Notman’s first school composite was made in 1871 for Miss McIntosh of Bute House, a "young ladies’ seminary" which stood on Sherbrooke Street at the corner of McGill College Avenue in Montreal. In 1873 Notman portrayed the Bute House girls skating on Mount Royal, now Beaver Lake, and composed a summer scene of the students of a St. Albans, Vermont girls’ school in fancy dress under a fanciful outdoor setting. The last known school composite of the decade was a dramatically lit indoor view showing the young men of the Collège de Montréal, the oldest boys’ school in Montreal, which was and is operated by the Sulpician Fathers of the Grand Seminaire.

Although Notman had been photographing the professors, students and campus of McGill College in Montreal since about 1860, it wasn't until 1876 that the first known composite of McGill students was made. In the 1880s and '90s Notman made many composites of McGill students, and once the medallion composites were introduced in the 1890s the Notman studio produced, it seems, a composite for every graduating class in all departments up to 1935 when the studio was sold.
Notman’s first school composite was made in 1871 for Miss McIntosh of Bute House, a "young ladies’ seminary" which stood on Sherbrooke Street at the corner of McGill College Avenue in Montreal. In 1873 Notman portrayed the Bute House girls skating on Mount Royal, now Beaver Lake, and composed a summer scene of the students of a St. Albans, Vermont girls’ school in fancy dress under a fanciful outdoor setting. The last known school composite of the decade was a dramatically lit indoor view showing the young men of the Collège de Montréal, the oldest boys’ school in Montreal, which was and is operated by the Sulpician Fathers of the Grand Seminaire.

Although Notman had been photographing the professors, students and campus of McGill College in Montreal since about 1860, it wasn't until 1876 that the first known composite of McGill students was made. In the 1880s and '90s Notman made many composites of McGill students, and once the medallion composites were introduced in the 1890s the Notman studio produced, it seems, a composite for every graduating class in all departments up to 1935 when the studio was sold.

© The McCord Museum of Canadian History, 2005. All rights reserved.

Bute House skating party, Montreal, QC, composite, 1873

Physical activity and its benefits were advocated so vigorously during the Victorian era that the strictures that once forbade women from taking part in sports were coming undone. Sports such as skating, tennis, bicycling and curling gradually opened up to women, although the age-old concerns about their ill effects on them did not immediately disappear.

William Notman
Purchase from Associated Screen News Ltd.
1873
Silver salts on paper mounted on card - Albumen process
20 x 25 cm
I-81800.1
© McCord Museum


Class of 1895, Applied Science, McGill University

Class of 1895, Applied Science, McGill University, Montreal, QC, composite, 1895

Wm. Notman & Son
Purchase from Associated Screen News Ltd.

Silver salts on glass - Gelatin dry plate process
12.7 x 17.8 cm
II-110179
© McCord Museum


Medallion composites were made up of close-cropped head-and-shoulders portraits which were trimmed to a standard oval shape and glued side by side on a large plain card with minimal art work added. These quickly became popular with students, corporations and sports clubs because they were so much cheaper to make. An added appeal, especially to students, was the inherently democratic nature of the style: there were no stars, all portraits were the same size, and no key was needed since the names were printed underneath each portrait.

The earliest medallion composite in the Notman Photographic Archives is "The Dominion Cabinet" made in 1871, containing fourteen portraits of politicians and the Governor General. The owners of four Montreal retail stores commissioned it as an advertising gimmick, and had the names of their establishments worked into the surrounding design and printed on the front and back of the card. No other composites of the medallion style by Notman are known until 1889, when a large-format design containing twenty-five portraits of "The Officers of the Victoria Rifles of Canada" was produced. The next year a larger one containing fi Read More
Medallion composites were made up of close-cropped head-and-shoulders portraits which were trimmed to a standard oval shape and glued side by side on a large plain card with minimal art work added. These quickly became popular with students, corporations and sports clubs because they were so much cheaper to make. An added appeal, especially to students, was the inherently democratic nature of the style: there were no stars, all portraits were the same size, and no key was needed since the names were printed underneath each portrait.

