Vacation idea: Summer cruises

Why not escape to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland? Let this 1914 Red Cross Line promotional booklet inspire your summer holiday!


In the early 20th century, Eastern Canada was still not yet the summer tourist destination for American tourists that it is today. According to Red Cross Line: “with improved transportation facilities it has become a mecca of those who seek a restful sojourn amid surroundings of unsurpassed beauty.” The guide includes 8 pages of illustrated text highlighting the region’s natural and historical sights.


“Information for Passengers” outlines all practical aspects of the crossing, including:

Steamers sail promptly from New York at 11am every Saturday morning from June until October

Steamer chairs and rugs can be hired when buying ticket

Wireless messages may be sent at any time on the tip, the charge varying according to station sent from

Dogs and other pets will not be allowed in staterooms or saloons, but must be placed in charge of the steward

Also included is a list of hotels and boarding houses in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. The rates are affordable, with the Halifax Hotel listed at $3.00 (and up) per day, and the Dauphinee Villa, a 35-room hotel in Hubbards, listed at $1.00 per day ($5.00 per week).

This guide, as well as others from the Red Cross Line, may be consulted during opening hours in the RBSC Reading Room.


A Hyakumanto Dharani – among the earliest surviving examples of printed text

by Mengge Cao and Jillian Tomm

In 1968, McGill acquired a copy of the Hyakumanto Dhāraṇī (百萬塔陀羅尼經), one of the earliest surviving examples of printed text, along with the miniature wooden pagoda within which it was stored more than a thousand years ago.


The Hyakumanto Dhāraṇī ( 百萬塔陀羅尼經) scroll with original miniature wooden pagoda. Photo: Greg Houston

A dhāraṇī can be described as a charm used in Esoteric Buddhist rituals. It was believed that by chanting and copying a dhāraṇī, an individual or a state would be protected from harm. The Hyakumanto Dhāraṇī was commissioned by the Empress Shotoku of Japan during the eighth century to appease the Buddhist clergy and honour the souls lost in a recent revolt. According to historical sources, one million copies of this dhāraṇī were made and distributed across Japan around 770 CE.

Each of the Hyakumanto Dhāraṇīs was housed in a miniature wooden pagoda, a tiered tower with multiple eaves, such as those commonly seen in the Asian architectural tradition.The most important religious function of pagodas is to store the relics of Buddha and receive worship. The body of this pagoda is made of hinoki wood, a species of cypress,and painted with white lead. The top, or spire, is made from cherry wood.


The pagoda spire, closing the scroll within the pagoda. Photo: Greg Houston

The dhāraṇī text is printed in twenty-three columns of five Chinese characters on a small paper scroll about six centimeters across and forty-six centimeters long. Based on the reported number of copies made and the visible features of the printed characters, there remains debate about whether wooden blocks were used or if – more surprisingly for that time – metal may have been used to print the characters. In either case, this scale of production was not seen again for centuries.

Untitled, 5/21/15, 3:53 PM,  8C, 2192x6006 (2957+2401), 100%, A.I. Basic,  1/20 s, R71.4, G63.8, B80.7

McGill’s Hyakumanto Dhāraṇī ( 百萬塔陀羅尼經). Photo: Greg Houston

The practice of printing dhāraṇīs and housing them in this way was widespread across Northeast Asia from the eighth through the twelfth century. When McGill acquired its copy in the 60s, the Hyakumanto Dhāraṇī was believed to be the earliest surviving printed text in the world. However, similar examples have since been discovered in South Korea and some scholars have dated them to a few decades earlier, though still in the eighth century. Some one hundred miniature pagodas containing dhāraṇī  scrolls have also been discovered in Inner Mongolia, China, dating from the early eleventh century.

The scroll and its pagoda are, as direct material links from such a distant past, truly remarkable artifacts. There are an estimated 1,700 surviving copies of the Hyakumanto Dhāraṇī located in personal and public collections, most of which are stored in the Hōryū-ji, a Buddhist temple in Nara, Japan. North American Institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Art Institute of Chicago also hold examples.

In Rare Books and Special Collections, we recently brought out the Hyakumanto Dhāraṇī for students of anthropology and East Asian studies to examine in a seminar given by Professor Gwen Bennett on “The Silk Roads.” As often happens, Professor Bennett and the students helped us to learn more about items in the collections, and graduate student Mengge Cao, whose academic interest lies in early East Asian print culture, is now researching McGill’s copy. Keep alert for more from Mengge on this and related topics!

RBSC welcomes SHARP to Montreal

The 23rd annual conference of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading & Publishing (SHARP) will be held in Longueuil and Montreal, July 7-July 10.

Our collections are currently on display in the following exhibitions in the McLennan Library Building:

Across the Channel: English Literature on the Continent in the 18th centuryimage002
(McLennan Library Building main floor, lobby)

In response to the theme of this year’s SHARP Conference – “How do books, book cultures, or book systems spread and readapt?” – this exhibition can only begin to suggest the multitude of questions that these editions pose. Why were English language books being printed in Vienna? Why was The Vicar of Wakefield so popular and what do the German English editions say about language learning? What was the attraction that Pope held for continental readers? Why did English novels attract so many non-English readers? Or were they merely examples of sophisticated decoration?

-The Battle of Waterloo (18 June, 1815)

(McLennan Library Building 4th floor, RBSC reading room)

An exhibition on the bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo with publications contemporary to the event and recent acquisitions to the McGill University Napoleon Collection

Frontispiece of John Booth’s "The Battle of Waterloo", showing the Duke of Wellington and Prince Blücher.

Frontispiece of John Booth’s “The Battle of Waterloo”, showing the Duke of Wellington and Prince Blücher.

Ewa Zebrowski Artist’s Books

(McLennan Library Building 4th floor, RBSC reading room)

From Ewa Zebrowski, "End of Beauty," 2013. Edition of 20.

From Ewa Zebrowski, “End of Beauty,” 2013. Edition of 20.

-Finally, we also have a travelling exhibition on display: The Alcuin Society Awards for Excellence in Book Design in Canada

(McLennan Library Building 4th floor, lobby)

On display are the award-winning books in the categories of: Children; Limited Editions; Pictorial; Poetry; Prose Fiction; Prose Non-Fiction; Prose Non-Fiction Illustrated; and Reference. This travelling exhibition will be on display until the beginning of August. More information about upcoming exhibition venues here.

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. 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:


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: or call 514-398-5711

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