Fall/automne 2009

William Notman’s Portrait Photographs of the Wealthy English-speaking Girls of Montreal: Representations of Informal Female Education in Relation to John Ruskin’s “Of Queens’ Gardens” and Writings by and for Canadians from the 1850s to 1890s

Loren Ruth Lerner
Concordia University
Published December 3, 2009
  • informal education of wealthy English-speaking girls in Montreal,
  • 1850s-1890s,
  • portrait photographs of Montreal girls from the studio of William Notman,
  • girls in word and image,
  • John Ruskin “Of Queens’ Gardens”,
  • writings on girls by Canadians
  • ...More


This essay considers nine portrait photographs of the wealthy English-speaking girls of Montreal, taken in the photographic studio of William Notman (1857-1891). These photographs, now located in the Notman Photographic Collection at the McCord Museum of Canadian History, are also accessible through the museum’s website. The analysis focuses on these images as a pictorial record of the informal education of girls according to the beliefs and convictions of the upper-middle-class. Central to this inquiry is John Ruskin (1819-1900), recognized for his vision of how girls should be educated. With Ruskin’s “Of Queens’ Gardens” (Sesame and Lilies, 1864) as a basis for discussion, this paper also explores the sentiments and opinions expressed in magazine articles, novels, books, and other texts about girls that were read in Canada between the 1850s and the 1890s. The objective in aligning particular visual representations with corresponding historical texts is to explore how the ideals of a girl’s upbringing are embedded in Notman’s portraits, and conversely how the images illuminate the texts.raphs of Montreal girls by William Notman (1857-1891) located at the McCord Museum (accessible through the museum’s website) as a record of the ways girls were inculcated with educational values. Central to this inquiry is John Ruskin (1819-1900), highly recognized for his vision of how girls should be educated. With Ruskin’s essay "Of Queens’ Gardens" (Sesame and Lilies, 1864) as a guide, I demonstrate how Canadian publications mirrored Ruskin’s precepts, which is not to suggest that these authors were merely mimicking Ruskin’s words. The reason his wise counsel was so well received in Canada was because most of what he said fit with the progressive ideas that were gaining acceptance during this era. By extrapolating from Ruskin and Canadian sources, my objective is to show how these texts reveal the messages embedded in Notman’s photographs of girls and conversely how the images illuminate the texts.