19th century postcards from Montreal at the McCord Museum

Alexander Henderson – Art and Nature captures everything from Indigenous communities to early industrialization to familiar city views alongside the majesty of the landscape.

Given his status as Scottish landed gentry and grandson to the first chairman of the National Bank of Scotland, it is easy to see why Alexander Henderson relocated to Montreal in 1855. There, in the distant, snow-clad reaches of the American North, relatively untouched by ‘civilization’ (civilized just enough, however, to feel like home), might be found the European gentleman’s dream: rugged adventure (with comforts), real hunting, an open, uncluttered horizon. In the sum of things, a dream no different to those men panning for gold further south. 

Art and Nature currently showing at McCord Museum, is the first major exhibit of Henderson’s photography. Drawing from a collection of almost 2,000 prints, the exhibit makes the case that Henderson did in fact find gold in Canada. A professional landscape photographer, almost all of his work demonstrates a fascination with the drama of Canadian weather and geography. In one of the first pieces on display, we find that most archetypal of American scenes, the Niagara Falls, as seen from Ontario. And taken in the same year, there is “The Saint Lawrence in Spring, Opposite Montreal,” complete with a canoe and craggy snow. Silhouetted trees, smooth lakes, stark, icy vistas — these are Henderson’s career. His photographs suggest a lifelong tribute to the work of artists such as John Constable, capturing and romanticizing the simple land. 

Alexander Henderson Art and Nature McCord Museum

Looking through the collection, however, it doesn’t take long to reach a conclusion about Henderson’s art. According to the exhibit’s accompanying text, he enjoyed Quebec as was expected. He hunted in the snow, slept in wood lodges, trekked through wilderness for sport and for the drama of a scene (in one photograph on display, the bodies of two deer have been arranged). When people appear in his landscapes, they are usually there as reference — the astonishing size of Nature compared with Man — or they are engaged in work. There is rarely surprise to Henderson’s aesthetic choices (in this respect, his experiments with the science of photography suggest more enterprise). 

Alexander Henderson Art and Nature McCord Museum

The value of his prints, it seems, is in their merit as historical record, and for a show entitled Art and Nature, there is a heavy emphasis on history. Aware perhaps of Henderson’s minor fame, and that this is the first exhibit of its kind, the show makes a special effort to place its subject in time. On prominent display are documentation and familial ancestry: Henderson’s acceptance into McGill University, letters sent to his wife and daughters, his business cards, a silver medal won in Paris. Then of course there are the photographs of Montreal in the 1870s, of Indigenous families (taken from a distance) and labourers beside the Saint Lawrence River. 

Alexander Henderson Art and Nature McCord Museum

What was true when Henderson took these photographs, and what remains true today, is that they speak to the tourist’s ideal, the crystalline-white Canada that British visitors expect to find, the kind of images found in guidebooks and posters, and easily transferred to a tote bag. In the most impressive room of the exhibition, these are the photographs projected onto a ceiling-high wall and joined by ambient, wintery music. To sit there for a few minutes, while the slideshow moves through frosted trees and sea waves, is to feel Henderson’s knack for the cinematic, a kind of shorthand for the sublime. What beauty they hold is a myth, however, whether now or in 1875. The arboreal forests might exist, and the ice and snow still define the country, but the Canada that Henderson sold to middle-class families has always been vanishing. His photographs have always been a form of longing, hoping to capture something native, while simultaneously melting it down.  ■

For more on Alexander Henderson – Art and Nature (on through April 16), please visit the McCord Museum website.

For more Montreal arts coverage, please visit the Arts & Life section.