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Portraits of British Americans
By W. Notman, Photographer to Her Majesty with Biogaphical Sketches by Fennings Taylor

Portraits of British Americans
By W. Notman, Photographer to Her Majesty with Biogaphical Sketches by Fennings Taylor, Deputy Clerk and Clerk Assistant to the Legislative Council of Canada in three volumes (1865)

It may not be out of place to repeat here, and by way of introduction, some of the considerations which led us to think that a Literary and Illustrated Serial, exclusively devoted to the portraiture of British Americans, would at the present time be regarded with especial favor by the inhabitants of British America.

Did it not seem somewhat presumptuous, we should be inclined, as we make our bow, to glance a compliment at our own sagacity, and upon the very doorstep of our enterprise speak of the success of our venture in the accents of confidence, instead of the language of hope. The chill and shiver of uncertainty have been removed or qualified by the notes of kindness and encouragement which have readied us from all quarters. Hints of great value have been gathered with pains, and given to us with freedom. Gentlemen in different and distant places have, unsolicited, gratified us by requesting the insertion of their names on our lists of subscribers; and, generally, we have received from every class of the community such expressions of cordial good will, as not only assure us that our Portraits will satisfy a public need, but also that the public will shew its appreciation by satisfying us for our Portraits.

The truth is, events of great national importance are hourly passing into history. Public opinion is visibly acquiring new animation. Political aspirations, moved by unseen influences, like the tide in spring, are rising to a purer level. Statesmen of different parties, appreciating the requirements of the hour, forgetting alike the rivalries and jealousies of the past, are agreed in declaring that the time is come when the power of these separated Provinces should be consolidated, when their individual strength should be knit together; when, as one great Monarchical Confederacy, they should practice in unison the graver duties of Government, should accept the burden of new obligations, and the administration of now trusts.

Proceedings and events so unique in themselves cannot be viewed apart from their authors; and we should miss much of their meaning were we to attempt to interpret them without reference to their opponents. The canvas which encloses the historic tracery should include also the personal portraiture. The strife of opinion should represent the parties to that strife. We care not to separate the act from the actors, the accepted design from the competitive designers; on the contrary, wo acknowledge the relationship, and recognize propriety in unity. What has been done, and what is now being done, are however matters of state policy, not necessary to be discussed here; but the subject suggests the observation, and, we hope, warrants the opinion, that standing, as we may be said to be, on the threshold of new and great events, the time is propitious for collecting in a form, not unworthy of being preserved, notes and sketches not only of men who are now filling, but of those also who have in years past filled, positions of responsibility and honor in the political and social history of the British American Provinces.

The wish to possess, even in an imperfect form, the resemblance of individuals whose names are familiar to us, is a very natural one. Indeed such desires have almost become conventional habits, which wc make little effort to restrain, and none to disguise.

The growing taste for collecting likenesses is not attributable to a passing fashion merely; it has its root in the better parts of our nature, and derives its nourishment from the higher sentiments of the mind—from reverence and respect, from the love of kindred and the charms of friendship, from the regard for private worth or from the appreciation of public service. It is no evanescent impulse, but a chronic craving, a craving that had existence when the means of gratification, if not wholly beyond reach, were laid aside among the expensive and almost unattainable privileges of life. At the present day however such acquisitions are within the attainment of all. The sun himself has become the limner. Science has unlocked her secrets; Art has applied them, while knowledge and experience have taught us that light, the first, the purest, and the most universal of God’s gifts, has, by fusion with subtle agencies, become the source, it is scarcely an exaggeration to say, of the most cherished and economical of man’s luxuries.

No lengthened introduction is needed in regard to that part of our project which relates especially to the illustrations, except indeed to state that every pains will be taken to make the work equal in all respects, in its minute and general characteristics, in its artistic and mechanical attractions, to the best and most exact specimens of Photographic art. In addition to the style and finish which commonly belong to work done at his studio, it is Mr. Notman’s intention to bestow, if it be possible, even more than his usual pains on every Portrait that may appear in the forthcoming Serial; so that each subject may be represented in a manner as true, natural, and lifelike, as it is possible for Art, combined with knowledge and experience, to effect.

The plan which has found favor in England with respect to similar publications will be attempted here. Each monthly part will contain five Portraits, to be separately mounted on delicately tinted paper, especially prepared for the work. Each portrait, moreover, will be accompanied with notes and sketches, which, like index posts on the highway, though, peradventure, neither elegant nor picturesque in themselves, may at all events be found useful in directing the inquirer to where he may arrive at more perfect knowledge and more exact observation. The notes and sketches accompanying each part will usually be completed in thirty-two pages of letterpress. Occasionally, when the subjects are of more than ordinary interest, this limit will be exceeded; but no extra charge to subscribers will be made on account of such excess.

In speaking for himself, the Editor may perhaps be allowed to observe, that the duty he has undertaken to discharge was not of his seeking; for he and the author of the project were wholly unknown to one another. It was the desire of Mr. Notman that the Sketches should be written fairly and impartially, free alike from extravagant eulogy on the one hand, or cynical ill-nature on the other. With this object in view, it was supposed by him that a gentleman whose duties did not necessarily bring him into confidential intercourse with any member or estate of the Government, who had for many years been connected with the Legislature, who had consequently enjoyed fair opportunities of observing the course of public events, and had been brought into almost daily contact with the public men of all parties, would, from inclination and experience, as well as from the habit of equable impartiality that is almost inseparable from official life, be disposed to trace such records with a gentle hand, and make criticism subservient alike to justice and courtesy.

