18 June 1815: Battle of Waterloo

Two hundred years ago today, the Battle of Waterloo was fought in present day Belgium. We are putting the finishing touches on an exhibition to commemorate this anniversary and also to highlight recent additions to our Napoleon Collection. The exhibition will be launched the week of July 6th.


Moshe Safdie awarded AIA Gold Medal

Congratulations to Moshe Safdie (B.Arch 1961), recipient of the 2015 American Institute of Architects (AIA) Gold Medal!

The Moshe Safdie Archive is housed in the John Bland Canadian Architecture Collection, Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University.

Anna Leonowens’s Collection: Photographs of Angkor Wat taken by John Thomson

By: Pamela Casey

(1)Donor label and shelf markings, Cambodia Photos, 19th Century Travel Photography Collection.

Donor label and shelf markings, Cambodia Photos, 19th Century Travel Photography Collection

(2)Cambodia Photos (orange stained), 19th Century Travel Photography Collection

Cambodia Photos (orange stained), 19th Century Travel Photography Collection

I spent the winter semester in a tucked-away part of Rare Books and Special Collections (RBSC) processing a collection of late 19th-century travel photographs as part of my practicum towards a Master’s in Library and Information Studies. Most of the photographs in the collection are unidentified, but a selection bear signatures of their photographers, including Antonio Beato, Francis Frith, and Samuel Bourne, while others carry donor markings. Recently, a donor name caught the attention of Dr Virr, Head of RBSC and Curator of Manuscripts. While showing him a collection of Cambodian photographs, he recognised one of the names on the donor label. The collection had belonged to Anna Leonowens, of King of Siam fame, a Victorian widow who worked as a governess at the Siamese court in Bangkok, teaching English to the king’s many wives and 87 children from 1862-1868. After a bit of digging, I discovered that Avis S. Fyshe, the actual donor of the photos to the library, was Leonowens’s granddaughter.

(3)“Main Entrance to Wat, i.e. temple of Augor or Nakhon, in Cambodia”, John Thomson, 1866

“Main Entrance to Wat, i.e. temple of Augor or Nakhon, in Cambodia”, John Thomson, 1866

Avis Selina Fyshe was born in 1886 near Halifax, Nova Scotia. In 1897, she and her family settled in Montreal, and we know Fyshe attended Royal Victoria College in 1903-1904[1]. After her parents died, Fyshe was her grandmother’s caregiver after her stroke until her death in 1915[2]. Later, Fyshe lived abroad and became an artist. She studied art at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, as well as illumination and lettering in England, Germany and France. In 1933 she was back in Montreal, where she was active in the Montreal and Canadian artist communities and designed bookplates and Christmas cards[3].



“Bas relief along the corridors of Nakhon Wat, representing scenes from the Hindu Epic Rāmăyānă; the work of early Buddha missionaries to Cambodia”, John Thomson, 1866

“Bas relief along the corridors of Nakhon Wat, representing scenes from the Hindu Epic Rāmăyānă; the work of early Buddha missionaries to Cambodia”, John Thomson, 1866

It was Fyshe who provided author Margaret Landon with the material to write her 1944 bestseller, Anna and the King of Siam. Fyshe had been attempting to write her own book on her “fabulous grandmother,” but this had not been going well[4]. After a chance meeting in 1939, Fyshe gave to Landon her draft biography, all 200-typed pages of it, along with family letters and other papers. Landon used the material to write the hugely popular semi-fictional biography of Anna, a book that went on to inspire a famous Rodgers and Hammerstein musical and numerous film adaptations.

So what of the photos? Wonderfully, these are signed by their photographer: John Thomson, a Scotsman, and the first to photograph Angkor Wat in 1866. In 1867, Thomson published a book of his photographs of the temple ruins, The Antiquities of Cambodia: A series of photographs taken on the spot. In his introduction, he describes how he was inspired to make the arduous journey after reading Henri Mouhot’s writings about the site. Thomson travelled with all the “photographic apparatus and chemicals necessary for the wet collodion process”:

At Kabin we left our boats to begin a weary overland journey, lasting nearly a month, and completely exhausting our stock of provisions and our strength. About ten days before we reached our destination, I had an attack of jungle fever, which left me so weak that I was for some time unable to walk… Our mode of travel varied according to circumstances…ponies harnessed in the rudest fashion, buffalo waggons that were continually breaking down, and being repaired with the materials which the forest or jungle might supply, causing us to halt for hours, not infrequently at midday, in a stunted forest, or on a shelterless prairie, with the vertical rays of a tropical sun beating down upon our heads…[5]

A selection of the vivid results of Thomson’s efforts is now at RBSC, sixteen photographs in all, each mounted on thick white paper and together housed in an old manuscript folder, the orange inner folds of which have stained the top photograph. The photos are all labeled and identified as being Nakhon Wat, the “Temple of the Capital,” known as Angkor Wat[6].

