25 McRoberts Avenue

I am extremely grateful to Robert Carter and Robert Lansdale of the Photographic Historical Society of Canada for generously sharing their advice, journal articles, and leads in my research on Llewellyn Abbott.

Today, McRoberts Avenue is home base for at least two portrait photographers: Steve Stober and my husband, Rick McGinnis. But they were preceded, almost a century ago, by photographer Llewellyn Abbott.

I have not been able to locate any of Abbott’s own work, and how I wish I could, but I have learned that he contributed his talents in the studios of three prominent Toronto photographers over the course of his long career in photography, most of which was spent living at 25 McRoberts Avenue.

Llewellyn and May Abbott moved into their newly built home at 25 McRoberts in 1922. Married in 1917, the couple had been renting an apartment above the Bank of Hamilton at Dundas Street West and Heintzman Street in the Junction. That building, designed by architect James Ellis and known as Kilburn Hall,  had once been a prominent commercial address in the neighbourhood. It seems, though, that it was a bit less desirable at the time the Abbotts were living there.

According to the 1919 Might’s Directory, several apartments were empty – even with a post-war housing shortage – and the rest were occupied by workers who would have had modest incomes. I’m guessing that making a living in a creative career in 1919 was as challenging in Toronto then as it is today.

There were no further clues about how May and Llewellyn were supporting themselves – beyond his mention in the directory as a photographer – but in 1919, May and Llewellyn became parents to twins named Maud Harriett and Doris. It seems that this spurred the Abbotts to rent a house on Heintzman Avenue, where they were enumerated in the 1921 Census of Canada. Soon after that, they bought their house on McRoberts, steps north of St. Clair Avenue West. The neighbourhood was growing quickly, with new industries, businesses and homes. I wonder if the suburban village feeling reminded the couple a bit of their hometown roots in Meaford, Ontario.

Llewellyn Abbott and Hannah May Randle were both members of well-known Meaford families. Llewellyn’s father Frederick Abbott ran a dry goods store downtown. In the 1911 Census of Canada, 26 year-old Llewellyn was living with his parents in Meaford and gave his occupation as “Studio Photographer.” The diary of Mary Williams Trout, a Meaford resident of this period, is available online thanks to the Grey County Archives. She mentions seeing “L. Abbott” about some pictures during his time in business there, on one occasion noting some negatives he wasn’t able to find. Hannah May Randle’s father, James, was an even more prominent local citizen, operating the Meaford Woolen Mill, also known as Randle’s Mill.

Randles Mill pcr-1344
Hannah May Randle’s father ran the Meaford Woolen Mill, also known as Randle’s Mill, photographed here by J.E. Evans for a 1910 postcard, courtesy Toronto Public Library (pcr-1344)

I haven’t been able to locate Llewellyn Abbott during the First World War, but at some point before 1917, he had left Meaford for Toronto. The couple’s marriage licence was issued to Llewellyn on Awde Street (now Croatia street, near Dufferin Mall in Toronto) for their September 19, 1917 wedding, which took place at the Anglican Christ Church in Meaford. He was 32 years old and she was 31, so they could easily have known each other from childhood.

Christ Church Meaford pcr-1345
A 1910 postcard of Christ Church, where Llewellyn Abbott and Hannah May Randle were married in 1917. Photo by J.E. Evans, courtesy Toronto Public Library (PCR-1345)

Before buying the house on McRoberts, Llewellyn Abbott was listed in Might’s Directory as a photographer, but no studio or business was listed in connection with his name. The 1921 Census simply says, “Photographer, General”. The 1923 Might’s Directory is the first time an employer was mentioned: Abbott was working as a photo retoucher at Charles Aylett. Aylett’s chic studio at 96 Yonge Street, just south of Adelaide, had for years seen a steady stream of the great and the good posing for “camera portraits”: socialites, business leaders, politicians, celebrities, athletes, and clergy. Today, a famous photograph taken by Aylett is the 1907 studio portrait of star marathon runner Tom Longboat.

Toronto Camera Club
Llewellyn Abbott’s employer, Charles Aylett (standing), photographed with J. H. MacKay on March 24, 1926 at the Toronto Camera Club. City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 7398.

The son of a well-known English-born gardener from Hamilton, Ontario, Charles Aylett became a leader among North American photographers. By the 1920s his studio was very well established and would have been a prestigious place to land a job. Hardly a week passed without a photo credit on an Aylett portrait appearing in the news and society pages of The Daily Star or The Globe. And he fought for those credits, advocating for photographers’ copyright and acknowledgement, as well as fair payment, as President of the Ontario Society of Photographers (“Camera Experts Assemble in City”, The Globe; June 27, 1923). He was also a long-time leader of the Toronto Camera Club, was involved in the Arts and Letters Club, and in 1925 became the first Canadian elected to the executive of the International Photographer’s Association of America.

