The Fancy Dress Ball Composite


Fancy ball given by the Governor General Lord Dufferin at Rideau Hall on February 23, 1876. Credit: William James Topley / Library and Archives Canada / C-006865

Receiving an invitation to one of the Governor General’s fancy dress balls was once deemed a great honour.  A fancy dress ball was a private costumed event that grew over the course of the nineteenth century after a social shift at the end of the previous century had made masquerades and parties seem immoral.  Popular ideas for costumes at these lavish events included characters from literature; Shakespearean characters; characters from nursery rhymes and fairy tales; and characters from exotic lands (these costumes were sometimes collected or acquired from other countries).

The first major fancy dress ball in Canada was hosted by the Earl and Lady of Dufferin on February 23rd, 1876.  The event was widely reported all over North America and Europe, and it became the paradigm of all subsequent fancy dress balls held in Canada.  Descriptions of the guests’ costumes were quite detailed in newspapers that covered the event; acting as substitutes for visual documents, such as photographs, which were not yet used to accompany newspaper articles.  However, there are many surviving photographs, both in the form of glass plate negatives and prints, which illustrate what the guests wore to this prestigious event.  William James Topley photographed the Dufferin family and their guests in costume throughout the months following the ball with the hope that he would benefit financially and increase his clientele in Ottawa.  After he had taken over three hundred individual portraits, he decided to create a composite photograph.  This composite photograph was constructed by carefully cutting out individual subjects, pasting them onto a painting of the Rideau Hall ballroom, and then re-photographing the entire scene to create his finished product.

The composite photograph was very popular among photographers before the advent of cameras that allowed for shorter exposure times.  Group photographs were problematic due to longer exposure times and slower emulsion speeds; it wasn’t uncommon for an individual to be moving during the exposure, or to be concealed behind another person in front of them.  The composite photograph was introduced as a means of avoiding these kinds of issues.  Montréal photographer William Notman often created impressive composite photographs (for example, see the first composite image that he created of the Victoria Rink in Montréal in 1870), and Topley likely learned this technique from Notman while he was working as his apprentice.

The original negative of this composite image has been lost, but Library and Archives Canada still possesses a small version that was deposited for copyright purposes.  In this composite image, one can make out the portraits of Lord and Lady Dufferin, who are seated well above their guests on an elevated platform, and their three children near the base.  They are appropriately costumed as the royal family of King James V of Scotland.  One can also make out William Campbell, Lord Dufferin’s private secretary, who came costumed as a “Court Jester,” sitting in a child-like pose at the very base of the platform.  There is clear social hierarchy that has been constructed by the photographer and his staff within this composite image – your eye is drawn almost immediately to the photograph’s focal point: the Dufferin family.

For a more in-depth look at fancy dress balls in Canada and more photographs taken by Topley of the hosts and their guests, please see Cynthia Cooper’s Magnificent Entertainments: Fancy Dress Balls of Canada’s Governors General, 1876-1898.  Andrew Rodger also discusses this particular composite photograph on an online exhibition created by Library and Archives Canada titled William James Topley: Reflections on a Capital Photographer (information under the tab “The Studio” then “Composite Photographs”).  You can also search for digitized images of the photographs taken by Topley on the Library and Archives Canada database.

A little introduction…

I have wanted to start a blog for quite some time now, but I was puzzled as to what I would regularly write about.  I have a variety of interests, including, but not limited to, art history, music, theater, museums, film, languages, education and traveling.

In September 2012, I started my masters degree in Art History at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario after having completed my BA in Art History and French Studies at the University of Western Ontario in June 2011.  Before starting the program, I was fairly convinced that I wanted to enter the thesis stream (one of three that one can pick from when enrolled in this program), however, I was not too certain about my actual thesis topic.  I had developed an interest in the history and theory of photography during my last year of undergraduate studies, specifically in North American and European women photographers at the end of the nineteenth century.  I had written a research paper on one particular American amateur photographer named Alice Austen (1866-1952), who produced a handful of “queer” photographs that challenged late Victorian gendered identities.  I became fascinated with both her character and her striking images, and was surprised to discover how little had actually been written on her life and photographic oeuvre.  This would prompt me to seek out other lesser-known late nineteenth century/early twentieth century photographers, both men and women, throughout my first year of graduate studies at Carleton.