In his book Thomson created a panoramic photo of the temple entrance, and some of our photos seemed to have formed part of it. Many of the RBSC photos are of the temple’s sculptural reliefs depicting key scenes from Rāmăyānă – Rama’s journey – an epic poem composed in Sanskrit about how Rama, with the help of an army of monkeys, battles to save his wife Sita who has been abducted by Ravana. Thomson’s photographs capture the calm and beauty of the place: “Sculptured Devotees”, carvings of the “Bountiful Lady”, an impressive exterior roof view, and the serenely smiling Triple-headed tower or roof of Nakhon Wat.

(5)“Sculptured devotees before the ruined altar of Buddha, Nakhon Wat”, John Thomson, 1866

“Sculptured devotees before the ruined altar of Buddha, Nakhon Wat”, John Thomson, 1866

(6)“Carved Pillars, and Sculptures of the Bountiful Lady, in Nakhon Wat”, John Thomson, 1866

“Carved Pillars, and Sculptures of the Bountiful Lady, in Nakhon Wat”, John Thomson, 1866

“Part of the roof of Nakhon Wat, with Siamese standing near the entrance to the Buddhists’ sacred Baptismal font”, John Thomson, 1866

“Part of the roof of Nakhon Wat, with Siamese standing near the entrance to the Buddhists’ sacred Baptismal font”, John Thomson, 1866

(8)“Triple-headed tower or roof of Nakhon Wat”, John Thomson, 1866

“Triple-headed tower or roof of Nakhon Wat”, John Thomson, 1866

Thomson was supported by the King of Siam on his travels, and also famously took his portrait. Thomson’s dates coincide with Leonowens’s time at the Siamese court, so it seems likely that they met. That Leonowens valued Thomson’s photographs is evident from her first book, The English Governess at the Siamese Court, with its prefatory mention of the “able English photographer, James Thomson”[7] (we have no idea how he took to being called English, never mind James), and her use of illustrations that are direct, unattributed copies of his photographs (the title page credits them as “Illustrations, from photographs presented to the author by the King of Siam”)[8]. Where Thomson’s actual photographs appear in her later book, The Romance of the Harem, the photographer is simply left uncredited.


The esteem Leonowens might have held for the able photographer does not appear to have been mutual, judging from the irritable commentary Thomson makes the few times her name pops up in his own writings. “Mrs Leonowens,” Thomson sniffs, referring to her version of the events depicted in a photo he took at the Siamese court, “ought to have known better.” He drily questions her descriptions of Angkor Wat: “From Mrs Leonowens’s account of her expedition…I gather that she must have travelled along the same route as ourselves; but I cannot make out, if that was the case, how her elephants could have ‘pressed on heavily, but almost noiselessly, over a parti-coloured carpet of flowers.’”

“The 1st King of Siam, King Mongkut, in western style state robes, Bangkok, Siam”, John Thomson, 1865-1866. Wellcome Library, London V0037055. http://wellcomeimages.org/ indexplus/image/V0037055.html

The flowers in this jungle, he explains, are extremely rare and highly prized, and so unlikely to have had guides allow them to be trampled. Thomson even suggests that Leonowens’s descriptions of the site were lifted directly from Henri Moulot’s, and he can’t help but interject while quoting from one of Leonowen’s florid descriptions: ‘The Wat stands like a petrified dream of some Michael Angelo [what is a petrified dream?]…”

I am perhaps reading too much between the lines, but I sense a spat between the author of these photographs and their subsequent owner. The two perhaps saw each other as competitors, each determined that their vision and experience of this place, exotic and still largely unknown to the West, should hold sway. Either way, the John Thomson photographs in the RBSC holdings are among the first ever taken of Angkor Wat, one of the world’s most important archeological sites, and wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Anna Leonowens and Avis Selina Fyshe.




[1] McGill University Archives.

[2] Susan Morgan, Bombay Anna: The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of the King and I Governess (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

[3] Avis Selina Fyshe, National Gallery of Canada Artist Information Form, 1943. Copy sourced at the Canadian Women Artist History Initiative.

[4] Morgan, 214.

[5] John Thomson, The Antiquities of Cambodia. A Series of Photographs Taken on the Spot with Letterpress Description. Edinburgh: Edmonston & Douglas, 1867, p. 7-8.