Aylett ad
An ad for the Charles Aylett studio in the June 6, 1928 Globe. Wedding portraits were an important part of the studio’s business.

The ability of Charles Aylett to employ a retoucher like Llewellyn Abbott was just one sign of his studio’s success. Everett Roseborough wrote about photo retouching in his article, “Observations on the Old and Gentle Art of Portrait Negative Retouching” in the Photographic Historical Society of Canada’s journal, Photographic Canadiana (Volume 23 Number 2 September, October 1997). In the article, he wrote that portrait studios have long relied on artful retouching to flatter clients, and most studios would employ  skilled women (or the photographer’s wife), who could be paid less than men. Roseborough says the few male retouchers worked as freelancers, who were paid on a piece-work basis.

Negative retouching was painstaking work. Roseborough describes the process in his article as highly detailed work on a glass plate using a scalpel-sharp knife, a honed lead pencil, and a fine brush with lamp black, used in combination to remove and smooth imperfections and add definition. Carcinogenic chemicals were also required to treat the negatives for retouching. A famous example of the work of another photo retoucher from that period, James Sharp, is of a Hurrell portrait taken of Joan Crawford that reportedly took six hours for Sharp to correct.

Aylett Photo of Charles Drury 1919 a030602
A 1919 Aylett portrait of Ontario Premier Charles Drury may have been taken before Llewellyn Abbot worked at the studio, but the retoucher’s hand is very evident in the shot. Added definition would also have made a handout portrait look better when it was printed in the newspapers of the day. Library and Archives Canada 1966-094 NPC. Item number 3215099.

Aylett was deeply immersed in both the art and technology of photography and surely would have demanded highly skilled assistants in his studio. That Llewellyn Abbott remained in his employ for over a decade suggests that they had a mutually satisfying working relationship. Aylett seems to have been well liked in his industry. The October 1929 issue of Camera Craft, a California-based magazine said, “If there be any photographer who has never met Charlie, let us introduce him with a word picture. A medium sized, rather slight, high browed gentleman. Soft spoken with an earnestness softened by twinkling eyes and humorous lines at the corners of his eyes. The graciousness that is peculiarly a hallmark of a well born Britisher, and a genuine affection for his kind. To us he is endeared by his utter lack of pretense and dissimulation. His sincerity is a treat.”

According to Might’s Directory, Llewellyn Abbott remained employed by Aylett’s Studio even as the Depression set in. In 1935, the studio moved to an elegantly repurposed former bank building at Yonge Street and Woodlawn Avenue, closer to Aylett’s Forest Hill home. Around that time, a young society gentleman named Randolph MacDonald began working with Charles Aylett. MacDonald became Aylett’s protégé, eventually buying the studio in the late 1930s and operating it much as Aylett had, with a steady clientele of the rich and famous, until MacDonald enlisted in the armed forces and became a war photographer overseas. By then, though, Llewellyn Abbott had already moved on to a new studio, Arthur Lane at 100 Sterling Road.

Aylett Studio Forest Hill f0207_s1251_it0121
The Charles Aylett Studio in Forest Hill, before Llewellyn Abbott left to work for Arthur Lane Studios on Sterling Road. Photographed by Geo. A. Lister on Jan. 14, 1935. Courtesy City of Toronto Archives (Fonds 207, Series 1251, Item 121)

The Arthur Lane Studio was established in 1928, although Lane’s photographic career had its roots in the portraits he took for fellow sailors in the British Navy during the First World War. The studio is still in business today, and according to an article published in the Toronto Star on August 16, 1993, Lane was a photographer with hustle to spare. He arrived in Canada from the U.K. in the mid-1920s and set up shop in his first trade, as a barber. To supplement his income, he would go out early in the morning and photograph tombstones, developing prints at night for families, so that they could share them with their relatives overseas.

Soon Lane was taking weekend motorcycle trips to resort areas around Toronto and printing postcards as well. When he established his studio, he was constantly on the lookout for opportunities. He did portrait work, even going door-to-door with a pony and taking portraits of children sitting its back (this was apparently a longstanding Toronto thing – my husband has a portrait of himself taken this way in the 1960s). As Lane’s studio became more established, he pursued his postcard business with vigour, printing scenic postcards with commissioned work from other photographers across the country. He also convinced one of his staff to hang out of an airplane to take aerial photographs of northern mines. This was the studio that Llewellyn Abbott joined in 1936, where he was again listed in Might’s Directory as a retoucher.

