Robert Notman’s sad story as told by Elaine Naves in her 2013 book

Toronto. And a spooky halloween to you all in this year of the pandemic! I thought it fitting to talk about a scandal that affected the famous Notman Studios. Years ago I bought a coffee table size book of William Notman photographs called “Portrait of a Period” in downtown Montreal. In 2014, I was surprised to see a smaller softcover book with a title that was a riff off the title of the coffee table book.

It was titled “Portrait of a Scandal” and was closely tied to Notman as it was the story of his younger brother Robert who also emigrated to Montreal. The younger man worked for a short time in his brother’s studio in Montreal. Sadly instead of fame, Robert was embroiled in an abortion and worse a murder in his new city. Until I read this book, I never knew that treatments for “ladies’ problems” included medicines that were touted to end unwanted pregnancies.

Amazon Canada quotes the following blurb to promote the book: “In the winter of 1868 a name Montreal society associated with art, good breeding, and culture became fodder for scandal mongers. The Notman name, synonymous with fine photography, was suddenly making headlines featuring the words ‘abortion’ and ‘suicide.’

A dozen years earlier, two brothers fled their native Scotland . They were attracted to Montreal by its reputation for making the fortunes of go-getting Scotsmen. One was destined for fame, the other for notoriety.

William Notman, the older brother, eventually owned the largest photography business in North America. His subjects ranged from royalty, Governors General, and the Fathers of Confederation to Sitting Bull and Harriet Beecher Stowe. His studio immortalized the faces and baronial mansions of the merchant princes of Montreal’s legendary Golden Square Mile–the Molsons, Redpaths, Allans, and Van Hornes.

By contrast, Robert, the younger brother, was drawn into a drama which shook up Montreal’s polite society. After he seduced the beautiful and ambitious Margaret Galbraith, a student at the McGill Normal School, he arranged an abortion for her with an up-and-coming young doctor who soon after committed suicide.

The subsequent trial of Robert Notman became cause-célèbre in the newly minted Dominion of Canada in 1868. Portrait of a Scandal depicts a society that distanced itself from sexual misconduct, while it lapped up its every detail.

Bob Lansdale and I joined a few other PHSC members at Campbell House on Monday, June 16th, 2014, a summery night in the big smoke, to hear author Ms  Elaine Kalman Naves talk about her Notman book.

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