William Notman was born in Paisley, Scotland on March 8, 1826, the first child of William Notman and Janet Sloan. After studying art, he entered the family business of working in the wholesale woolen cloth business, first as a salesperson and later junior partner. On June 15, 1853, Notman married Alice Merry Woodwak at King’s Stanley, England, and had a daughter; the new family settled in Glasgow. However, in the mid-1850s the company’s fortunes faltered and resulted in bankruptcy, leading Notman to immigrate to Lower Canada in mid-1856. Upon arrival in Montreal, he worked at the wholesale dry goods firm Ogilvy and Lewis and he quickly earned enough money to send for his wife and child to join him in Lower Canada.
When winter slowed the dry goods business, Notman took a leave of absence, started his own photographic business on Bleury Street in Montreal, and began to take commissions. In 1858, he was commissioned by the Grand Trunk Railway to document construction of its Victoria Bridge in Montreal and his resultant work (and the subject matter) led to a growth in his reputation.
In August 1860, the Canadian government requested and Notman produced a portfolio of photographs for an album that was enclosed in a silver-mounted bird’s-eye maple box as a gift for the Prince of Wales. His photographic business tended to focus on portraiture of individuals and groups and had soon developed a positive reputation that attracted many noteworthy clients, such as Sir John A. Macdonald and Louis-Joseph Papineau. Notman was hired by athletic clubs, social gatherings, and families to create group photos; he was able to produce high quality prints of groups by photographing each person in studio, cutting the figures from the prints, and sticking them to a background. In addition, Notman accumulated a large body of images showing Canadian scenes that resulted from the work he and his photographers created when travelling across the country as they recorded the land, economic activity (such as lumbering, mining, hunting, and farming), physical features (rivers and lakes); vessels (ships, trains, carriages and carts), and communities (buildings and street scenes). Notably his studio managed to document many aspects of the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway and other railways, including personalities and the labour involved. Notman’s photography was not focused on the upper echelon of Montreal society as he frequently photographed pedlars, newspaper carriers, woodcutters, and underprivileged citizens. His studio photographs frequently made use of props and painted backgrounds, thereby allowing him to produce a multiplicity of options for his clients. This variety in settings, the range in products (albums, stereographs), and the moderate prices he charged, ensured his photographs were attractive to a broad clientele. As well, Notman provided instruction and apprenticeship opportunities to those interested in learning about photography, resulting in a large number moving on to either becoming employees of Notman or operating their own studios.
Notman’s studio took his own talent and supplemented it with skillful photographers and painters that could deliver high quality products. In 1860, Norton hired John Arthur Fraser to set up an art department responsible for creating colour photographs, retouching negatives, and painting studio backdrops. To assist Fraser, Henry Sandham was hired, and the art department soon grew in staff and in reputation, with the photographers and painters supplemented by assistants, printing, darkroom, and finishing personnel. In 1877, possibly precipitated by a decline in economic conditions, Notman made Sandham a partner in the Montreal firm and it was renamed Notman and Sandham; however by 1882 Sandham had left to pursue a painting career in the United States.
Notman’s status allowed him to establish relationships with many of Montreal’s prominent artists. Using these relationships, in 1863 Notman published his first book, “Photographic Selections,” that contained reproductions of his studio’s own work as well as paintings by local and established artists, with the goal promoting art in Canada. Two years later Notman published a second volume, containing nature photographs and additional photographic reproductions of contemporary Canadian paintings. It was a reciprocal for while Notman was reproducing works of the painters, the painters were using Notman photographs as the inspiration for some of their own works. Notman remained active in the community of artists through support of the Art Association of Montreal (as a charter member, and serving as a councillor from 1878 to 1882); for example, he lent paintings from his private collection to association events and provided photographs as prizes. His studio was becoming a hub for the Montreal art community and a gathering point for visiting artists, and hosted numerous exhibitions. In addition to the books on works of art, from 1865 to 1868 Notman (in collaboration with John Fennings Taylor) published “Portraits of British Americans, with biographical sketches.” In 1866, he published three portfolios of photographs entitled “Cariboo hunting,” “Moose hunting,” and “Sports pastimes and pursuits in Canada.”
Notman’s early success resulted in him opening branch studios and developing partnerships with like-minded individuals. For example, in 1868, beginning with Ottawa, Notman opened a branch and installed William James Topley as the manager of its operations; later in the year, a studio was formed in Toronto (under the name Notman and Fraser) that represented a partnership with John Arthur Fraser. His partnership with Fraser ceased in 1880 when Fraser began a career in painting. Notman continued his expansion with a studio in Halifax in 1870 and then Saint John, New Brunswick in 1872. By the 1880s, Notman was associated with the operation of around twenty (20) studios, including in 1876 a partnership with Edward Wilson of Philadelphia to form the Centennial Photographic Company. This initiative was organized to take advantage of the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition held that year, and operated with a large staff in a building located on the Exhibition’s grounds.
Outside of photography, Notman was active in real estate, was a member of the Longueuil Yacht Club, promoted rowing, and governor of the Montreal General Hospital. In addition, the family was active in St. Mark’s Church in Longueuil as attendees and Notman as a minister’s warden and provided financial support.
Notman and his wife Alice had seven children, with all three boys training and working in their father’s business.
Notman died on November 25, 1891 in Montreal.