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Studio portrait of William James Topley, Ottawa, October 1874

William James Topley
October 1874


ARCHIVED - William James Topley:
Reflections on a Capital Photographer

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The Photographer

This biographical portrait of William James Topley was originally written by Andrew Rodger, Library and Archives Canada, for the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. The text has been slightly revised for this Web exhibition and features related photographic and glossary material that was not part of the original publication.

William James Topley was born on February 13 or 27, 1845, in Montréal. He was the son of John Topley, a saddler and harness maker, and Anna Delia Harrison. He married Helena (Nellie) De Courcy McDonogh in Yorkville (the village later was annexed by Toronto) on August 15, 1872, and they had two sons, William De Courcy and another son who died in infancy, and a daughter, Helena Sarah. Topley died on November 16, 1930, in Vancouver and was buried in Ottawa.

Brought up in Aylmer, Canada East, William James Topley was probably introduced to photography by his mother, who in the late 1850s had purchased photographic equipment in Montréal and used it in Aylmer. He began his career as a tintypist, and was listed in a directory as an itinerant photographer in Upper Canada in 1863. By 1864, he was working at apprentice wages for photographer William Notman in Montréal. He had moved there with his mother and family after his father's death a year earlier. Topley's abilities may have later induced Notman to also engage Topley's younger brothers, Horatio Needham and John George, as apprentice photographers.

Notman saw Topley as extraordinarily competent, not only as a photographer but also, potentially, as a manager. In January 1868, when Topley was 22, Notman put him in charge of his new photographic rooms in Ottawa, the first Notman studio outside Montréal. Located in a purpose-built structure on Wellington Street across from the Parliament Buildings, the studio quickly attracted local patrons and visiting notables such as members of the new Dominion Parliament. Indeed, the Topley studio took photographs of all the prime ministers from Sir John A. Macdonald to William Lyon Mackenzie King and of the Governors General from Baron Lisgar (Sir John Young) to Earl Grey. By 1872, Topley became proprietor of the studio, which was attracting more than 2,300 sitters each year, a level not exceeded until the beginning of the 20th century.

In 1875, Topley apparently severed his relations with Notman and decided to open a studio under his own name, in an opulent Italianate-style building he had constructed two blocks away at Metcalfe and Queen. Although the building included an apartment for Topley and his family, the deepening economic crisis in Canada made the location financially untenable. By 1878 Topley had moved to the former residence of a dentist at 104 Sparks Street, where he remained until 1888, when he moved to 132 Sparks, his studio's final location. The business was probably well established by this time, but he did not purchase a separate residence until the late 1890s.

Notman had opened his Ottawa branch because he saw the city as a growing market. Topley capitalized on this. By the late 1870s he was the official photographer to the Governor General, the Marquis of Lorne, an association that added lustre to his studio and attracted clientele. Although portraits were the major part of Topley's output, his scenic views for the tourist trade, work for businesses and other commissions in Ottawa and across Canada, and considerable volume for the government constitute tens of thousands of images. His photographs of immigrants arriving at Quebec, done for the Department of the Interior, have become iconic through repeated publication.

His presentation of images changed over time: in the 1860s the vogue had been for cartes de visite and cabinet-sized photographs but by the turn of the century larger prints, mounted on dark-olive-coloured cards embossed with the Topley name, were a major product. Like Notman, Topley also produced composite images-large prints created by carefully preconceiving a scene and then photographing the participants at the correct angle and with the right attitude to fit it. Unlike Notman, Topley turned out few of the stereographs that were a mainstay for many 19th-century photographers. With the coming of popular amateur photography, the Topley Studio stocked cameras, film and other supplies, and promoted its photofinishing and enlargement operations. Around the turn of the century, the Topley Scientific Instruments Company was organized to sell optical devices, surveying equipment and photostatting machines, and to provide support services.

The studio had started in 1868 with a staff of three, but by 1874 it had expanded to 14 and included photographers, photo-printers, retouchers and artists (often to prepare composites and scenic backdrops). The subsequent depression led Topley to reduce this number, and his adoption of the dry-plate process in the 1880s improved production efficiency without increasing the staff. During the 1870s Topley employed his brothers Horatio and John; the former joined the Department of the Interior as a photographer in 1887, but the latter remained at the studio until about 1908 when he set up his own operation.

Topley's life appears to have been imbued with an evangelical Christian sensibility. From his earliest days in the capital he was active in the Sabbath school movement, in Hull, Ottawa, and elsewhere in the Ottawa valley. By the mid-1870s he was the Sunday school superintendent at Dominion Methodist Church, where he sang in the choir. He was active in the Ottawa Bible Society, and he was a major force in the Young Men's Christian Association, serving as president of the Ottawa YMCA in 1871 and 1881, and assuming other directorial duties over the years. He did not, however, limit his community participation to evangelism. He was involved in the Metropolitan Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and with his wife contributed to local charities. Topley's sense of compassion is evident in some of his photographs; a portrait of Polly, a female inmate at the Carleton County jail, is particularly affecting. He also sat on the executive of the Fine Arts Association, was a founding member of the Camera Club of Ottawa, had a boat on the Rideau River, and joined in autumn hunting parties.

In 1907 his son, William De Courcy, took over his studio, but Topley appears to have remained involved, possibly until 1918. By this time the studio was considerably less significant than it once had been. The studio closed in September 1923. Topley and his wife, who died in 1927, spent much of their last years in Edmonton with their daughter, Helena Sarah, and son-in-law, Robert C.W. Lett, an employee of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway and who had probably been influential in the naming of Topley, a community on the GTP line in northern British Columbia. W.J. Topley died at Helena's temporary residence in Vancouver in 1930.