There is, too, in connection with this point, another consideration which, perhaps, may be regarded as a type of thought, in a certain sense peculiar to and inseparable from the minds of those whose lot, in the British Provinces, has been cast in the public service of the State. Removed by their position from the radius of party attraction, placed outside, so to speak, of the maelstrom of factional strife, the observant members of this class have not failed to note, and they have done so with regret, that there exists in the community, no matter from what cause, a proneness to disparage the position and abase the influence of our public men; to belittle their titles to consideration; to discredit generally the presence of high principle, and challenge particularly any claim to patriotic motives; to sneer at humble and jest at obscure origin; to remember with exaggerated precision what it were generous to forget, and forget with facile indifference what it were just to remember; to speak coldly of manly struggles, and to withhold from intelligent success all graceful recognition. It is true that persistent integrity may, for it sometimes does, win in the end; but the contest is not equal, neither can the final triumph of right make us oblivious to those features of the play that blemished the struggle. Our purpose, however, is not to discuss a state of things more easily accounted for than excused. On the contrary, we refer to them by way of introducing the remark, that as our Serial is issued for no partizan object, neither will it be edited on any partizan principle.

Ihere is, moreover, a condition with respect to contemporary biography that should never be lost sight of, namely, the difficulty of treating fairly an incomplete career. While he lives, the personal history of a man survives; and he, therefore, who should attempt to judge such an one before the time, would necessarily judge partially and from imperfect data. Under such circumstances it is safer to record facts than to draw conclusions. In another sense than the highest, it may be said of each of us, “we know not what we shall be.” In the face of such ignorance it would be an offence against taste, and it might be an offence against truth, to assert of one still living that such was the character and such the issue of a life; for the latest act of existence, like the codicil of a will, by revealing a new motive, may change the opinion of the critic, baffle his conclusions, and compel him to see in the act of another the error of his own thought. Great reticence will, therefore, be observed on such points; for our work would miss, or overreach its object if, by any means it should become instrumental in inflicting a public hurt or a private wound.

It is not, however, with contemporay biography alone that we propose to deal. We hope to be able, by diligent research, and with the assistance of others, to gather together some of the scraps and fragments of individual history, which may still linger, like traditional lore, in the crevices of memory, or be preserved, like forgotten relics, in out of the way or unfrequented places. It is difficult to meet the elders of a young country like our own without experiencing sensations of regret that so little pains should have been taken to perpetuate in some imperishable form the amusing and occasionally striking incidents of days past,—incidents which, if industry will not preserve, time must destroy. Such gleanings of personal narrative acquire value as the stream of events rolls on; and since general history is but the aggregate of individual history, he may be regarded as contributing to the more perfect whole, who shall succeed in gathering together some of the essential parts. Many sympathetic friends will, it is believed, gladly help forward such an object; and all such may be sure that their honorable confidences will neither be abused nor betrayed. The pioneers and founders of a State, of whatever profession or calling, will generally be found to be men of great force of character, as well as of an adventurous turn of mind, who are more inclined to perform heroic deeds than to record them. The descendants of such men still live amongst us. The traditional, and in some instances the recorded transactions of such lives may yet be recovered; and the lessons which the narratives should teach of courage, loyalty, devotion, high principle, and stainless honor, would not only promote innocent gratification and mental pleasure, but might, by exciting a sense of laudable emulation, tend to our moral and national good.

In bespeaking the assistance and co-operation of all who cherish towards our work any sentiment of sympathy, we may, perhaps, be allowed to add, that our wish is to collect and gather together what the historian would probably pass by, and the statistician would certainly reject; namely, those incidents of domestic and personal adventure, that underlie or are concurrent with the greater drama of History and Government. Had we no materials wherewith to lighten the sterner narrative of our progress, then of course nothing could be said; but such is not the case. The incidents of the early French colonization, with their wonderful accompaniments of chivalrous adventure and missionary zeal, have their place in history, and belong chiefly to Eastern Canada. These, we hope, to some extent at least, to be able to place before our English speaking population. Yet we should not forget that the life story of the sister Provinces is neither less alluring nor less heroic. Upper Canada, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, are marked with the footprints of faithfulness and devotion. The vestiges of moral and patriotic worth lie scattered about the land. Imperfect they must be, for, like the inscriptions on broken grave-stones, time has destroyed some, obscured others, and defaced all. Still they are worthy of being gathered together, worthy of being patiently studied, as the moral relics of a race which, it is to be feared, has no counterpart now. Let the hoar and moss of years be reverently removed. Let us carefully decipher whatever appears to be obscure, and, if possible, recover the faded records. Let us directly or indirectly seek the representatives of earlier days, and listen kindly to old tales of by-gone times, for we may be sure the traditions we may thus gather will help to perfect the record of events, which connects the present with the past. Then, perchance, we shall understand aright the principles and characters of the “United Empire Loyalists", —of a race of men who, rather than bow down to the Republican idol which their faithless countrymen had set up, abandoned their possession and forsook their kindred, to become the founders of colonies whose creation it is no exaggeration to say was the offspring of sentiment and devotion,—a Monarch’s tribute to his subjects’ faith.

Montreal, May, 1865.

Volume 1  |  Volume 2  |  Volume 3

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