Sliding down the Timber Chute: The 1901 Royal Tour of Canada

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Editor’s NoteThis post is the first in the “Seeds: New Research in Environmental History” series cosponsored by NiCHE and Edge Effects, highlighting the work of members of the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) Graduate Student Caucus. This series serves to highlight new work being done in the field of environmental history and connect this research to other fields and contemporary issues. Graduate caucus members were asked to respond to the following questions: ““How does your work push at the boundaries of current literature and add to existing discussions of the environment/environmental history? What forces drive your research?” 

My research area focuses broadly on nineteenth-century Canadian landscape photography, and specifically on the topographical photographs made as part of the mapping and planning of the Canadian Pacific Railway between 1850 and 1880. I find it fascinating that these photographs can be understood, in their moment and ours, as descriptive documents made under the conditions of scientific endeavour; as visually striking images whose makers express their emotional and experiential engagement with the landscape in their expedition journals and writings; and as nuanced cultural containers that reflect the collective imagination in their circulations.

To understand how these aspects come together, my work proposes that by reading the photograph as an intersection of concerns we are able to access the ways in which the environment has been visually organized and communicated. In studies of environmental history, photographs have the potential not only to reveal historic, political, socio-cultural, and economic attitudes towards the environment, but also how those attitudes were visually formed and composed. Bringing photography into existing discussions of environmental history pushes the boundaries of how primary source documents are valued and used – the photograph is as revealing as the written word.

I often find my greatest motivations and inspirations in the archive. My methodological approach works to explicate the relationships between the photographer and their networks of influence, and to carefully trace the ways in which their photographs were circulated and received through archival evidence. I like to call this part of my research ‘the archival paper chase’ – where one document leads to another that leads to ten more. The aim of this archival chasing is to reveal the many subtle tensions, both formal and conceptual, that are brought to bear on and within the photograph.

Usually, as I’m sifting through archival documents, I come across material that, while not directly pertinent to my dissertation, is too good to pass up. Most recently it was a collection of over one hundred photographs of the 1901 Royal Tour of Canada held at the McCord Museum Notman Photographic Archives in Montreal, Quebec.

William McFarlane Notman, Royal Tour: Royal Party coming down timber slide, Ottawa, ON, 1901. Silver salts on film, gelatin silver process. 12 x 17 cm. VIEW-6754, McCord Museum.
William McFarlane Notman, Royal Tour: Royal Party coming down timber slide, Ottawa, ON, 1901. Silver salts on film, gelatin silver process. 12 x 17 cm. VIEW-6754, McCord Museum.

In 1901 the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York, soon to be King George V and Queen Mary, arrived in Canada on a royal tour. The tour brought them westward across the country from Quebec City to Vancouver and back again eastward to Halifax. Two photographers were officially assigned to document the tour: William MacFarlane Notman and William James Topley. Both photographers had well-established studio practices, in Montreal and Ottawa respectively, and had experience photographing large-scale events and portraits of politicians, dignitaries, and visiting royalty. However, the photographs, though serving in an official capacity, were far from the stiff and calculated portraits of previous royal visits to Canada. Instead, we have the Duke and Duchess riding logs down timber chutes in the Saguenay, and perched on the cowcatcher of a steam engine stopped cliff-side in the Rocky Mountains.

This change in attitude from formal to playful was in part an outcome of more portable and sensitive technological advancements in photography. But, it was also a reflection of the new role of the British monarchy in Canadian culture, in which natural resources and the infrastructure to collect and transport them were celebrated as symbols of both Canada’s success post-confederation and its indebtedness to the British colonial rule that preceded it. This is evidenced in the circulation of the photographs in the official, illustrated publication by Joseph Pope titled The Tour of Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York through the Dominion of Canada in the Year 1901 (Ottawa, Ont.: S.E. Dawson, 1903) and in popular magazines such as The Canadian Magazine and Le monde illustré.

I’m looking forward to putting the pieces of this archival puzzle together – tracing the shift in photographic representations of colonial power in order to consider conceptions of environment and resource as they were shaped in a moment when the colonial hold on Canada was being released.

Feature Image: William McFarlane Notman, Royal Tour: lumbering demonstration, Rockcliffe, Ottawa, ON, 1901. Silver salts on film, gelatin silver process. 12 x 17 cm. VIEW-6757, McCord Museum.
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Elizabeth Anne Cavaliere (settler-Canadian and granddaughter of Italian immigrants, residing in Toronto/Tkaronto the traditional territory of many nations including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat) is currently a SSHRC Post Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Art History and Art Conservation at Queen's University. You can find more of her writing in Canadian Studies; Histoire Sociale/Social History; Imaginations: Journal of Cross-Cultural Image Studies; RACAR: Revue d’art Canadienne/Canadian Art Review; and in the Journal of Canadian Art History. She has won awards for her research from the National Gallery of Canada and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.


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