William Notman Biography

Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill, Montreal, QC, 1885, Wm. Notman & Son
1885, 19th century, II-83124, McCord Museum

A life in short:  WILLIAM NOTMAN, photographer and businessman; born March 8 1826 in Paisley, Scotland, first child of William Notman and Janet Sloan; died November 25, 1891 in Montreal.

But Notman’s life was so much more than these bare facts.  William Notman was an artist,  an inventive tinkerer and a successful international businessman.  He was an innovator of new and advanced film processes and camera designs.  He was an adventurer and celebrity photographer of celebrities such as the figures above – Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill.

This essay will discuss:

  • Notman’s Early Life
  • Canadian Beginnings
  • Photography During the Time of Notman’s Career
  • Early Success
  • The Growth of the Notman Empire
  • Notman House
  • Notman’s Death


Notman’s Early Life

From the beginning, the Notman family was upwardly mobile – which means, in this case, that family income grew as they acquired education and social refinements.   Notman’s grandfather had been a rural dairy farmer while his father, by 1840, had risen to become the owner and designer for a manufacturing concern that made Paisley shawls.   Soon Notman Sr. moved to Glasgow where he created a company that wholesaled woollen cloth.

According to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online:

Able to obtain a good education, William studied art with a view to making it his career, but he was persuaded instead to enter the family business, which, it was felt, would offer him more security. He worked first as a travelling salesman and then became a junior partner about 1851.

However, success was not lasting.  Because of an economic depression in Scotland during the middle 1850s, the Notman family business went bankrupt and William Notman, in order to avoid the shame and scandal of the bankruptcy, decided to emigrate to Montreal in November of 1856.


Canadian Beginnings

1843-1844, 19th century, M970.67.22, McCord Museum

By late December of 1856, in Montreal, Notman had established his first photographic business that would continue and prosper for the rest of his life.  According to Stanley Triggs, the Dean of Notman scholarship:

The rapidity with which Notman’s work came to public attention was not unconnected with his policy of photographing prominent individuals and offering prints for sale to the public. A note in the Montreal Herald of May 21, 1857 advised the public that photographs of the Rev. Mr. McLeod, the Rev. D. Fraser and the Rev. Mr. Cordner were for sale. Notman had recognized the new fad for collecting photographs of notable persons – including royalty, clergy, politicians, entertainers and restaurateurs – and did his best to cater to the demand. 1

During the early period of Notman’s time in Montreal he took many portraits.


Photography During the Time of Notman’s Career

At the start of Notman’s life as a photogrpaher, in the 1850s,  photography was not a new art form.  And there was still a debate about whether or not photography was even Art.  According to Eisinger:

When the public first encountered photography in 1839, they were not at all certain what kind of invention it was nor how it was to be used. Was it to be a source of scientific information, an aid to artists, an art form in its own right, or a medium of totally unforeseen consequences? 1 To many people, photography appeared to be a nearly miraculous, automatic, and literal system for recording appearances. Photographers were simply operators of the system, and photographs were pure traces of nature. Early commentators described photography as “a chemical and physical process which gives Nature the ability to reproduce herself,” as “Nature herself reflecting her own face,” “perfect transcript[s] of the thing itself,” or simply “Nature herself.” 2 This view of photography as a purely natural and automatic phenomenon was not, especially in the nineteenth century, conducive to the development of theory and criticism of photography as art. 2

Notman would not have likely disagreed with the commonly held belief that, “Photographers were simply operators of the system, and photographs were pure traces of nature.”  His photography and the photography that his studios created was all from the Realist School of Art.  However, his creation of composites while employing an unrealistic process as it were produced images that were certainly realistic.  What I mean by “unrealistic process” is that composite  photographs were were not taken all at once.  They did not capture a single moment in time.  Notman employed a collage technique that was just coming into vogue.  He would take a picture of a scene and then, after that, take pictures of individual subjects and add them to the first image.  When that had been completed, he would photograph the whole image.  This process was much like our Photo  Shop software except that Notman had to do everything with a photo-chemical process.  Notwithstanding the enormous complexity of adding all of the disparate elements together, Notman was able to accomplish  this and make the final photographs look as if all the images had been taken at the same time.