[6] I have been unable to find information to explain why the name Nakhon Wat was used instead of Angkor Wat.

[7] Anna Harrietta Crawford Leonowens, The English Governess at the Siamese Court: Being Recollections of Six Years in the Royal Palace at Bangkok. Boston: Fields, Osgood & Co., 1870, p. vii.

[8] Leonowens, The English Governess at the Siamese Court: Being Recollections of Six Years in the Royal Palace at Bangkok, first title page.

[9] John Thomson, The Straits of Malacca, Indo-China, and China: or, Ten years’ travels, adventures, and residence abroad. New York: Harper & brothers, 1875, p. 97.

[10] Thomson, Straits, 129.

[11] Thomson, Straits, 130.

May Day!

Think Rare Books and Special Collections is just about beautiful things? Well think again – rare book libraries have long been central to the preservation of testimonies, facts, and reflections central to social arguments of all kinds.

This morning, singing of the Internationale erupted on the Montreal metro. If the day has put you in the spirit, come by and see some of the roots of support for workers here in Canada and around the world from earlier days.

See, for example, Daniel De Leon’s Socialist Reconstruction of Society. Originally delivered as an address to unionists in Chicago in 1905 under the title “The preamble of the Industrial Workers of the World,” the text has been reprinted many times. This copy dates from 1944.


Socialist Reconstruction of Society: the industrial vote, by Daniel De Leon (New York : New York Labor News Co., 1944). HD8055 I5 D4 1944 Rare Books/Special Collections – Lande-Arkin Canadiana. Inserted is a 2-sided flyer for the Socialist Labor Party of Canada.

This 1944 copy had affixed inside it (now loose) a note by the Socialist Labor Party of Canada with a description of its aims, an address to contact for more such publications, and an advertisement of the official publishing arm of the party. With the flyer is a pre-paid postcard to join the Canadian SLP:


Back of a pre-paid postcard (for 1 cent) to join the Socialist Labor Party of Canada. ca 1944. Tipped into De Leon’s Socialist Reconstruction of Society

See also material from outside of Canada. The book figured below, Zabastovka by N. Adolʹf, published in Moscow in 1931, is about the 1930 Berlin metal-workers strike. The work is for children, just one of many books from the early Soviet era in McGill’s significant collection of Children’s Soviet books. Many of these, which include a great deal of striking art,  can be viewed online: http://digital.library.mcgill.ca/russian/intro.htm


Zabastovka, by N. Adolʹf. (Moskva [Moscow] : Molodai︠a︡ gvardii︠a︡, 1931). Children’s Books Soviet A36Z3 1931 [By Consultation] Rare Books/Special Collections

Happy May Day!


Gould’s birds

Gould watercolour VII: Little Parakeet

“Little Parakeet,” no. VII from the portfolio of Twenty Original Water-colour Drawings of Australian Birds, by John Gould

John Gould (1804–1881) was an English ornithologist, artist, and publisher of exceptional illustrated books on birds. Well known in natural history circles, he made significant contributions to the work of Charles Darwin through his identification of bird families on the Galápagos Islands, and was a pioneer in the determination of and communication about Australian birds.

Gould’s own sketches formed the basis of most of his book illustrations, which were often published as hand-coloured lithographs produced by his wife Elizabeth or other artists, including Edward Lear, H.C. Richter, and Joseph Wolf.

Among Gould’s most ambitious projects are the large folio volumes of The Birds of Australia (1840–1848) and its Supplement (first published in 1851), both with hand-coloured lithographs. Along with this first edition and several related titles, McGill holds a number of original Gould drawings, including sixteen used for his Birds of Australia, produced between 1831 and 1836.

These drawings, organized with related pieces in a portfolio titled Twenty original water-colour drawings of Australian birds, can be consulted in Rare Books and Special Collections, and our Digital Initiatives team has now made digital images available through the Internet Archive: browse small thumbnail images or see individual Internet Archive records to download high quality TIFF image files.

Exhibition: Underwood & Underwood Press Agency

By Pamela Casey*

Currently on display in the reading room are sixteen photographs from our Underwood & Underwood Press Agency Collection. These sixteen are a selection from about 100 photographs recently included in the exhibition Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Impressionism to Expressionism, 1900-1914 which ran at the Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts from October 2014 to January 2015.


How Carrier Pigeons are Used in Warfare | The Belgian signal corps are using carrier pigeons with great success. The photo shows one of these birds before its release, with a message in code for headquarters. The message refers to a wood, a bridge and a mine.