The earliest medallion composite in the Notman Photographic Archives is "The Dominion Cabinet" made in 1871, containing fourteen portraits of politicians and the Governor General. The owners of four Montreal retail stores commissioned it as an advertising gimmick, and had the names of their establishments worked into the surrounding design and printed on the front and back of the card. No other composites of the medallion style by Notman are known until 1889, when a large-format design containing twenty-five portraits of "The Officers of the Victoria Rifles of Canada" was produced. The next year a larger one containing fifty-six portraits of graduating students and their professors was made for the École de Médecine et de Chirurgie de Montréal, Université Victoria. The largest medallion composite ever made by the Notman firm contained 680 portraits of members of the Montreal Board of Trade.

Charles Notman said in an interview in 1955 that making appointments for such a great number was so difficult that though it was begun in 1891 before William Notman’s death, it wasn’t completed until two years later1. From then on medallion composites were in the ascendancy, quickly replacing the realistic scenes in popularity. From a strictly photographic point of view medallion composites are quite dull. The figures lack setting, a place to work or play. There is no grand sweep of snow-covered trees, no swift- flowing river or sumptuous drawing-room to set off the figures and bring them to life in a setting natural to them. On the other hand, medallion composites, when looked at purely from the standpoint of graphic design, are frequently exciting visual experiences. There often is a sense of seeing multiple views of the same subject, the class of students becoming the symbolic "student" seen from different angles. This illusion, together with the visual dynamics of the closely packed shapes that seem to project a sense of alternating tension and movement, sometimes recalls the effects seen in early Cubist paintings. A similar sense of multiple viewing and tension and release is conveyed by some of the huge snowshoe-club composites created much earlier by Notman in 1877, 1880 and 1884.
1Weekend Picture Magazine, Vol 3 No. 52, 1953, "Pioneer Picture-Takers", David Willock, 1953, pp. 14 - 16. In this article, based on an interview with Charles Notman, it is stated that the Montreal Board of Trade composite of 1893 contained 1,800 portraits. Charles was 85 years old at the time.
© The McCord Museum of Canadian History, 2005. All rights reserved.

No. 6 Company, Victoria Rifles

No. 6 Company, Victoria Rifles, Montreal, QC, composite, 1889

Wm. Notman & Son
Purchase from Associated Screen News Ltd.
1889
Silver salts on glass - Gelatin dry plate process
20 x 25 cm
II-88853
© McCord Museum


Class of 1890, Ecole de Medecine Victoria

Class of 1890, Ecole de Medecine Victoria, Montreal, QC, composite, 1890

Wm. Notman & Son
Purchase from Associated Screen News Ltd.
1890
Silver salts on glass - Gelatin dry plate process
12 x 17 cm
II-92024
© McCord Museum


Few of the traditional realistic composite scenes were made over the next twenty years in the Notman studios. The last two of any note, made in 1914 and 1915, were in a more spare and poster-like style and attributed to C. W. Dennis. The earlier of the two is a moonlit winter scene showing the Montreal Snow Shoe Club. The second, in the Notman Photographic Archives, is entitled "Les Commissaires d'Écoles de la ville de Maisonneuve. 1914."

An interesting composite of 1901, which may represent a transitional phase, combines both realistic and medallion styles. In the centre of the composite is a small print, itself a composite, composed of the professors of the Montreal campus of the Université Laval grouped around a table as if in a meeting. The print is surrounded by a mass of medallion portraits of the graduating students. This technique was occasionally used earlier, as in the City Council composites of 1885 and 1888 and the Bicycle Club of 1885.

Few of the traditional realistic composite scenes were made over the next twenty years in the Notman studios. The last two of any note, made in 1914 and 1915, were in a more spare and poster-like style and attributed to C. W. Dennis. The earlier of the two is a moonlit winter scene showing the Montreal Snow Shoe Club. The second, in the Notman Photographic Archives, is entitled "Les Commissaires d'Écoles de la ville de Maisonneuve. 1914."

