William Notman

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This article is about the Canadian photographer. For the early Canadian politician, see William Notman (Canadian politician).
William Notman
William Notman.jpg
A self-portrait of William Notman, c. 1866–1867
Born William Notman
(1826-03-08)8 March 1826
Paisley, Scotland
Died 25 November 1891(1891-11-25) (aged 65)
Occupation photographer, businessman

William Notman (8 March 1826 – 25 November 1891) was a Scottish-Canadian photographer and businessman. The Notman House in Montreal was his home from 1876 until his death in 1891 and has since been named after him.


Notman was born in Paisley, Scotland, in 1826, and moved to Montreal in 1856.[1] An amateur photographer, he quickly established a flourishing professional photography studio on Bleury Street, a location close to Montreal’s central commercial district and the city’s political and business elites and their families who became his core clientele. [2]

His first important commission was the documentation of the construction of the Victoria Bridge across the St. Lawrence River.[1] The Bridge opened with great fanfare in 1860, attended by the Prince of Wales and Notman's camera. The gift to the Prince of a Maple Box containing Notman's photographs of the construction of the bridge and scenes of Canada East and Canada West so pleased Queen Victoria that, according to family tradition, she named him "Photographer to the Queen."[1][3]

The first Canadian photographer with an international reputation, Notman's status and business grew over the next three decades. Sara Parsons in William Notman: Life & Work describes his significance as more than that of a photographer: “He was also a visionary, a facilitator, and the creator of a brand. He built teams.”[4] Parsons connects his success to his skillfulness in selecting staff, from his choice of photographic operators and the artists who enhanced photographic prints in unique ways, to those members of his staff who guaranteed that the studio experience was one of luxury.[5]

Two such advantageous partnerships were with the established painter John Arthur Fraser (1838 - 1898) and a young Henry Sandham. Hired in 1860, Fraser was to lead the business’s art department with Sandham as his assistant. The department was responsible for painting backdrops, retouching negatives, cutting out individual figures and pasting them into composite groups, and hand-colouring prints.[6] It was this specialized work that became an integral part of the studio’s allure and of its competitive advantage in the marketplace and Notman was to become best known for his development of elaborate composite photographs.[7]

He established branches throughout Canada and the United States, including seasonal branches at Yale and Harvard universities to cater to the student trade. Notman was also an active member of the Montreal artistic community, opening his studio for exhibitions by local painters; the studio also provided training for aspiring photographers and painters. Notman was highly regarded by his colleagues for his innovative photography, and held patents for some of the techniques he developed to recreate winter within the studio walls. He won medals at exhibitions in Montreal, London, Paris, and Australia.

Photography during the mid-19th century was not the simple process it later became. The typical tourist generally did not carry a camera and much of the Notman studio's images were taken with the tourist's needs in mind. Visitors would look through Notman's picture books and chose views, to buy individually mounted or perhaps made up into an album, and have a portrait taken as well. Street scenes in the burgeoning cities of Canada, the magnificence of modern transportation by rail and steam, expansive landscapes and the natural wonders, were all in demand either as 8" x 10" print, or in the popular stereographic form, and were duly recorded by the many staff photographers working for the Notman studio.

A skilled technician and an enthusiastic inventor of tools and techniques, Notman was generous in sharing his innovations and wished to exert his influence on the wider field of practitioners.[8] He was a regular contributor to the photographic journal Philadelphia Photographer and in partnership with its editor, Edward Wilson, formed the Centennial Photographic Company for the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, held in honour of the 100th anniversary of the United States in 1876. He won the only gold medal to be awarded by the British judges and the portrait identification card required for entrance to the grounds was the ancestor of today's various photo-ID cards.

When William Notman died suddenly in November 1891 after a short bout of pneumonia, management of the studio Wm Notman & Son was left to his son William McFarlane Notman, an experienced photographer in his own right, who with his brothers, had accompanied the itinerant settlement known as "End of Track" for the Canadian Pacific Railway and documented the completion of the railway in Western Canada.[9]


In 1935 William McFarlane Notman's younger brother Charles sold the studio to the Associated Screen News, and in 1957 the Notman Collection was purchased by McGill University, Montreal. The 200,000 negatives, 43 Index Books, 200 Picture Books and assorted memorabilia were transferred to the McCord Museum of Canadian History.

With the addition of the McCord Museum's existing photographic holdings to the Notman Collection, the Notman Photographic Archives was born, with the Notman Collection serving as the kernel for an extensive Canadian photography department, covering Canada from Newfoundland to Victoria, the Great Lakes to the Arctic, from 1841 to 1935.

His residence from 1876 until his death, Notman House in Montreal was added to the Répertoire du patrimoine culturel du Québec historic registry on December 8, 1979.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Triggs, Stanley G. (1990). "Norman, William". Dictionary of Canadian Biography (University of Toronto/Université Laval) 12. Retrieved 1 October 2015. 
  2. ^ Parsons, Sara (2014). William Notman: Life and Work (PDF). Art Canada Institute. p. 5. 
  3. ^ The box is now held in the McCord Museum. Exhibit
  4. ^ Parsons, Sara (2014). William Notman: Life and Work (PDF). Art Canada Institute. p. 41. 
  5. ^ Parsons, Sara (2014). William Notman: Life and Work (PDF). Art Canada Institute. p. 41. 
  6. ^ Parsons, Sara (2014). William Notman: Life and Work (PDF). Art Canada Institute. p. 6. 
  7. ^ Parsons, Sara (2014). William Notman: Life and Work (PDF). Art Canada Institute. p. 43. 
  8. ^ Parsons, Sara (2014). William Notman: Life and Work (PDF). Art Canada Institute. p. 43. 
  9. ^ Mattison, David. "1884, 1887: William McFarlane Notman". The Photographers of Onderdonk's Way. David Mattison, 1997. Retrieved 8 June 2015. 
  10. ^ Bronson, Susan; Adams, Annemarie (September 21, 1991). "Sale of Notman House will put Cultural Property Act to test" (PDF). Montreal Gazette. pp. K4. Retrieved 2015-09-27. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Notman, William. Portrait of a Period: A Collection of Notman Photographs, 1856–1915. Edited by J. Russell Harper and Stanley Triggs, with an introduction by Edgar Andrew Collard. Montreal: McGill University Press, 1967.
  • Triggs, Stanley G. William Notman: The Stamp of a Studio. Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario; Coach House Press, 1985. ISBN – 0919777228 (pbk.). ISBN – 088910283X (hard).
  • Triggs, Stanley G. William Notman's Studio: the Canadian Picture. Montreal: McCord Museum of Canadian History, 1992. ISBN – 1895615046.
  • Triggs, Stanley G., Conrad Graham, Brian Young and Gilles Lauzon. Victoria Bridge: The Vital Link, exhibition catalogue. Montreal: McCord Museum of Canadian History, 1992. ISBN – 1895615011
  • Triggs, Stanley G., Gordon Dodds, and Roger Hall. Notman's World: the Nineteenth Century Through a Master Lens. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Inc, 1993 & U.S.A.: David R. Godine Publisher Inc, 1993. ISBN – 0771037732
  • Triggs, Stanley G. The Composite Photographs of William Notman, exhibition catalogue. Montreal: McCord Museum of Canadian History; 1994. ISBN 1-895615-08-9

External links[edit]