150 Artists

14/150: William James Topley

Mr. William Campbell in court jester costume

Ottawa photographer William James Topley (1845–1930) was an important chronicler of people and events in Canada’s capital in the 50 years after Confederation.  In effect, he was Canada’s first celebrity photographer, recording Royal visits, Prime Ministers and the lives of leading citizens. But he also documented significant social issues, including immigration.

For many, Topley’s most intriguing shots are images of the country’s well-to-do in costume at 19th Century Fancy Dress Balls, the first one hosted by Earl and Lady Dufferin on Feb. 23, 1876. (Below: Topley’s heralded composite image of that event.)

Lord Dufferin’s Fancy Dress Ball, 1876

Topley also photographed examples of many of the country’s emerging social issues, including in this iconic photo of a female prisoner known only by her first name, Polly.

Topley photographed her in 1895 at the Carleton County Gaol, where he was documenting  conditions. He also did a series at the Ottawa Home for Friendless Women.

Laundry room, Home for Friendless Women, 1916

Topley’s images of immigrants arriving at Quebec are an important part of Canada’s visual history, as are his photos of symbolic moments around the City of Ottawa and Parliament.

Russian Jewish immigrants, 1911 Quebec.

Topley’s studio, date unknown

All photos, Library & Archives Canada


Library & Archives Canada podcast, plus other Topley photo and info links, here.

Dictionary of Canadian Biography, here.

Read more about Fancy Dress Balls in this piece by archivist Emma Hamilton-Hobbs, here.

Hamilton-Hobbs’ exploration of Topley’s photography for her Master’s thesis, here. (PDF)



This is #14 in the series 150 Artists.

4 replies »

  1. What a valuable collection, and I mean that far beyond money. These photos draw me right into our Canadian history, and that is perfect for our 150th birthday! Topley’s peek into the past is sublime, whether he’s captured gaiety or hardship. Topley must have a spot in Canada’s national treasures, treasure chest.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re right about his work, no matter what the subject. I thought (as you did) he was definitely worth including in the 150 artists series because he is indeed a national treasure.


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