If you examine the following images, composites, you will see what I mean.  They might have been composed in pieces; however, their overall effect is naturalistic.

Montreal Bicycle Club, Montreal, QC, composite, 1885
Wm. Notman & Son, 1942, 20th century, VIEW-26273.0
McCord Museum

Gentlemen of England cricket group, Montreal, QC, composite, 1872
William Notman (1826-1891), 1872, 19th century, I-77162
McCord Museum

Group of young ladies, St. Albans, VT, composite, 1873, William Notman (1826-1891), 1873, 19th century, N-0000.73.9, © McCord Museum

See Other Composites here.

In Montreal when Notman set up shop there was only one other  photographer already working there. An excellent photographer, Thomas Coffin Doane, had opened a daguerreotype portrait studio in 1846.

By 1850 or so a good deal of photography was being carried out by professionals and by amateurs. At first patents presented something of a problem, but there were so many technical improvements during the 1840s that the patents began to give little protection. Daguerreotypy was protected by patents in the United Kingdom but not in North America, where the technique was much used for a few years. Methods based on Talbot’s invention soon gained ascendancy everywhere, because of its much greater convenience. 3

Laidler continues the story:

AS we have already seen, the camera obscura and other related gadgets became useful tools for the Western artist some five hundred years before the invention of photography. For example, Giovanni Battista della Porta describes the value of camera devices when used as drawing aids for the artist. This influence was later to be regretted by Kenneth Clark: By the end of the seventeenth century the painting of light had ceased to be an act of love and had become a trick. The camera lucida was no longer an object of wonder, but an habitual artist’s companion. (Clark, 1949:47)

Nonetheless, it was this device that had inspired Fox Talbot:

amusing myself on the lovely shores of Lake Como in Italy, taking sketches with Wollaston’s camera lucida… After various fruitless attempts I laid aside the instrument… I then thought of trying again a method which I had tried many years before…to take a camera obscura and to throw the image of the objects on a piece of paper in its focus… It was during these thoughts that the idea occurred to me—how charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon the paper. (Talbot, 1839) With the notion of the images ‘imprinting themselves’, the ‘automatic’ characteristic of photography has tended to have the result of diminishing the skills of the photographer.  4

Notman used the paper method.  Meeting Talbot early on Notman watched a demonstration of the new technique.  After that he switched his studio over to paper from tintypes and Daguerreotypeto the new much more conveniet technology.  The other advantage of the Talbot method was that the image was captured in a flash unlike the other mediums which required the the subject to remain motionless for extended periods of time.  Thus Notman  sold paper prints to his customers.


Early Success

By 1860, Notman had moved to the building on Bleury Street in Montreal that would  grow into his international corporate headquarters.  The studio was huge.  Thirty five feet wide.  Seventy five feet long.  Furnished ornately with beautiful art on the walls framed in glittering gold.  Perhaps reminiscent of Donald Trump’s pad on top of the eponymous building he lives in.  The space clearly impressed his clients from the newly raised petite bourgeoisie to the nouveau riche to the wealthy old Scots.    Notman was in Montreal at time of rapid expansion and hyper-growth.  Photography had become a commodity although it was still relatively knew.   But not so new or avant garde as to frighten his conservative clients.

Notman’s first big opportunity came in 1860:

In the summer,  Queen Victoria’s son, Albert Edward, H.R.H. the Prince of Wales and heir to the British throne, visited Canada to officially open the bridge. To commemorate the visit, the Canadian government presented the Prince with a portfolio of photographs taken by William Notman.

Being a good businessman, Notman understood the promotional possibilities that these photographs represented, and made a duplicate set which he retained. He also photographed the set in stereo, which was listed in his 1860 catalog and could be purchased for 40 cents each or $4.50 a dozen. Notman sent his duplicate presentation set to the 1862 International Exhibition in London, where he was awarded a medal “for excellence in anextensive series of photographs.” After the exhibition, it was returned to Montreal where it was on display in the Notman studio in 1864.   5

Here is a picture of the portfolio presented to the Prince of Wales and several images included in the set:

Piers, looking out from centre, Victoria Bridge, Montreal, QC, 1858
William Notman (1826-1891), 1858, 19th century, Silver salts on paper mounted on card – Albumen process, 18 x 24 cm, Gift of Mr. James Geoffrey Notman,  N-0000.193.129, McCord Museum