An interesting composite of 1901, which may represent a transitional phase, combines both realistic and medallion styles. In the centre of the composite is a small print, itself a composite, composed of the professors of the Montreal campus of the Université Laval grouped around a table as if in a meeting. The print is surrounded by a mass of medallion portraits of the graduating students. This technique was occasionally used earlier, as in the City Council composites of 1885 and 1888 and the Bicycle Club of 1885.

© McCord Museum

City Council of Montreal, QC

This composite photograph shows the thirty or so councillors (three per ward) who, with the mayor, formed the Montreal Municipal Council in 1885.

Wm. Notman & Son
Purchase from Associated Screen News Ltd.
1885
Silver salts on glass - Gelatin dry plate process
20 x 25 cm
II-85064
© McCord Museum


Video - Montreal 1885

In all, the William Notman studio takes three thousand images during Montreal’s plague year. Yet, looking at them, you'd never know this tragedy took place.

Narrator

Montreal, 1885. Through the course of the year, members of City Council all oblige Mr. Notman with their images, for a grand composite. First among their number is the newly elected reform mayor, Honoré Beaugrand, who has a new project. He is determined to clean up his city.

The streets are filthy. As the snow begins to melt, the refuse produced by 200,000 people over the winter is exposed. Garbage, dead animals and animal excrement litter the streets.

It is a side of city life that William Notman does not choose to photograph. There is, after all, no market for such pictures. In April a young Acadian girl working at the Hôtel Dieu hospital dies of smallpox. The hospital discharges its patients and the disease spreads through the poor, mainly French areas, of the city.

After a bad batch of vaccine makes several patients sick, many refuse vaccination. The city temporarily suspends its use. As a result, 3,000 people will die of the disease.

For those coming into the Notman studio to have their portraits taken, this is another world. They may worry about the disfigurement the disease could cause to a beautiful face, but they have been vaccinated. They are immune.

They live up on the mountain, away from the slums. That summer of 1885, many go to the resorts of the St. Lawrence, from Murray Bay to Tadoussac, to escape the heat and the pox.

To show that smallpox is no respecter of race or language, that summer there is an unexpected English victim. Sir Francis Hincks, once prime minister of Canada, and Montreal’s most prominent citizen, dies of the disease. From then on, no one feels entirely safe.

The studio on Bleury Street, now with 31 people on staff, continues to operate throughout the epidemic. But business is less brisk than usual. In August, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show comes into town. Like many a famous visitor before them, they visit William Notman.

Among their number, a man who is already familiar with the ravages of smallpox and what it has done to his people. Tatanka Iyotake -- Sitting Bull -- has taken up Buffalo Bill’s invitation to join his show, for $50 a week, plus expenses.

Sitting Bull, in his contract with Buffalo Bill, specifies that he has the right to sell photographs of himself to those members of the public who wish to have a memento of the man who defeated General Custer.

The era of celebrity photography has begun. In all, the William Notman studio takes three thousand images during Montreal’s plague year. Yet, from the images he makes, it might never have happened.

When the year is over, the Castanet Club arrives at the studio to celebrate its production of the new Gilbert and Sullivan opera, The Mikado. William Notman obliges with a composite in honour of the occasion.

Song

Three little maids from school are we
Pert as a school-girl well can be
Filled to the brim with girlish glee
Three little maids from school.
Everything is a source of fun
Nobody’s safe, for we care for none!
Life is a joke that’s just begun!
Three Little Maids from school.
“The Mikado.” Gilbert and Sullivan.

Narrator

It is left to other photographers to document the floods that devastate the city the following spring.

Notman's Canada Inc.
McCord Museum of Canadian History, PTV

© Notman's Canada Inc. 2004


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • Define the lifestyle of people in Canada before and after Confederation;
  • Identify the consequences of urbanization and industrialization on the occupied territory;
  • Explain the outline and the actors of the Confederation;
  • Explain the development of technology, brought be industrialization.

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