The Explorer: 19th-Century Quebec In Photos

Alexander Henderson spent decades photographing the province’s dazzling landscapes and burgeoning cities. And his work was almost lost forever.
Mathew Silver
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Alexander Henderson was part artist, part documentarian. In the late 19th century, he was one of the most prominent photographers in Canada, shooting lively urban scenes and idyllic rural landscapes in a sweeping style reminiscent of the great Romantic painters.

Henderson’s photographs are pure Canadiana: a cluster of ice skaters on Montreal’s harbour, Indigenous people camping on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, railmen working on the Canadian Pacific Railway in British Columbia. His images are as haunting as they are beautiful. The subjects often stare coldly into the camera from far in the distance, seeming more like spectres than human beings.

Henderson chronicled a crucial period in Canadian history. British colonialism was boosting Quebec’s population, driving industry and shaping cultural life, all the while encroaching on Indigenous territory. Immigrants flocked to Montreal, where milling, brewing, textiles and shipbuilding had replaced the fur trade. Railway expansion turned the city into a major trade and travel hub, and cultural institutions like McGill and the Museum of Fine Arts were opening up. Between 1844 and 1911, Montreal’s population swelled from nearly 45,000 to more than 500,000, making it Canada’s biggest metropolis. (Toronto usurped it soon after.) Henderson was prolific during this period.

He was a descendant of Scottish gentry who enjoyed a comfortable upbringing in Edinburgh. His grandfather, Alexander Sr., had been the first chairman of the National Bank of Scotland and the lord provost of Edinburgh. Growing up, Henderson spent a lot of time at Press Castle, a large mansion on the family’s 650-acre property southeast of Edinburgh. He immersed himself in nature, exploring the neighbouring woods, hills and mountains.

Henderson studied accounting for a few years, but an experience in 1851 led him toward a career in the arts. At the age of 19, Henderson took a two-week trip to London for the Great Exhibition, where he encountered the works of famous British artists. The paintings had a huge influence on Henderson, and his future work borrowed heavily from the Romantic style, adopting an emphasis on nature, the inclusion of expressive characters to create mood and the use of light effects to enhance textures and soften edges.

In 1855, Henderson and his new bride, Agnes, immigrated to Canada. Like the throngs of other Brits who migrated across the Atlantic as part of colonial expansion, they imagined a new, exciting life in Quebec, which had a booming port economy, a rich cultural scene, a robust population of British expats and plenty of untrammelled outdoor space for fishing and hunting. They rode a steamboat called the Baltic from Liverpool to New York and train-hopped up to Montreal, where they eventually settled in a wealthy community west of downtown (now known as Golden Square Mile).

The couple started a family (nine children in total, five of whom survived into adulthood) and wasted little time establishing themselves among the local elites, leveraging their wealth and social status. Henderson was treasurer of the Montreal Fish and Game Protection Club, contributed to the Art Association of Montreal and enlisted in the Victoria Rifles. He also became acquainted with the prominent photographer William Notman, McGill College principal John William Dawson and renowned geologist Alfred Selwyn, among other bigwigs.

Henderson worked briefly as a merchant, but owing to his inheritance, he had no need for a traditional career. Instead, beginning around 1857, he pursued his newfound passion for photography, then an emerging technology, which struck a perfect balance between his love of art and the outdoors. By 1866, Henderson published his first book of photographs and opened a studio in Phillips Square, advertising himself as a portrait and landscape photographer.

Henderson saw—and photographed—Canada with the eye of an outsider, drawn to scenes that would have been novel for someone from Scotland. He showed a particular interest in our frigid, snow-packed winters. His landscapes featured urban sights, like steamboats in the harbour; traditional Canadian activities, such as ice skating and tobogganing; and older buildings, which evoked the historic architecture of his native Britain.

Over the years, Henderson travelled across Quebec, camera in tow. In the 1870s, beer tycoon John Thomas Molson took regular trips with his family on his yacht, the Nooya, snaking through the lower St. Lawrence and the Maritimes. Henderson joined him on a couple of voyages, photographing the yacht, cod-fishing stations, seashore landscapes and Molson’s family. He used a field camera, capturing images on glass plates that were later developed in a dark room.