Montreal from above the Reservoir, QC, 1860, William Notman (1826-1891), 1860, 19th century, Silver salts on paper mounted on card – Albumen process
27 x 51 cm, Gift of Mr. James Geoffrey Notman, N-0000.193.5  McCord Museum

The bureaucrat who paid Notman, a Mr. F.P. Rubidge wrote about the transaction:

Making, therefore, a liberal allowance for the better mounting, and descriptions thereon, and supposing them to be the choicest and best selected specimens of Mr. Notman’s art, (although many of them are very defective) – I have put the following values, as the most liberal that should be offered for the collection.

10 sheets with 1 view on each or 10 photographs @ $6 – $60.00

13 sheets with 2 views on each, or 26 photographs @ $2.50 – $65.00

31 sheets with 9 Stereoscopic slides or 279 photographs @ $0.50 – $139.50

With reference to the value of the Morocco portfolios, I merely offer an opinion, that their (together) – $60.00

Also that the value of the case, silver mounted – $125.00

Packing Case, packing etc. – $5.50

Total – $455.00

Notman claimed that the project cost his $2200 so he felt cheated by the government.   However, the public relations value of the commission undoubtedly counter balanced whatever financial he might have suffered.  He was declared, “Photographer to the Queen.”  Nothing has changed.  Governments continue to behave as philistines and under value Art.

By circa 1865, Notman owned three very large studios in Montreal.  His customer service was, even  by modern standards, unbelievably superb:

In the late 1860s Notman published a booklet called Photography: things you ought to know.1 Designed as a handout to customers, it is full of advice on what to do in order to help the photographer make a good portrait. He talks about making an appointment, feeling at ease at the moment of posing, assuming a natural expression, and so on. Particularly helpful is the advice on what to wear.

The restriction on certain colours, particularly in wide areas such as women’s dresses, was necessary because of the limitations of the slow emulsions of the time. Light colours would become overexposed on the negative and therefore difficult or impossible to print. Red, on the other hand, would come out much darker than its true colour because the emulsion was insensitive to red. Thus in the finished print a red uniform might look black and freckles might be unnaturally pronounced. To tone down a wruddy complection Notman offered a makeup service. “The temporary use of some white powder for a red countenance, or of some cosmetic to darken light eyebrows, moustache, or beard will be found useful. These will be supplied if asked for and assistance given to apply them if necessary.”2 One of Notman’s staff was available to assist the female patrons with hair styling and change of costume. Presumably she doubled as a makeup artist as well. 6

Perhaps the passage above demonstrates why Notman was so successful as a businessman?  Good and original marketing and consummate care of his clients are frequently the keys to success.  It did not hurt that his main competitor, Thomas Coffin Doane, departed Montreal a few years after Notman’s arrival; he left in 1865.   As well, as evidenced by the image below, ( a self-portrait taken by Notman in 1869), the photographer appears to be very handsome and distinguished yet if one looks closely at his face one cannot but notice his firm determined jaw.  (If you can read all that into a picture.)  He does have a picture in his hand.  A symbol of his Artisticness.  A combination of Art and commerce.  Nowadays these two are thought not to coincide.

William Notman, photographer, Montreal, QC, 1869, William Notman (1826-1891), 1869, 19th century, Silver salts on paper mounted on paper – Albumen process, 17 x 12 cm, I-41522.1, McCord Museum

In 1865, when Doane retired from photography and left Montreal, Notmanls, whose fortunes by then rested heavily on the carte-de-visite portrait, was one of North America’s busiest photography studios.  The Industrial Schedule of the census of April 1871 demonstrates that the Notman studio was clearly without peer in Montreal, employing more workers and claiming production value of the previous twelve months equal to that of the other eleven studios combined.  …  Notman’s studio was the largest, employing’ fifty-one workers at the time the census was taken and claiming production for the previous twelve-month period valued at $70,000.  7

This period from the launch of his business to about 1871 were crucial years for Notman.  Starting a business, just like taking off in an airplane, is the most dangerous and risky time.  Notman’s capital base was not robust because of the bankruptcy in Scotland.  Notman, however,  did have a plan B in case the photography business failed.  When he first landed in Montreal, before establishing his photographic studio,  Notman worked for James Ogilvie in the cloth business.  Ogilvie promised Notman that he could have his old job back if his venture did not succeed.