The building’s address at 100 Sterling Road is now occupied by part of the Nestle factory, but at the time Lane had his studio there, it was a multi-floor manufacturing and warehouse building that housed a diverse range of business, from Wahl pens and pencils, to Rogers Radio Tubes, to Dixie Cups. Arthur Lane made good use of his space on the fifth floor. At the time Abbott worked in the studio, Lane pioneered a process to print photographic enlargements at unheard-of sizes.

The Daily Star hired Lane in 1939 to produce a series of more than 50 photographs of the Royal Tour to Canada to show at the Canadian National Exhibition. Each print was about 3 by 5 feet, produced from press photograph negatives that were not taken with reproduction quality in mind. An expert retoucher would  surely have been an asset in the studio.

Retouching is not mentioned, however, in an August 23, 1939 article in the Star that describes the delicate work involved in printing the enlargements at Lane’s studio. First, careful calculations of darkroom exposure time were made, the enlarger placed on average 15 feet away from the photographic paper. Then, “Exposure over, the hard work of developing began,” wrote reporter Frederick Griffin.

“First each would go, two men carefully dunking into a tank 8 by 5 feet, holding 8 gallons of developing fluid, which meant little more then an inch on the bottom… How eagerly each was watched! How carefully, gingerly the men around the tank rubbed here and there, with their hands thus bringing slow spots out uniformly with the aid of a little body heat. So carefully was the work done with the limp prints that not one was ruined or torn in the succession of five baths of chemicals or water.”

Llewellyn Abbott seems to have stayed at Arthur Lane during the Second World War. Randolph MacDonald was overseas, where he landed with the Canadian troops on Normandy Beach during D-Day. Abbott and MacDonald’s former boss Charles Aylett died in 1942, after a long illness (some obituaries can be found here). When MacDonald returned to Toronto after the war, Llewellyn Abbott also returned to the Yonge Street studio to assist the younger photographer. Abbott would have been 60 years old at the end of the war, with more than 30 years of photographic experience under his belt.

“Ran” MacDonald was remembered in obituaries published at the time of his death as a personable but very private man. He remained a bachelor and lived in his parents’ home on Chestnut Park most of his life, retreating on weekends to a farm he bought near Woodbridge, where he could host sketching and photography parties of friends from the Arts and Letters Club and the Toronto Camera Club. Like his mentor, Charles Aylett, MacDonald also became president of the Ontario Society of Photographers. A memorial of MacDonald written by Everett Roseborough in Photographic Canadiana’s November-December 1990 issue (Volume 16, Number 3) remembered meetings of the Society at the Forest Hill Studio: “These were the years that we became more acquainted, enjoying executive meetings in the elegant white carpeted reception room, replete with grand piano, at 1286 Yonge St., with the fragrance of delicious coffee permeating the proceedings.”

A photograph of MacDonald taken by Charles Aylett and published on the cover of that issue shows him in his photographer’s smock, with an overhead spotlight shining down on him. I think it is fair to say that Randolph MacDonald, who reportedly had almost followed his father into the engineering profession, had a passion for electric lighting. According to Roseborough, he was responsible for introducing Tungsten lighting in the Toronto Camera Club studio and a favourite sideline for years was lighting theatrical productions such as the Arts and Letters Club’s annual spring show. A photograph taken of MacDonald with his friend and lighting partner Wentworth Walker shows him far more engaged with the switches on the lighting board than the person taking his picture.

Llewellyn Abbott continued to be listed as an employee of Randolph MacDonald’s studio into the early 1950s. The studio moved again in about 1949, to a space on the second floor of 26 College Street. Perhaps Randolph MacDonald anticipated the impact that the upcoming construction of the Yonge Subway line would have on Yonge Street businesses. Then, in 1952, MacDonald was listed in the Might’s Directory for the first time as a Manager at Eaton’s. He had taken on the photo studio at the department store’s flagship College Street location, where he worked until his retirement.

After that final studio move, Llewellyn Abbott continued to be listed as a photographer in the directory, but no employer was mentioned again. By 1957, he appears to have retired, hopefully for some enjoyable, peaceful years on MacRoberts with May and his family. Llewellyn and Hannah May Abbott died with five days of each other in September 1973, shortly after their 56th wedding anniversary. They are buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

6 thoughts on “25 McRoberts Avenue”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s