My interest in Canadian portrait photographer William James Topley (1845-1930) actually began with an online exhibition.  I accidentally stumbled upon this exhibition when I was seeking out more information about the early members of the Camera Club of Ottawa, a local photography club founded in 1894 that my thesis advisor had suggested I explore as a possible topic (the club is still active today).   Upon opening a small image gallery on their website under their “History” section, I was almost immediately struck by two black-and-white photographs by a certain William Topley…

In the first photograph, dated c. 1900, two women and one man have been photographed at rest on a hunting trip.

William James Topley, Two Women and a Man Hunting, c. 1900 (Source:

William James Topley, Two Women and a Man Hunting, c. 1900 (Source:

While the two women are armed, the man is not.  The woman on the left looks directly into the camera’s lens in a rather confrontational, stern manner.  It is almost as though she is the one who commands the camera’s gaze…

In the second photograph, dated c. 1899-1905, a young woman is standing in a field, shaded by an umbrella held by another woman (perhaps her servant?), and looking down at a Folding Pocket Kodak No. 1 camera that she holds in both her hands.

William James Topley, Two unidentified women, one of whom is holding a Folding Pocket Kodak No. 1 camera, ca. 1899-1905 (Source: William James Topley / Library and Archives Canada / PA-012938)

William James Topley, Two unidentified women, one of whom is holding a Folding Pocket Kodak No. 1 camera, ca. 1899-1905 (Source: William James Topley / Library and Archives Canada / PA-012938)

The introduction of the Kodak camera, which was first marketed by its creator George Eastman in 1888, revolutionized the medium forever.  For the first time, middle and upper class women in both Europe and North America began to use the camera as a means of documenting their everyday lives and experiences; these photographs are invaluable for historical researchers today.  Topley quickly took note of the Kodak’s growing popularity in Ottawa and by the early twentieth century, the Topley Studio was the local dealer for the company.  It is therefore highly probably that the young woman in this photograph had purchased her Kodak camera from Topley himself (and perhaps Topley had intended to use this photograph for his own promotional purposes being the savvy businessman that he was?).

In any case, after a quick Google search, I was brought to an online exhibition titled William James Topley: Reflections on a Capital Photographer, which explores this former local photographer’s life and photographic works.  This website, created by Library and Archives Canada (LAC) in 2008, is divided into sections that include more information on the vast array of photographs produced by his studio (portraits, composite photographs, immigration photographs, etc.), accompanied by a small amount of digitized archival photographs.  The content was written by Andrew Rodger, a former LAC archivist who has published a small amount of material related to Topley and his studio.  Although incomplete (the “Educational Resources” section is “coming soon”), the website provides an excellent snapshot (pardon the pun) of William Topley, a “capital photographer” who has come to dwell under the shadow of another former local portrait photographer, Mr. Yousuf Karsh.

I would like to use this blog to explore more of Topley’s photographs, which are currently housed at LAC’s Preservation Centre located in Gatineau, Québec.  Many of these photographs have been digitized and are now available through LAC’s website, however, many of these images lack descriptions of any sort.  Recently I came across a Facebook group called Lost Ottawa, whereupon its members post historical photographs of Ottawa and its surroundings, usually accompanied by some contextual information.  It is an excellent crowdsourcing activity as other group members often add additional information to form a more complete understanding of the photograph in question.  I have to admit that I am becoming quite addicted!

It is thus my intent to post photographs taken by Topley and to provide accompanying contextual descriptions of these images backed by my own research.  I welcome comments from my readers at any time, and would be more than happy to hear any suggestions/feedback that you may have for me.

So we begin!