Choosing the sixteen to place on display was difficult, as it was no doubt difficult for the curators from the Museum of Fine Art to make their selection. These are wartime photographs of scenes from European battlefields and civilian life during the First World War. It’s hard to articulate why these particular photographs of trench warfare and bombed-out cathedral towns are so striking. Perhaps it’s that so many of these images feel utterly unfamiliar, like the soldiers sleeping in the streets of Paris, using bales of hay as make-shift shelters, or the German platoon on bicycles. But perhaps it’s that each photograph here seems to tell an elaborate and complicated story, which is only made stranger by the original captions the collection came with, newspaper headline-style, jaunty or grave in tone depending on the scene.


pic_2015-03-18_174142The captions, like the photographs, are unsigned. Underwood & Underwood was founded in Ottawa, Kansas in the early 1880s by two brothers, Elmer and Bert. Initially the business sold stereoscopic views door-to-door, employing an army of college students as their salesmen. By the 1890s, Underwood & Underwood had moved to New York and started producing their own photographs, eventually establishing themselves as a news photography agency. The Underwood & Underwood Collection includes over 420 photographs, arranged by country (Russia, Germany, France, Belgium, Holland, and Great Britain), each with its own caption. The collection will no doubt deliver yet more striking stories with further exploration and research.

*Pamela Casey is studying the RBSC photograph collection for her winter 2015 practicum at the McGill School of Information Studies.

Vernissage & special talk with Dr. Desmond Morton, February 25, 5-7 pm

The No. 3 Canadian General Hospital (McGill) in the First World War 1915-1919 & The Lighthalls: A McGill Family at War

vernissage_announcement_imageMarch 2015 marks the centenary of the mobilisation of the No. 3 Canadian General Hospital (McGill), a 1040-bed unit of the Canadian Army Medical Corps. Located in France behind the front lines, the hospital was established by McGill’s Faculty of Medicine and staffed by faculty members and students, with nurses trained at the Montreal General and Royal Victoria hospitals. The hospital served in the field from 1915 to 1919. Please join us on February 25th at 5 pm, when distinguished Canadian military historian and Hiram Mills Professor of History Dr. Desmond Morton will speak on the role of McGill medicine in the First World War.

Vernissage & special talk: February 25, 5-7 pm. Dr. Morton’s talk will begin at 5:30pm and will be followed by a Q&A.


This talk titled “Healing in Hell: McGill Medicine and the First World War” will be part of the vernissage of two library exhibitions: “We Will Remember Them: The No. 3 Canadian General Hospital (McGill) in The First World War 1915-1919” and “The Lighthalls: A McGill Family at War” (on view to June 15th). The evening will include guided visits of the exhibitions.

RSVP required. RSVP: rsvp.libraries@mcgill.ca or call 514-398-5711

Rare Books & Special Collections Reading Room, 4th floor, McLennan Library Building, 3459 rue McTavish, Montreal, QC, H3A 0C9

Meetings with Books – a new publication from McGill University Library and Archives

We are pleased to announce the publication of:


Special Collections in the 21st Century
With a Tribute to Raymond Klibansky
Illustrated Survey of Special Collections at
McGill University Library and Archives

Edited by
Jillian Tomm and Richard Virr

A publication of
McGill University Library and Archives


On March 20, 2013, McGill University held a one-day symposium titled “Meetings with Books: Raymond Klibansky, Special Collections and the Library in the 21st Century.” The aims of the symposium were three-fold: to discuss the question “It is all on the Web, so why bother? Special Collections in the Digital Age”; to celebrate the memory of Raymond Klibansky as a mentor, scholar, collector, and donor of his significant and valuable research library to McGill; and to bring the narrative gifts of author Alberto Manguel to ignite inspiration as only he is able.

The day was an opportunity to consider why historical book collections might matter, and how they connect, or might be connected, with current forms and directions in teaching, research, and learning. Speakers brought a wealth of perspectives from across the humanities and special collection librarianship to bear on upon the question of the role of special collections in the digital age. Alberto Manguel powerfully evoked the drive that compels and leads the explorerbe he or she scholar or otherwiseto great labours, and to sometimes reach and cross accepted boundaries of questioning or suggestion. The personal tributes inspired by Klibansky paid fitting testimony to a man who embodied so much of this perpetual search, the search to know, the search for what it means to be human.
(See videos from the symposium)

The published volume Meetings with Books grew out of this symposium.
The book includes:

A historical survey of McGill’s special collections
Richard Virr (McGill University)

