William James Topley

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William James Topley
Topley in 1875
Born13 February 1845
Died16 November 1930(1930-11-16) (aged 85)
SpouseHelena de Courcy McDonagh (m. 1872; died 1927)

William James Topley (13 February 1845 – 16 November 1930) was a Canadian photographer based in Ottawa, Ontario. He was the best known of Ottawa’s nineteenth-century photographers and the most socially prominent one.[1] Topley was noted for his portraiture of Canadian politicians and was a business partner of William Notman, having taken over Notman's Ottawa studio in 1872. A large number of photographs by Topley are now in the collection of Library and Archives Canada, including approximately 150,000 glass plates negatives and a set of 66 index albums covering the entire history of his Ottawa studios from 1868 until 1923.[2]

Early life[edit]

William James Topley was born in 1845 in Montreal, Canada East to John Topley, a saddler and harness maker, and Anna Delia Harrison. He was raised in Aylmer, a town outside of Ottawa in the modern-day province of Quebec. His first exposure to photography was from his mother, who had purchased a camera in Montreal in the late 1850s and brought it back with her to Aylmer. By 1863, Topley was working in Upper Canada as an itinerant photographer specializing in tintypes. That same year, he moved to Montreal with his family following the death of his father.[3]


In 1864, Topley was employed as an apprentice to William Notman in Montreal. In 1868, the year following Canadian Confederation, Topley was placed in charge of a new portrait studio opened by Notman (his first outside of Montreal) on Wellington Street in Ottawa.[4] The studio occupied a purpose-built structure across from the new Parliament buildings, and would specialize in portrait photography. Topley became the proprietor of this studio in 1872, which attracted over 2,300 sitters each year.[3] By 1875, Topley had ended his business relationship with Notman and opened a studio of his own in Ottawa at the corner of Metcalfe Street and Queen Street.[5] This studio was designed by the architect King McCord Arnoldi in the Italianate style and also served as a residence for Topley, however financial difficulties would see his studio moved to several locations throughout Ottawa until 1888 when it was permanently established at 132 Sparks Street.[6]

An innovation that Topley learned from William Notman was the composite photograph. In 1876, Topley created one to commemorate the costume ball thrown by Governor General Lord Dufferin and his wife in February of that year—the first of several such balls thrown over the next two decades. By combining many separate photographs of individual participants within a single, large-scale frame, Topley captured the scale of the event along with the details of each person’s costume.[7] He also produced similar images of attendees at skating carnivals, which were more accessible social events popular in the late 19th century.[8]

By the late 1870s, Topley had become the official photographer to John Campbell, 9th Duke of Argyll during his time as Governor General of Canada. This position attracted the attention of many politicians and other prominent figures who visited his studio to have their portraits taken. Over the span of his career, Topley photographed every prime minister of Canada from John A. Macdonald to William Lyon Mackenzie King. Furthermore, his studio also attracted the wives and daughters of nobility, political and business figures including Princess Louise, Lady Aberdeen and Laura Borden.[9] Topley admittedly catered to the well-to-do crowd, once writing that "If I can see beauty in the human face, and reproduce it, I can command three times the reward for my work than he who simply shoots a plate at his patron. True, in a small city, such a course limits trade, but one-half of the business with three times the prices is much better for mind and body and pocketbook."[2][10]

Nonetheless, Topley is also known for his photographs of immigrants arriving at Quebec City commissioned by the Department of the Interior in the early twentieth century. Another atypical series for him was his 1895 series featuring female prisoners in Ottawa.[8] His studio also produced and sold landscape photos from across the country.[8] In 1907, Topley's son William DeCourcy took over his studio. By this time, business had declined significantly and the studio was closed in July 1926.

Throughout his long career as a photographer in Ottawa, Topley was involved with a variety of evangelical and philanthropic organizations. He was a member of the Ottawa Bible Society and served as president of the Young Men’s Christian Association in Ottawa in 1871 and 1881. Topley was also a founding member of the Camera Club of Ottawa (established in 1894), a Sunday school superintendent at the Dominion Methodist Church in Ottawa, and was involved in the Metropolitan Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.[11] Following the closure of his studio, Topley spent much time with his daughter Helena in Edmonton. He died at Vancouver in 1930. The village of Topley in British Columbia is named in his honour.[3]



  1. ^ Burant, Jim (2022). Ottawa Art & Artists: An Illustrated History. Toronto: Art Canada Institute. ISBN 978-1-4871-0289-0.
  2. ^ a b Weaver, Gawain (2005), Capital Portraits: Conservation of the Topley Studio Index (PDF), retrieved 30 October 2009
  3. ^ a b c "Biography – TOPLEY, WILLIAM JAMES – Volume XV (1921-1930) – Dictionary of Canadian Biography". www.biographi.ca. Retrieved 11 May 2022.
  4. ^ "William James Topley | The Canadian Encyclopedia". www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca. Retrieved 11 May 2022.
  5. ^ King McCord Arnoldi
  6. ^ Rodger, Andrew (2005). "Topley, William James". In Cook, Ramsay; Bélanger, Réal (eds.). Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Vol. XV (1921–1930) (online ed.). University of Toronto Press. Retrieved 1 December 2014.
  7. ^ Burant, Jim (2022). Ottawa Art & Artists: An Illustrated History. Toronto: Art Canada Institute. ISBN 978-1-4871-0289-0.
  8. ^ a b c Bassnett, Sarah; Parsons, Sarah (2023). Photography in Canada, 1839–1989: An Illustrated History. Toronto: Art Canada Institute. ISBN 978-1-4871-0309-5.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  9. ^ Morgan, Henry James, ed. (1903). Types of Canadian women and of women who are or have been connected with Canada. Vol. 1. Toronto: W. Briggs. Retrieved 1 December 2014.
  10. ^ Triggs, Stanley G. (1985), William Notman – The Stamp of a Studio, Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario
  11. ^ Hamilton-Hobbs, Emma (23 February 2017). "William Topley: Exposure on Ottawa". Library and Archives Canada.

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