The Rise and Fall of a Family Dynasty
The Sewell Family Album chronicles the life and memories of the Sewell and Bonner families, who lived in Quebec City and Staten Island in the late Victorian period. This photographic album is an example of a 19th-century photocollage or “scrap album” and includes four watercolour-and-ink illustrations as well as 26 albumen silver prints. Among the photographs are studio portraits by the Scottish-Canadian photographer William Notman and landscapes of Quebec by the notable Jules-Ernest Livernois.
The development of the “carte-de-visite“ by André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri enabled the mass production of photographs and initiated the popularity of photo-collage albums among aristocrats and the upper middle class in Europe and North America. These types of albums were typically made by women and considered accomplishments of feminine domestic activity such as reading, drawing and music. They were repositories for photographs and a means for people to store their memories and share them with visitors to their home, much as today the social element of album-making is shared through family photos on Facebook and other social media sites. Victorian collage albums were particularly popular in Great Britain but were also made in North America. The National Gallery of Canada’s Sewell Family Album is one of the few surviving examples from this period.
The Sewells were a highly influential family in the political and cultural life of Quebec City from the 1790s onwards and during a politically-charged period in Canadian history. Jonathan Sewell (1766–1839) became Attorney General in 1795 and was subsequently appointed Chief Justice of Lower Canada in 1808. One of his sons, William Smith Sewell (1798–1866), became Sheriff of Quebec City in 1822. In 1854 his daughter Mary Georgina (1827–1898) married John Bonner (1828–1899), who was originally from Quebec but had lived in Paris and New York. It is unknown who made the album, but the families, friends and property of Mary and John Bonner appear in it numerous times, so it is likely that the album belonged to their immediate family.
Immediately after their wedding, the couple moved to New York, where Bonner led a successful career in journalism, becoming editor of Harper’s Weekly and then financial editor at The New York Herald. In 1865, he founded a Wall Street brokerage firm, John Bonner & Co., that operated out of Wall Street. Amassing a large fortune, he purchased in due course a property on Todt Hill in Staten Island. The property was reported to be valued at the exorbitant price of $50,000, for its view and location on the highest elevation on the entire Atlantic coastal plain between Florida and Cape Cod. It clearly was a point of pride, as a picture of it has been included in the album, placed underneath a studio portrait of a stoic dog.
Another page features a scene of bathers at Murray Bay, where Bonner’s relatives rented a summer cottage and the Sewells stayed during summer vacations. Murray Bay – now Charlevoix, Quebec – was a popular tourist destination for 19th-century Canadians. Although the Bonners had settled in the United States, the inclusion of photographs from the region, dated two decades later than many of the studio portraits, illustrates how the couple continued to maintain connections to Quebec throughout their lives. A series of landscape photographs by the established photographer Jules Ernest Livernois also appear in the album. It is possible that John and Mary Bonner purchased and collected these photographs as souvenirs while on visits to their families in Quebec or at a summer cottage in Charlevoix.
Other mementoes of Canada include studio portraits taken by the prolific William Notman, who photographed the elite of 19th-century Canadian society. Many of the sitters were members of the Montreal rifles regiment of Quebec, and their original photographs can be found in the McCord Museum’s Notman Archives. The soldiers, captains and colonels who have been inserted in the album include men who were born in Quebec and British soldiers who were stationed in Canada in the late 1860s. They were probably part of the Bonners' social circle in Quebec City. The person compiling the album also collaged family portraits with photographs of the Royal Family, a common practice in British photo-collage albums. As a whole, the album is a reflection of the Bonner-Sewell family’s fascination with status, social mobility and empire, through their collecting and collaging of photographs of notable people in society.
On December 31, 1877, Bonner’s life took a turn for the worse when he was implicated in a Wall Street financial scandal. John Bonner and Co. had failed with a deficiency of $400,000 from rehypothecation, which greatly impacted many, including Bonner’s partners, family and friends and the economic stability of New York. Fleeing America with $25,000 in his pocket, Bonner caught a train to Quebec City. In reports from The New York Times from the period, he was publicly shamed for his cowardice in leaving behind his family and making his business partners deal with the scandal.
Bonner lived in obscurity for several years until he relocated to California in 1883, where he reunited with his wife and children and started a new life in San Francisco, working as editor of the San Francisco Argonaut. Later in life, his daughter Geraldine (1870–1930) became his caretaker. Trained as a journalist under her father, she began writing at the age of 17, becoming an accomplished novelist and playwright. The only photograph of Geraldine in the Sewell Family Album is in a collage of a “playing cards” design, a common motif in British and French albums. The picture of her as a child is the bottom head of the Queen of Hearts playing card.
Her first novel, Hard Pan (1900) was an autobiographical account of the personal and economic struggles she faced while living with her father. In the book, Colonel Reed, the character based on her father, owns a family photo album that he shows to others to prove that he used to be rich. In a conversation with his friend, Reed states, “I can swear without family albums that the fortune I once had is a thing of the past and I rather fancy that you know all about its magnitude and its loss.”
Perhaps Geraldine was referencing the Sewell Family Album, reaffirming the notion that the album is a vehicle of memory and nostalgia that preserves the golden age of a family who went from riches to rags.
Images from the Sewell Family Album can be viewed in the online collection of the National Gallery of Canada. Similar works are also exhibited in The Extended Moment: Fifty Years of Collecting Photographs, on view until September 16, 2018. To share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right hand of the page.