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Reflections on a Capital Photographer

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The Topley Collection

The Conservation Treatment of a William Topley Photograph Album

Lynn Curry, Library and Archives Canada

In 2005, an ambitious conservation project got under way when conservators at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) surveyed the condition of the studio proof albums (also known as "counter books") of William James Topley. The collection of 66 albums contains more than 50,000 photographic portraits of local patrons, visiting dignitaries, members of Parliament, prime ministers and Governors General taken at the Topley Studio in Ottawa between 1868 and 1923. The Public Archives of Canada (now Library and Archives Canada, or LAC) acquired the entire Topley collection in 1936, including the studio proof albums. These were used as research aids but that type of handling took its toll. In the 1980s the Public Archives restricted access to them because of their poor physical condition.

The conservation treatment of the first album (1868)-the most deteriorated in the collection-presented many challenges: mould on the albumen prints, support pages, covers and binding material; warping, creasing and tearing of the photographs and support leaves; loose, detached and missing photographs; and deterioration of the binding materials, sewing structure, covering leather, cloth and boards. The project was carried out by a team of LAC conservators, each contributing their expertise in the area of paper, photograph or book conservation. Four interns from various national and international conservation training programs participated in the project by sharing their views and performing certain treatments.

The conservation followed several standard procedures, including the removal of mould, general cleaning and the repair of tears. Specialized techniques were developed for the humidification and flattening of the support leaves and albumen photographs, and the subsequent reattachment of photographs. The treatment of the album reduced the risk of further deterioration, making it accessible to researchers and contributing to its long-term preservation. This project was successful; it led to the development of a standardized methodology that is now being used in treating the remaining 65 albums.

Since this article was written, two more albums have been treated by the conservation team.

For a more in-depth look at this conservation project, see Gawain Weaver's paper, which was presented at the 2005 annual student conference of the Association of North American Graduate Programs in the Conservation of Cultural Property (ANAGPIC), Buffalo State College Art Conservation Program, New York: [PDF 977.50 KB]
(only available in English, accessed September 30, 2008).

Conservation and Treatment of the William James Topley counter books, Library and Archives Canada Preservation Centre, Gatineau, Quebec, 2006-2007