Over the balance of his life, Notman continued to build his businesses:

William Notman’s career as a photographer in Montreal spanned thirty-five years. During that time he built up the largest photographic business in North America, establishing at one time or another seven studios in Canada and, counting seasonal studios at several colleges, nineteen in the north-eastern United States. Over this large enterprise his rule was firm but benevolent. By careful training and selection of managers, operators and support staff, he was able to maintain a consistently high quality of product, one of the key factors in his success.  8

McGill Hockey Team, Montreal, QC, 1904,Wm. Notman & Son,1904, 20th century, Silver salts on glass – Gelatin dry plate process, 20 x 25 cm, Purchase from Associated Screen News Ltd., II-149897, McCord Museum

The Growth of the Notman Empire

According to Triggs:

With the growth of the city of Ottawa, the new capital of Canada, Notman decided the time was right for a second studio, which he opened at 90, Wellington Street in the spring of 1868. As manager he put in charge William Topley, a young man of twenty-one who had apprenticed for three years in the Montreal studio and had shown exceptional ability.  (Triggs.)

At the Ottawa studio, Notman began to photograph the political elites both Canadian and International.  He leveraged the successful photographs of the recent Prince of Wales to establish himself in Ottawa.

In the fall of the same year Notman opened a studio in Toronto at 120, King Street East. John A. Fraser became the managing partner in this studio, which was called Notman and Fraser. It continued to operate very successfully until 1880 when Fraser sold the business to pursue his career as a painter.

Notman’s next venture was in Halifax, where he opened a studio under the name of The Notman Studio situated at 39, George Street just below the Citadel. It was first managed by William Webb, one of the chief photographers from the Montreal studio, but in 1876 Oliver M. Hill took over the position. When William Notman died in 1891 Hill bought the business, keeping the Notman name, and carried on until his own death in 1923. 1872 marked the opening of a studio in St. John, New Brunswick, under the management of William’s twenty-one-year-old brother James Notman. The building was destroyed in June 1877 when most of the city burned to the ground in one of the most devastating fires in Canadian history. The Notmans re-established the business when the city was rebuilt, this time locating on Princess Street where the studio remained until closing in about 1890.

In the meantime William Notman had established a studio in Boston with his brother James and Thomas Campbell, one of his photographers from Montreal, as junior partners. The studio went under the name of Notman and Campbell until 1880, when the partnership was dissolved and the branch continued under the name of the Notman Photographic Company. Of the nineteen permanent and seasonal studios of his name established by Notman in New England, this was the longest-running of all. It had great success under the management of Denis Bourdon until it closed in 1930.  (Triggs.)

Ever the entrepreneur, Notman did not restrict himself to the development of an multi-national corporation.  He explored other ways of earning money:

As early as 1869 Notman began to build up a sideline photographing schools in the north-east United States. From the beginning of his career he had photographed the students and professors at McGill College and gained expertise in that line. His first known venture into the States was to Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, in the summer of 1869. During the next decade Notman became the largest producer of school photographs in the United States. Some of his major contracts were with Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Amherst, Smith and Dartmouth colleges. He sent Benjamin Baltzly from the Montreal studio to set up temporary studios at each college and to take and process the photographs. All negatives were sent to Montreal, where the prints were made and mounted for return to the colleges. The excessive tariffs levied on photographs crossing into the United States caused Notman to open his first studio in Boston in 1877.  (Triggs.)

The photograph below is an example of a photgraph from  a college in north-east United States.  See the hockey picture above as an example of a Montreal university picture:

Miss E. Coffins, student, Vassar College, Ploughkeepsie, NY, 1870, William Notman (1826-1891),1870, 19th century, Silver salts on paper mounted on paper – Albumen process, 17.8 x 12.7 cm, Purchase from Associated Screen News Ltd.
I-46647.1,  McCord Museum

In order to finance his venture(s),  Notman was not compelled to resort to the banks to acquire capital:

From time to time Notman borrowed considerable amounts of capital, usually from private investors in his own circle. These loans usually coincided with periods when he was expanding the business or acquiring new property. A familiar name among these backers was his old friend Alexander Ramsay. Wealthy female acquaintances were another important source for businesses needing capital. Marie Anne Claire Symes, who lent Notman $26,000, was the heiress of George Burns Symes, the wealthiest merchant in Quebec. Miss Symes, who married the Marquis de Bassano, was a great philanthropist and prominent in Montreal social circles.  (Triggs.)

