most of the world-class exhibitions and a number of smaller shows in Europe, Canada and the USA. When the exhibition commissioners in charge of Canadian entries to the 1878 Paris exhibition invited Notman to send an exhibit, he decided on a large composite photograph representing both the growing nation and a unique aspect of Canadian life. Since he was already planning to send a composite picture of the Montreal Snow Shoe Club to Paris1, what better way to represent the nation in this second entry than a scene of the popular winter game of curling on the historic St Lawrence River, played and attended by some of the leading citizens of the country, with the distant metropolis and Mount Royal as a backdrop!

These weren't the first composites Notman had made…

1Hugh W. Becket, The Montreal Snow Shoe Club (Montreal: Becket Bros., 1882), p. 385.