A tribute to humanist scholar and book collector Raymond Klibansky
Georges Leroux (Université de Montréal à Québec)
Désirée Park (Concordia University, Montreal and Wolfson College, Oxford)
Gerald Beasley (University of Alberta)
Ethel Groffier (Paul-André Crépeau Centre, McGill University)



Short essays on how historical book collections connect with current forms and directions in teaching, research, and learning in the digital age by:
Leslie Howsam (University of Windsor)
Fiona A. Black (Dalhousie University)
Julie E. Cumming (McGill University)
Stéfan Sinclair (McGill University)
Ann Marie Holland (McGill University)
Anna Dysert (McGill University)
Christopher Lyons (McGill University)
Jillian Tomm (McGill University)
Gregory Bouchard (McGill University)

A keynote essay by Alberto Manguel
Alberto Manguel Istanbul 2015



And interspersed with these essays, a selection of more than fifty illustrated “vignettes ” which serve to provide material context for the discussion. They illustrate variety and connections across historical collections at McGill University Library and Archives in particular, and suggest the great richness of still-potential research held in special collections libraries generally.




Printed volume: 40$ CDN. The work is also available freely as a pdf file online at McGill e-scholarship here:

Meetings with Books can be ordered from
Rare Books and Special Collections
McGill University Library
McLennan Library Building, 4th floor
3459 McTavish Street
Montreal, QC H3A 0C9

Please make your cheque out to McGill University Library, with a note “Meetings with Books.” or write us at: rarebooks.library@mcgill.ca

Victorian Holiday Cards

Rare Books and Special Collections holds a wide variety of Victorian holiday cards which form just part of a much larger greeting card collection, amounting to many hundreds of examples, designed for almost any season or occasion.

Santa coppedb

Christmas cards of Saint Nicholas, extracted from a specimen sheet of four cards for sale.

Of special interest regarding the print trade are the specimen sheets used for commercial purposes, ticketed with the price per quantity on the sheet. They  feature a range of options for choice of image or greeting. The collection also consists of pages from private scrapbooks revealing a kaleidoscope of styles from this era.

The vast majority of our holiday cards have been collected or added as single specimens. Some are complete with manuscript greetings or personal notes, which hold interest for cultural historians. In each case, they are rare due to their ephemeral nature.

BirdMost of the cards demonstrate the application of the technical revolution in the printing of illustrations in the nineteenth century. The designs are usually high in colour, printed by chromolithography, which was at the height of its popularity around 1860. We might see as well the use of photo-mechanical techniques, such as photogravures, mounted as inserts on card stock.

Some cards were embossed for added effect and in some cases, fabrics were used to dress up the card. There are pop-up, single-sided cards with personal notes on the back, or cards that open with printed verse inside. Some of the latter might be stitched by side ties or decorated by ribbons, while some of the former might be fabulously framed by a fringe, and used as decorations with an attached piece of fine rope.

A few of these extra-ordinary examples are currently on view in the main Reading Room of Rare Books and Special Collections, located on the 4th floor of the McLennan Library Building.


Embossed Victorian Christmas card with velvet overlays.

And best wishes for a wonderful holiday.



Public lecture Dec. 2nd at RBSC by Craig Stephenson

This coming Tuesday, December 2nd, Dr. Craig Stephenson will give a free public lecture on his book Anteros: A Forgotten Myth.


“Anteros: A Forgotten Myth explores how the myth of Anteros disappears and reappears throughout the centuries, from classical Athens to the present day, and looks at how the myth challenges the work of Freud, Lacan, and Jung, among others. It examines the successive cultural experiences that formed and inform the myth and also how the myth sheds light on individual human experience and the psychoanalytic process.”

from the publisher (Routledge) 

About the speaker: Craig E. Stephenson, Ph.D., is a graduate of the C.G. Jung Institute Zürich, the Institute for Psychodrama (Zumikon, Switzerland), and the Centre for Psychoanalytic Studies, University of Essex. He is the author of Possession: Jung’s Comparative Anatomy of the Psyche (Routledge, 2009), editor of a collection of essays titled Jung and Moreno: Essays on the Theatre of Human Nature (Routledge, 2013), and the translator of Luigi Aurigemma’s book of essays, Jungian Perspectives (University of Scranton Press, 2007). He has lectured at the Bodmer Foundation, Geneva, for the Philemon Foundation and at the Warburg Institute, University of London.

The talk will take place in Rare Books and Special Collections, 4th fl. McLennan Library, 3459 rue McTavish, Montreal. All are welcome. Please RSVP to jillian.tomm@mcgill.ca.