In 1892, when the Canadian Pacific Railway created its own photography department, they brought Henderson on to oversee it, with a starting salary of $167 a month. The work took him out west, where he documented progress on the railway, broadening the scope of his portfolio.

Henderson died in 1913. By then, he’d fallen into obscurity. His obituary made no mention of his work as a photographer. All of his glass negatives, the accumulation of his life’s work, were left in the basement of the family home. And years later, in 1965, his grandson threw them in the garbage, destroying much of Henderson’s legacy.

The story could have ended there. But that year, Stanley G. Triggs, former curator of the photography collection at the McCord Stewart Museum in Montreal, discovered several hundred Henderson prints while looking through the museum archives. The photos were mesmerizing, but Triggs couldn’t find any information about Henderson’s life. Eventually, Triggs collected some 2,000 prints from Henderson’s family, which he believes is only a sliver of his total photographic output.

From now until mid-April, more than 250 period prints and reproductions of photographs are on display at the McCord Stewart, as part of the exhibit Alexander Henderson—Art and Nature. Throughout his career, Henderson exhibited his work in Montreal, London, Edinburgh, Dublin, Paris, New York and Philadelphia. But this exhibit, more than a century after his death, is the first major museum retrospective in his adopted home country.

Skating Rink, Montreal Harbour, C. 1870

In the foreground of this landscape, ice skaters glide across the frozen harbour in the winter. In the background, the building on the left is the custom house, where merchants would have their imported goods inspected and approved. And on the right is Notre-Dame Basilica, known at the time as the French Cathedral.

Highwater, Montreal Harbour, c. 1870

This shot depicts steamboats in the Montreal harbour when the St. Lawrence was at its highest levels, with the famous Victoria Bridge in the background. Gathering to watch the ships in the harbour was a popular Sunday activity.

Indigenous Fishing Camp, Restigouche River, C. 1870

This image depicts members of the Mi’kmaq Nation fishing on the Restigouche River, which flows between Quebec and New Brunswick. Back then, wealthy travellers went there to cast their rods. At this point in his career, Henderson had opened his first studio and established himself as a professional. He carried some of his equipment in a fisherman basket for convenience. He would have developed photos like this and sold them to tourists in shops or hotels.

Spring Inundation near Montreal, 1865

Shot during Henderson’s amateur days, this is one of his most iconic photographs, showing a man and two children in a boat just off the south shore of the island of Montreal.

Making a Bark Canoe, Murray Bay, before 1865

Early in his career, Henderson still considered himself an amateur. He spent a lot of time travelling around rural Quebec, documenting the landscape. This photo was taken in Murray Bay, located northeast of Montreal, along the banks of the St. Lawrence. It was a popular spot for tourists from across Quebec and the United States. Members of the Mi’kmaq Nation set up camp in the area and sold their handicrafts, baskets and objects.

Beaver River Valley, near Six Mile Creek, Canadian Pacific Railway, B.C., 1885

In 1885, Henderson travelled out west to British Columbia. His images of the railway were so popular that seven years later he became head of the photography department for the Canadian Pacific Railway. The CPR would have used his images to showcase work on the railway and to sell as souvenirs to tourists.

Montarville Manor House, Saint Bruno Mountain, C. 1870

This photo was taken in Montarville, located east of Montreal. From 1627 to 1854, Quebec operated under France’s seigneurial system, in which the state granted people land in exchange for royalties. The officials who governed the area were known
as seigneurs. And the seigneur of Montarville lived in this house, which dates back to around 1774. The manor was demolished in 1903.

Flood, Saint Paul Street, Montreal, 1864

Montreal flooded several times throughout the 1860s—either due to rising tidewaters breaking over the banks of the St. Lawrence River or leftover winter snowfall melting in the spring. Some Montrealers even kept rafts at their properties in case the city turned into Waterworld. This image shows one of those infamous floods, with horse-drawn carriages trudging through the water and Montrealers staying dry atop wooden pallets.

This article appears in print in the March 2023 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Buy the issue for $9.99 or better yet, subscribe to the monthly print magazine for just $39.99.