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ARCHIVED - William James Topley:
Reflections on a Capital Photographer

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Studio portrait of William James Topley, Ottawa, January 1875

William James Topley
January 1875

The William James Topley photographic collection is one of the most important visual records of Canada during the first 50 years after Confederation. The photographs produced by the Topley Studio provide a vivid documentation of the political, social, cultural, economic, technological and architectural changes during the first fifty years of Canada after Confederation. The collection documents life in the Ottawa area-as well as people and events in other regions of the country-between 1868 and 1923. The photographs produced by the Topley Studio vividly portray Canadian life in all its facets-political, social, economic, technological and architectural-during a time of rapid change. These images help us to envision Canada's past by capturing the construction of the Parliament Buildings; social occasions including the Governor General's balls; street scenes in Ottawa and landscapes farther afield; and portraits of our political leaders and average Canadians.

Reproduction of a four cent stamp with an image of Sir John David Thompson based on a William Topley photograph, issued November 1, 1954

Sir John David Thompson
Issued November 1, 1954

Acquired in 1936 by what was then called the Public Archives of Canada, the Topley collection contains about 150,000 glass plate and nitrate negatives, 68 "counter books" (studio proof albums in which small prints of most of the images taken by the studio were glued in numerical sequence), some studio accounts, the studio's daily assignment logs, and a small amount of textual material. Unfortunately, virtually no company files or papers were acquired by the Archives.

Most of the photographs in this collection were taken by William James Topley or others employed at the Topley Studio, including his brothers John George and Horatio Needham, and his son William De Courcy. The collection also contains negatives of the railways survey photographed by Charles Horetzky in the 1870s, some negatives by the Stiff Brothers Studio, John Woodroffe, Henri Ami and possibly other photographers.

Reproduction of a twelve cent stamp with an images of Sir Wilfrid Laurier and Sir John A. Macdonald based on  William Topley photographs, issued June 29, 1927

Sir Wilfrid Laurier and Sir John A. Macdonald
Issued June 29, 1927

The Topley collection is one of the most widely consulted sources of late 19th and early 20th century photographs held at Library and Archives Canada (LAC). These images were used extensively in early publications, such as the Dominion Illustrated, as well as historical texts and school and university textbooks. Topley photographs have also been reproduced on 11 postage stamps, on currency, and in countless books and articles. Topley himself has even been portrayed in a television series written by Pierre Berton, The National Dream.

This exhibition features photographic and textual material related to Topley's life and career (Note: unless stated otherwise, the exhibition images were taken in Ottawa).

Here is what you will find in each section of this site:

To read the biography of William James Topley, see The Photographer. The Studio provides an overview of the Topley Studio from the early 1870s until September 1923, when its doors were finally closed. This section also looks at some of the technological developments in photography during the period and their impact on Topley's work.

Reproduction of a twelve cent stamp with an image of Sir Sandford Fleming based on a William Topley photograph, issued September 16, 1977

Sir Sandford Fleming
Issued September 16, 1977

The majority of the Topley collection is made up of extremely fragile and delicate material-glass plate negatives and counter books. The section The Topley Collection looks at some of the issues faced by LAC's conservators in caring for the Topley material, the challenges of preserving this immense collection, and some things researchers need to know before consulting this collection. This section also presents selected pages from several of the counter books covering different stages of Topley's career.

To research the records of Topley Studio images in the collections of Library and Archives Canada, go to Search Topley Records.

Yesterday and Today features a selection of photographs taken in Ottawa by the Topley Studio, which are paired with contemporary shots of the same scenes.

The Glossary provides definitions of some photographic terms in the exhibition.

For grades 4 to 12, the Educational Resources section presents classroom discussions and hands-on activities, as well as a database of more than 200 images from the Topley collection.

View the images featured in the banners throughout this exhibition and the right-hand column of the introduction.

The contributions of many LAC staff were instrumental in the success of this project, and their efforts are much appreciated.

We gratefully acknowledge the contribution of the Department of Canadian Heritage, whose financial assistance through Canadian Culture Online (CCO) made this work possible.