Notman began as the sole employee of his company; however, in a short period of time, the volume of business required that he hire many more employees:

When he first started his business in 1856, Notman worked alone, with perhaps one assistant to help carry the cumbersome camera, the portable dark tent and its equipment, and the heavy glass plates. But as the business grew he enlarged his staff in the Montreal studio, maintaining the number at an average of thirty-five and in the mid-1870s increasing it to a peak of fifty-five. At any one time he had from six to eight photographers working for him, some in the studio making portraits or doing copy work and others in the field. The latter group worked on assignments most of which were largely speculative in nature: Notman relied on his knowledge of the market for his choice of subjects, and on his faith in his photographers to render the views in a manner of which he approved. Over the years he and his photographers ranged widely throughout eastern Canada to take views of towns, villages, steamboats, railways, landscapes, waterfalls and the activities of the people.  (Triggs.)


Notman House

All of Notman’s exertions resulted in a steady growth of wealth.  There is considerable evidence for Notmans financial success.   For example, the very large house purchased as his business began to grow almost exponentially in  an exclusive Montreal neighbourhood is still known in as Notman House:

William Notman’s house, 557 Sherbrooke Street West, Montreal, QC, 1893, Wm. Notman & Son,
1893, 19th century, Silver salts on glass – Gelatin dry plate process, 20 x 25 cm, Purchase from Associated Screen News Ltd., II-102142, McCord Museum

FROM UPPER- AND MIDDLE-CLASS NEIGHBOURHOODS – New social groups were emerging in all the big Canadian cities. The expansion of trade and industry favoured first and foremost a large and flourishing business class, as men who had made fortunes in the expanding manufacturing sector joined the existing business elite. A few managed to climb to the very top of the social ladder, but there were many more industrialists, merchants and professionals whose income and social status simply assured them a comfortable standard of living and a certain respectability. These were the middle classes that played a crucial role in the transformation of consumption.

  • What:  This is a photograph taken by the William Notman & Son studio of the family home on Sherbrooke Street in Montreal. The purchase of this elegant house in 1876 was a sign that Notman had arrived: he had joined the social élite.
  • Where:  Sherbrooke was one of the most prestigious streets in Montreal. Members of the upper crust built large mansions there surrounded by magnificent gardens. The Notmans lived next door to John Molson, west of St. Lawrence Boulevard (now St. Laurent).
  • When:  Between 1840 and 1870, merchants, industrialists and professionals left the increasingly noisy, crowded downtown. They sought green spaces and fresh air far from the pollution of the industrial areas.
  • Who: William Notman (1826-91), a native of Scotland, immigrated to Montreal in 1856 and opened his photography studio that same year. Notman rapidly became one of Victorian Canada’s most important photographers and was granted the title “Photographer to the Queen.”



After a career filled with great Artistic success and financial success, Notman died of pneumonia in 1891, according to Triggs from overwork.


1. Stanley G. Triggs, The Man and the Studio, McCord museum of Canadian History, 2005 25.

2. Joel Eisinger, Trace and Transformation: American Criticism of Photography in the Modernist Period 1st ed., (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995) 13.

3. Keith J. Laidler, To Light Such a Candle: Chapters in the History of Science and Technology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 77

4. Terence Wright, The Photography Handbook (London: Routledge, 1999), 25

5.  Robert G. Wilson, “Notman’s Maple Box”  Stereo World, January/February 1997, Volume 23, Number 6 McCord Museum of Canadian History, 2005

6. Triggs, 18.

7. Colleen Marie Skidmore, .  Women in Photography at the Notman Studio,Montreal, 1856-1881. A thesis submitted to the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of PhilosophyDepartment of Sociology Department of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies Edmonton, Alberta Fa11 1999.   http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/s4/f2/dsk3/ftp04/nq46921.pdf

8. Triggs, 3.


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