Medallion composites were made up of close-cropped head-and-shoulders portraits which were trimmed to a standard oval shape and glued side by side on a large plain card with minimal art work added. These quickly became popular with students, corporations and sports clubs because they were so much cheaper to make. An added appeal, especially to students, was the inherently democratic nature of the style: there were no stars, all portraits were the same size, and no key was needed since the names were printed underneath each portrait.

The earliest medallion composite in the Notman Photographic Archives is "The Dominion Cabinet" made in 1871, containing fourteen portraits of politicians and the Governor General. The owners of four Montreal retail stores commissioned it as an advertising gimmick, and had the names of their establishments worked into the surrounding design and printed on the front and back of the card. No other composites of the medallion style by Notman are known until 1889, when a large-format design containing twenty-five portraits of "The Officers of the Victoria Rifles of Canada" was produced. The next year a larger one containing fifty-six portraits of graduating students and their professors was made for the École de Médecine et de Chirurgie de Montréal, Université Victoria. The largest medallion composite ever made by the Notman firm contained 680 portraits of members of the Montreal Board of Trade.

Charles Notman said in an interview in 1955 that making appointments for such a great number was so difficult that though it was begun in 1891 before William Notman’s death, it wasn’t completed until two years later1. From then on medallion composites were in the ascendancy, quickly replacing the realistic scenes in popularity. From a strictly photographic point of view medallion composites are quite dull. The figures lack setting, a place to work or play. There is no grand sweep of snow-covered trees, no swift- flowing river or sumptuous drawing-room to set off the figures and bring them to life in a setting natural to them. On the other hand, medallion composites, when looked at purely from the standpoint of graphic design, are frequently exciting visual experiences. There often is a sense of seeing multiple views of the same subject, the class of students becoming the symbolic "student" seen from different angles. This illusion, together with the visual dynamics of the closely packed shapes that seem to project a sense of alternating tension and movement, sometimes recalls the effects seen in early Cubist paintings. A similar sense of multiple viewing and tension and release is conveyed by some of the huge snowshoe-club composites created much earlier by Notman in 1877, 1880 and 1884.
1Weekend Picture Magazine, Vol 3 No. 52, 1953, "Pioneer Picture-Takers", David Willock, 1953, pp. 14 - 16. In this article, based on an interview with Charles Notman, it is stated that the Montreal Board of Trade composite of 1893 contained 1,800 portraits. Charles was 85 years old at the time.
Stanley G. Triggs

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