Some of the earliest fashionable images of Canadians come from photographs taken by William Notman’s studios. Notman was born in Paisley, Scotland in 1826 and became a partner in his father’s wholesale woollen cloth business in 1851. In 1856 he was caught ‘cooking the books’ and fled to Canada where he worked with Ogilvy & Lewis, a Montreal wholesale dry-goods merchant.
In November 1856, Notman opened a photography studio to supplement his income during the winter months when shipping was halted. He quickly built an impressive clientele drawn from Montreal society, and in 1860 presented an album of photographs of Montreal to the Prince of Wales during his famous tour of Canada. The following year he received a royal warrant from Queen Victoria.
In 1866, Notman opened a studio in Boston, and in 1868, studios were added in Ottawa and Toronto (the Toronto studio in partnership with employee John A. Fraser.) A studio in Halifax followed in 1869, St. John, N.B. in 1872, and Albany, New York in 1877. More American studios were later added in Newport, R.I., Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and New Haven, Conn.
Notman’s son William M. joined the business in 1873 and when he became a partner in 1882, the company’s name was changed to William Notman & Son. In 1883, John Fraser bought out Notman’s share of the Toronto studio and renamed his firm Fraser & Sons. Fraser then moved to Boston, leaving his sons to run the business, which they sold in 1886.
In 1891 William Notman & Son opened a studio on Madison Avenue in New York a few months before William Notman died from pneumonia. William M. ran the business until his own death from cancer in 1913. The business then passed to William’s younger brother, Charles who resold the business to a film company in 1935. Upon Charles’ death in 1955, the Notman archives were donated to Montreal’s McGill University.